In Praise of Pratchett: Men at Arms


It took Terry Pratchett seven books to get back to Sam Vimes and the Night Watch, which reinforces my opinion from reading Guards! Guards! that he had no intention of them turning into series characters. Tribute to the cannon fodder, wrap Vimes up with a marriage, toy with the joke of Carrot as the long-lost heir but both ignorant of it and, fundamentally, too simple, job’s a good ‘un.
But there was always too much potential in Vimes for it to be left like that, too much more that was possible for Carrot. Vimes had the soul of a Policeman. And Carrot couldn’t be as simple as that, except perhaps on a deliberately maintained surface…
And with one more book, shuffling similar cards and laying them out in a slightly different pattern – plot to assassinate the Patrician instead of plot to overthrow him – Pratchett bought himself into the hottest streak of all the hot streaks that run through Discworld and all its forms and folk.
The biggest difference between the two books is that, no matter how wonderful it was, Guards! Guards! was essentially a static book. Vimes’ tacit understanding with Lady Sybil, Carrot’s promotion from Lance- to full Constable, and that’s it. The Night Watch ended the book the same as it began, as a small collection of misfits, disregarded, laughed at, ignored. And Ankh-Morpork went back to being what Ankh-Morpork was before.
Though the bones of the concept are the same, though the aim is to put a King back on the throne – albeit this time the actual ‘real’ one – Men at Arms is a book about growth, about transition from an unsatisfactory state to one that might, tentatively, be thought of as an improvement.
It’s about switching on the light inside both Sam Vimes and Carrot – one seen from the inside, the other from the outside – and watching them change; like flowers at last exposed to sunlight and water, both expand into their natural, hitherto unseen even by themselves, personae.
And the Night Watch grows too, throughout the book. It grows in size before the start, with Carrot promoted to Corporal and enough new recruits to almost double the Watch’s size, even if they are only Affirmative Action hiring, pressed on the least important institution in the city: one dwarf, one troll and one w… woman.
Actually, we’re not going to do that, are we? We know that Angua is actually there to represent the Undead, in the form of werewolves, the least objectionable Undead you can have if Captain Vimes has absolutely got to have one. Pratchett doesn’t conceal it all that long from the readers and, by the end of the day, it’s only Corporal Carrot who doesn’t know until it’s very nearly the worst moment.
But I’m thinking mainly of the final scene, which replays the one in Guards! Guards! where Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs ask for a comically minuscule reward for saving the city. This time it’s Carrot, the new Carrot, and on top of the trivialities he starts with, echoing Colon and Nobby, there’s the demand for a real Watch, a Watch, not a Night Watch and a Day Watch, a serious Watch with men, stations and resources.
In short, into the city of Ankh-Morpork, whose principle appeal is that, as Pratchett takes care to emphasise in the opening third of the book, it ‘works’, Carrot intends to insert a Police Force and with it its concomitant principle, Law. Instead of the Patrician’s carefully constructed array of absurdities that wouldn’t for a second ‘work’ but which represents the precise balancing of forces against forces so that everybody cancels everything out, we will have a force whose primary purpose is to benefit and protect that one class of person in Ankh-Morpork who is not otherwise represented: the ordinary person.
That’s one hell of a step to take.
As it moved onwards, the City Watch strand began to focus more and more upon Sam Vimes, but at this early stage, whilst it’s his transformation into a Policeman that first starts to shift the ground under everyone’s feet, Carrot’s transformation is perhaps the bigger, bolder and more expansive of the two. When anything resembling Law and Order breaks down, it is Carrot who, though a lowly Corporal, takes over, has officers senior to him saying Sir and following his orders. It’s because he’s the King, we know that, but it’s a case of the finest and best aspects of Royalty and ultimate command flow backwards into the form of someone who is genuinely a Good Man.
And a simple one too. Pratchett makes much of this, primarily using Angua as a commentator to make the point, which is that whilst Carrot is simple, it is some kind of super-simplicity which conceals a breadth of incredible knowledge and understanding, both of situations and of people that, armed with his natural charisma, enables him to rally and direct people.
Later books will speculate that Carrot is not as apparently oblivious as he seems, but Pratchett took the wise decision never to take us into Carrot’s head and show us only the same surface the rest of his characters see. And the thing about Men at Arms is that this surface arises, burnished and complete, in one fell swoop. Which is precisely why Vimes dominates later books, because he is here just beginning to grow, and from here he never will stop.
Because what Vimes is doing is growing into himself, into what he always was beneath the surface but never got the chance to explore, because the Night Watch was a joke, because the Law wasn’t in the Patrician’s – any Patrician’s – plans. Vimes starts to grow as soon as he faces the prospect of leaving the Watch, of joining the rich he instinctively (and in many ways rightly) hates, of having nothing to do and nothing but luxury to spend his time in.
As soon as he is forbidden to investigate this latest series of murders, Vimes reacts as Vetinari expects from him, as he has, quite secretly, been conditioned to do. He starts to turn into a Good Policeman, the good copper that, very early on in the book, both Pratchett and Vimes say he’s not. That’s a journey with a long trajectory, but Vimes moves far enough along it that, at the end, he is able to resist the most evil force on the Discworld, the Gonne.
Ah yes, the Gonne, the Discworld’s first, and only, piece of personal firepower, the invention, naturally, of Leonard of Quirm, introduced in this book. My one criticism of Men at Arms is that Pratchett imputes sentience to the weapon, to the extent that it ‘talks’ to those who carry it, acting independently of their will and inducing them into ‘conversations’ with it. That’s one flawed step to me, a stepping back from what Pratchett otherwise anatomises as the true corruption of such a thing: the sense of individual power it gives, the ability to act as a God. If the Gonne speaks, or even thinks, it removes the true evil into the weapon, not where it properly sits, with the wielder. Vimes resists, after a struggle. Carrot doesn’t give it a moment’s thought, literally.
Elsewhere though, Pratchett’s deconstruction is on fine form. He shreds the aristocracy and their assumption of self-superiority, and his attitude to the idea of kingship, which will be yet further expanded upon by Vimes in the future, is strengthened by having Carrot, who is King, equally aware of its flaws. It does help that I share his beliefs absolutely.
And upon such subjects, I want to end with a quote. It’s an absolute gem of encapsulation, touching unfathomable depths in human psychology with an economy of words that is astonishing. In the light of the Election this year, it is as painful as it is perceptive.
“People ought to think for themselves, Captain Vimes says. The problem is, people only think for themselves if you tell them to.”

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