In Praise of Pratchett: Thud!

Some Discworld books are better than others. That goes without saying. No author who writes more than a single volume ever writes books that are of an even, unchanging quality. What I mean though is that some Discworld books are better than others because their theme or themes are bigger, stronger, more important, more vital, and because Terry Pratchett was a writer who could work with large themes and produce books that spoke tellingly about them. He was not over-awed, nor was he short of the breadth of thought, the depth of understanding or the sheer writing skill to make of these things something that was more than a simple, or even a complex story. Thud! is one of those better books.
It’s one of those better books because of the two things it writes about, clearly and deeply, and these are Racial Prejudice and Anger, and how to live with, manage and master the latter.
And because these are deep and serious matters, and because the overcoming of such things are the bases of how we change the world, it falls to the City Watch, and His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes to advance them.
There is no racial prejudice in Discworld, not in the form we know. On a world where multiple other sentient species exist, there’s far less room for enmity between white, black, brown and yellow. The only significant example we’ve had of it to date has been in Jingo, and that arose in the context of war.
But Discworld has always had its own version of Prejudice, it’s just that it’s been towards – and between – non-human species, and the biggest example of this has always been the antipathy between dwarves and trolls. Part of this is innate: given the basic characteristics of the species that was always going to be the case. And part of it is a take-off of the war between the Dwarves and the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings.
We’ve not really seen too much of that directly. Most of the interactions between dwarf and troll have come in City Watch books, and these are Pratchett’s leading stories of progress. As far back as Men at Arms we dealt with this issue, in potentia as it were, by the story of Detritus and Cuddy: the prejudice didn’t have to be there and, as far as Vimes could enforce, it was not part of the Watch.
What remained was mutterings, background grumbles, a seriocomic undertone with regular references to Koom Valley, the big battle that symbolises the enmity, the almost mystically-vague figurehead, the stuff of mystery and legend because nobody knows what actually happened there.
And it is precisely what happened there which is at the heart of Thud!, the ultimate mystery that begins as rising tension between the two sides threatens to overspill throughout Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s ultimate crucible and lightning rod. The Dwarves and the Trolls are getting edgy, and sooner or later it’s going to come down to Koom Valley again, especially with the anniversary being only a few days away.
A Dwarf is dead. Not just any old Dwarf but a grag, one of the deep-down dwarves who are the equivalent to a dwarvish priesthood and who are adamantly opposed to anything that lies beyond the traditional life of dwarves: most especially life above ground. Even more so, a very vocal, publicly-known dwarf, a rabble-rouser spouting stuff against trolls, about how they are not true life, that they are mindless and thoughtless and that they should be killed. Nothing he says should sound unfamiliar to any of us who are familiar with the mindset of the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s a murder. It’s a murder that’s not supposed to be even admitted to Vimes and the Watch because It’s Not Their Business. And anyway, a big troll did it and ran away, and here’s his club to prove it.
But to Vimes the Law doesn’t go only into certain places and not others. Murder must be investigated and the guilty punished. Slowly, slowly, in the face of much obstruction and delay, with the aid of unlikely allies and Lady Sybil’s pantograph, what has been happening is puzzled out and even then it is not clear, indeed impossible to foresee, why everything has happened, until Vimes himself discovers the secret of Koom Valley.
Let’s park that thought there for a moment, shall we? Vimes is crucial to, though not responsible for, the discovery of an enormous secret, one with far-reaching consequences, but he has not entirely been a free agent in finding his way to, as usual, the critical point at the critical time.
I said that the other theme of this book is Anger. Sam Vimes is a very angry man, a permanently angry man, angry at the world for being what it is, angry at people for being who they are, and even more angry that, neither in himself nor through his Watch can he do more than scratch the surface of the villainy – in every shape and form – that lies out there.
And when Thud! begins, Vimes is very angry indeed. He’s taking on a new officer, and this one is very much against his will, having been forced upon him by the Patrician, because this officer is going to be the first vampire in the Watch. And Vimes hates vampires. This might, in itself, be another example of prejudice except that Vimes basically hates everything (with the exception of Lady Sybil and Young Sam). That’s certainly his excuse for his feelings on the matter.
Nor does Lance-Constable Sally von Humpeding go down all that well with Sergeant Angua, what with her being a werewolf, though circumstances lead to the pair having to work closely together throughout much of the story, with Sally being so much more poised, cool and perceptive about it, even up to the point of admitting to fancying Carrot like mad but recognising that the bond between him and Angua is unbreakable.
But Vimes’s stoked anger is crucial to the chain of events. Its elevated form attracts the attention of a thing, a thing that is neither god nor demon, being too pathetic to be either. Anger attracts it and anger is what it stimulates, entering someone/thing, taking it over, forcing it to live out its anger until it burns its host out completely.
Vimes is a prime candidate, an ideal for it to possess, but throughout the book it is constantly rebuffed, and rebuffed without formal opposition, without active resistance. Even when the renegade grag dwarves send minions with flame-throwers to burn Sybil and Young Sam, when Vimes’ rage is at its most uncontrollable, most justifiably uncontrollable, the Summoning Dark is rebuffed.
Only once, after much effort, does it break through. That comes when Sam, wet and battered, in a deep cave in some unknown place beneath Koom Valley, finds himself breaking his most important vow, the non-negotiable requirement that, at 6.00pm he should read to Young Sam out of Where’s My Cow? Only then does the Summoning Dark get in, and that’s when Vimes’ berserker rage saves the day.
And Vimes himself is saved by his own Watchman, a skinny, cigar-smoking man in City Watch uniform, a beat cop who patrols in the rain of night, and who Watches Sam Vimes to ensure that he does not slide, not ever. Sam Vimes may well be angry at the world he Watches, but he has another Sam Vimes within who watches to make sure that he always does it right.
It’s why the Discworld says of Sam Vimes that he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is the unbreakable, unbribeable, straightest arrow whose decisions can be trusted to be true.
And what Vimes discovers beneath Koom Valley is the thing that the grags have discovered that destroys their world, rendering it into bloody atoms: it was not meant to be a Battle. It was meant to be a Treaty. A reconciliation. A Declaration of Friendship and Peace between Dwarf and Troll forever. Storms destroyed it, myth, legend and hatred concealed it, And Vimes, gripped in anger, prevented the evidence from being destroyed.
All changes. The world is no longer as it was. Just as the board game, Thud! – a game of dwarf vs troll that is only complete after each player has played two games, one as each opponent, thinking his thoughts – symbolises, dwarf and troll are not enemies. It’s Cuddy and Detritus writ large, without either side having to die to make the metaphor metaphorical.
There are so many other things in this book. It’s far too complex just to be a simple story. But its themes are immense and go to what makes us humans inside, which is why it’s such a big and brilliant book.
It’s also the last City Watch book. Of the novels yet to be written, there would be only one more to feature Sam Vimes and that would be all but a solo adventure, in which other old friends from the Watch appear fleetingly and at the edges. It’s another reason to cherish Thud! so deeply, for there are times in here that will never come again.


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