In Praise of Pratchett: Feet of Clay


Terry Pratchett took seven books to get from the first Night Watch story to the second, but it was only four books before they turned up again, and suddenly the City Watch couldn’t be stopped, with a flood of appearances over the next few years establishing them as Discworld‘s strongest strand. The City Watch are the beginning of evolution for Discworld.
Actually, we’re not quite at that point with Feet of Clay, which rather marks time, without even a further expansion of the Watch at its close. Where the book does take us forward is in introducing the theme of the expansion of Society by the absorption of seemingly alien – i.e., non-human – species to a boiling pot of a City that is already divided amongst humans, dwarves and trolls.
The beneficiary, on this first, somewhat isolated occasion, is the Golem. They are a strange subject, clay figures that are indefatigable workers, in a sense a parody of human, animated by the words in their head. They’re a distinctly minority group, so far from human, or even Undead, as to give Sergeant Angua the willies.
But the Golems only form one part of the story. This is another book that is built on two, separate stories, with only a tangential relationship between the two. If anything, it’s the lesser of the two parts, a case for Carrot and Angua to work upon whilst the former is deliberately excluded from the other, wider-ranging element, an assassination attempt upon the Patrician, as a means of supplanting him with a rightful heir to the Throne who will be amenable to the ‘advice’ of those bred to rule.
Yes, we’ve been here before, certainly. It’s practically the plot of Men at Arms, though there are very few similarities between the details of the two plots. The least important of these is the modus operandi: nothing like so spectacular as the Gonne, in this instance the Patrician is being poisoned in some unknown, undetectable manner that’s driving Commander Sir Samuel Vimes to distraction.
(It’s neither unknown nor undetectable to the Patrician, who studied at the Guild of Assassins, but it’s important to his plans, not to mention amusing, to allow Vimes to piece his slow way there).
More importantly, the shape and basis of the conspiracy is vastly different. This is not a plot orbiting the head of a half-insane, bitter, almost laughable individual but a true conspiracy, among the Upper Crust, the aristocracy pushed aside, rendered irrelevant in everyone’s eyes except their own, to set things straight. And, having learnt from the past that Captain Carrot would not be accommodating to their goals of returning themselves to their rightful place in the Order of things, a few strings are pulled in the Books of Heraldry, the records of lineage of everyone who matters, to establish that the True King is indeed an unheralded Watchman. In fact, it’s Nobby Nobbs.
(But the man’s an absolute tit!)
Puzzling out what lies behind the attack on the Patrician, Sir Samuel has little time for what he doesn’t realise is a flank attack via the noble and ancient family of the de Nobbes. Nobby himself is uncertain of whether his unexpected elevation in Society is a good thing or not, at least until it is got through his thick skull that somebody wants him to be King, at which point the matter is settled: Mr Vimes will go mental! Nobby doesn’t want to have his head chopped off, not by ol’ Stoneface. It runs in the family.
Slowly, though, things are starting to come together for Vimes. Eventually, the source of the arsenic poisoning is identified, just at the point where Fred Colon is also, by chance and without understanding what it is he’s learned, is also discovering the first lead to the culprits, and the two storylines are about to share what little they have in common.
Carrot isn’t on the Patrician case, much to his obvious hurt and disappointment. This is because too many people ‘know’ he is the rightful King and, knowing that his Captain is one of those who most stands to gain from Lord Vetinari being removed from the scene, Vimes is keeping him well away from the case.
It’s typical of Vimes that not until it is put directly to him that he realises that he, too, is high amongst those who stand to gain. Thankfully, Vimes is such a suspicious – and well-prepared – bastard that he’s not only prepared for the constant round of Assassins, he can deflect the obvious trap designed to ‘prove’ that he’s not fit to guard the boss he loathes.
But Carrot, and Angua’s time is being taken up on the murder hunt involving two old men, a priest and a baker, both killed by crushing blows to the head, blows that might have come from a Golem. This latter lead is produced by the Watch’s latest recruit, the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who is the only applicant to become the Watch’s Forensic Department. As such, the nervous, fretful, werewolf-fearing Dwarf is the bridge between cases, her ‘expertise’ called upon to assist both teams.
Did I say her? Pratchett also uses this half of the story to deal with a few personal elements. Chief amongst these is the constant, private refrain from Angua that she must leave Carrot, and Ankh-Morpork soon. Not until the end of the book are we let in on the reason being her fear that she will end up hurting Carrot, not physically, but because of her nature. She is a werewolf, and the Wolf cannot be controlled. Not for ever. Carrot already suffers from pain at the cautious way everyone treats Angua, and she means to go before she does something that makes that conflict unbearable for him.
It doesn’t help that she so quickly detects Cheery is female, this being a point of distinction that not even dwarves can be totally sure of. Cheery’s big problem is that when male and female dwarves can’t be distinguished from one another, the unanimity of thought and interest between the two genders is still ineluctably male.
The fact that Cheery – or Cheri as she becomes – can be feminine alongside Angua to any extent at all, contrasts with the little dwarf’s continuing uncomprehending diatribe against werewolves. Angua puts up with it, to the extent of allowing Cheri access to her make-up and to little touches of dwarf femininity that arouse mixed feelings amongst fellow dwarves – which includes a horrified Carrot whose mind is perhaps the most hidebound of all.
But the Golem case proves to be almost elemental in its simplicity. The City’s Golem’s have created for themselves a King, the first new Golem in millennia, baked in part from their own clay, his head full of hopes and aspirations. Too many, sadly: the King is mad. He has to be ended by one of his own, the Golem Dorfl, whose ‘reward’ is the destruction of hos own chem, of the words on his head that give him life.
Carrot, however, has a strange faith. The broken Golem can be re-baked and given new words in his head. These consist of a receipt, by which Carrot takes ownership of Dorfl, and then gives him away, to himself. Dorfl’s new owner is Dorfl, and the transformation is almost mystical. The City Watch has a new recruit, who plans to save his pay until he can buy the next Golem, and release him. Revolution, the capitalist way.
But by the time, Vimes has worked everything out, worked out who is to blame, though he’s astonished to find that behind everything, the motive of the vampire who is Dragon King of Arms at the College of Heraldry, the genealogist of all genealogists, is to avoid the risk of Ankh-Morpork having a King called Rex…
There’s no punishment, not legal punishment anyway, for those whose hands have pulled the reins are too far up the scale for punishment, especially not on the evidence Vimes has gathered. True, since Ankh-Morpork is not a democracy, but rather a barely Enlightened Tyranny, some people may find themselves quietly inconvenienced in the coming months, and others can be quelled by the knowledge that things are known. But that’s not enough for Vimes, who is Justice’s man far more than he can ever be the Patrician’s. A judicious cigar, accidentally placed as often as is necessary in a room full of paper, and enough of the past can go up in smoke.
And whilst Angua knows that it simply can’t go on like this, Carrot’s inevitable, external simplicity is enough to persuade her of the only thing that sometimes matters between people, that it needn’t be today. Tomorrow can be sufficient: that something is inevitable doesn’t mean that it has to be now.

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