In Praise of Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

Sometimes, tiny little details that appear to be insignificant at the time assume a greater prominence later on. Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld novels were published by Colin Smythe Ltd, but their success meant that Pratchett would need a larger publisher, and Smythe became his agent instead, whilst the hardbacks started to appear from Gollancz SF. Yes, SF.
Suddenly, however, with Guards! Guards!, the actual books went up a size, larger, wider, thicker, as if representing a more important, more prestigious approach to Pratchett’s work. That it happened with the first book of the City Watch strand is probably no more than a fortuitous coincidence, and not a subliminal recognition that the most important and serious of Pratchett’s various series was coming into being.
Certainly, Pratchett himself didn’t know at this stage what his book would lead to. Though not to the same extent as Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, Guards! Guards! is an off-key introduction to Sam Vimes and the veterans of the Night Watch that, in two respects, doesn’t quite ring true with what the characters go on to become. Indeed Pratchett, in a short preface, makes it clear that his only thoughts at this time were to pay homage to the cannon-fodder, the common guards whose usual job is to rush the hero and be beaten, and give them the centre of the story for once.
The plot is surprisingly simple. A mysterious individual manipulates a group of malcontents and losers into magical rituals that summon a real dragon into Ankh-Morpork for increasingly longer periods. His intent is to put forward a young man, posing as the long-lost King, who will ‘defeat’ the dragon and then rule, under the plotter’s advice of course. The plot develops a serious flaw when the dragon decides to stay on and rule itself. The only people to take the threat seriously are the overlooked, mocked, derided Night Watch, which includes among their minuscule number the real heir to the throne. With the aid of one of the city’s leading swamp dragon breeders, they succeed in seeing the threat off, leading to an improvement in their standing.
That’s far from all there is to it, but on that relatively straightforward foundation, Pratchett starts to build some of his finest characters.
The Night Watch, at this time, consists of three people. These are the drunken Captain Sam Vimes, the fat and bumbling Sergeant Fred Colon and the petty pilfering Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Until very recently they were four, but Sergeant Herbert ‘Leggy’ Gaskin made the mistake that the Night Watch work so assiduously not to make, and actually caught up with the villains he was pursuing, and so after the funeral, they’re all that’s left.
But they’re also soon to be restored to four, thanks to the arrival of Constable Carrot. Carrot is a dwarf, not that you’d think to look at him, given that he’s six foot six inches tall, with bright red hair and his muscles have muscles on them. Carrot’s an adopted dwarf, you see, culturally dwarfish but physically human, survivor of a cart wreck that left just a baby and a functional sword. He also has a birthmark on his upper arm, shaped like a crown.
Carrot, we are led to believe, is the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork, not that he’s aware of this.
Four of them, four no-hopers, Sad Sacks, in an unwanted organisation, in a city that has privatised crime and has thus done away with the need for Policemen.
Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs arrived perfectly whole and entire, a double act as perfectly tuned to one another as Morecambe and Wise in their prime. Pratchett got them 100% on their first outing, and if they haven’t gone on to develop, it’s because they’ve never needed to.
The slow, bumbling Sergeant with the low level sense of entitlement about freebies due his rank, comfortable, rotund, pretending to knowledge and understanding he clearly lacks, and the dirty, semi-simian Constable, perpetually smoking dog-ends, the petty pilferer and trier of unlocked doors, wiser in some ways than his superior but still unfathomably ignorant would be unbearable in real life.
But in fiction, they are a comic team who are ultimately completely endearing, because under their frailties, Colon and Nobbs are honest (to within a given value for honest) and they are loyal and, when push comes to shove as it does in Guards! Guards!, they are true, reliable and even brave (no matter whether it’s artificially stimulated).
To an extent, Fred and Nobby don’t get to play their best role here. In future books, their double act is enhanced by the added dimension of their being the past, the link to the bad times for the Night Watch: here they are the Night Watch in the bad days, and their story is of their following Captain Vimes’ example and starting to take being the Law seriously.
And then there’s Lance-Constable Carrot, the six foot six red-haired dwarf who radiates an air of absolute simplicity: well, no, not quite here. For most of this book, what Carrot radiates is naivete, and there’s a very big difference.
The problem is that there’s no-one to see through Carrot’s surface in Guards! Guards!, not like Angua will in later books, and without that kind of insight, Pratchett is limited to only showing the surface. True, Carrot starts to grow in stature towards the end of the book, when his natural charisma and innate leadership qualities come to the fore, unconsciously, but at this stage, that’s just a function of his barely concealed status as the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork.
Though it comes in handy at the end, I tend to suspect that Pratchett introduced Carrot’s heritage as an ironic counterpoint to the villain to defeat the dragon by producing an ‘heir to the throne’ of his own, an irony multiplied by the fact that it is he – Lupine Wonse, the Patrician’s secretary – who signs Carrot into the Night Watch that he, uniquely, is eager to join.
No-one, especially in the Watch itself, can understand why, especially not drunken Captain Vimes.
I believe, and I am very far from being alone in this, that Sam Vimes is Terry Pratchett’s finest creation. He is, very simply, The Decent Man. To the depths of his soul, beyond all his self-recognised failings, prejudices, shortcomings, angers and his burning desire to arrest the whole world for doing things wrong, Sam Vimes is the most honest, most principled person you will ever find. And he is all these things and believable as a person at the same time.
Just as with Carrot, I don’t think Pratchett saw this in writing this book. The intention was to honour the cannon-fodder, to put them at the centre of the story, and it’s very noticeable that it would take another seven books before he brought back the Night Watch, because I think the possibilities of Carrot and, especially, Vimes, needed that time to grow into the futures that aren’t really visible to them from here.
At the moment, Vimes is a drunk. He has no family, no relationships, nothing outside the Night Watch, which, as he is all too aware, is a joke. The news that someone wants to join the Watch, instead of being pressed into it, is incomprehensible to him. His life is empty of anything with any significant meaning, except a bottle.
What kick-starts the astonishing transformation in Vimes? The Dragon: or rather it’s a coloured silhouette on a wall, in the Shades, of four thieves who made the mistake of attacking the wrong victim. Because inside Vimes, forgotten for many years, is a Policeman. And, in the face of all opposition, from above as well as below, Vimes sets out to solve a Crime.
And in doing so, it brings the Captain to the home of Ankh-Morpork’s leading swamp-dragon breeder, who can give him very cheerful, jolly-hockeysticks professional advice about dragons, in the form of Lady Sybil Ramkin. And that starts another story for Sam Vimes…
For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on the main story, on the transformation of Sam Vimes. It’s a classic arc, the seeming no-hoper who, in a time of crisis, demonstrates an unexpected competence, even genius. Because drunken Captain Vimes is, despite his fears otherwise, a Policeman. Suspicious of others, determined to put a shape on things, but committed to the notion that those who do not have power, or privilege, status or wealth, should not have their lives destroyed for the whims of others.
Pratchett presents Vimes as the Copper Incarnate, though we’ll see this more in later books. Despite the fact that, except for comic purposes, Politics plays about as much part in Discworld as sex does, I think that Vimes is also the pure Socialist.
In the end, the Dragon is banished, the day is saved. Vimes is going to marry Lady Sybil, Carrot promoted to Constable. The tradition of rewards begins in comically minimal fashion. But in essence nothing changes, which supports my instinct that Pratchett intended nothing more than a one-off. Thankfully, he didn’t leave it like that.
And let us not forget, when we’re concentrating upon the Night Watch, that this is the book in which we first see, in all his glory, Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and guider of that city into a future more complicated than any might have imagined at this point in time.


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