Mark Reads ‘Guards! Guards!’: Part 14

In the fourteenth part of Guards! Guards!, Ankh-Morpork adjusts to their new king, which reveals uncomfortable truths about humanity. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

This truly doesn’t feel like any other Discworld book. I think you can read some humor into this development – the idea of a populace accepting a dragon as their king is pretty funny – but Pratchett doesn’t include this here without some searing insight into why the people of Ankh-Morpork were so willing to adapt in this manner. Some of that is seen through Vimes’s eyes, like this bit at the opening of this section. After multiple people discuss the advantages of having a dragon for a king (which is properly portrayed as an ABSURD CONVERSATION), Vimes realizes just how screwed they are.

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

We’ve got along with the other guys for centuries, he thought. Getting along has practically been all our foreign policy. Now I think I’ve just heard us declare war on an ancient civilization that we’ve always got along with, more or less, even if they do talk funny. And after that, the world. What’s worse, we’ll probably win.

I think it’s important that Pratchett characterizes the citizenry’s thoughts as more cynical than Vimes because it shows us how that kind of complacency is dangerous and depressing. These people are so certain of the futility of their own free will that they accept a world where a dragon is king. Again, that’s a ridiculous sentence, obviously, but this has real-world implications that I think are important to discuss. Now, as someone who has lived under the weight of several oppressive systems, I understand the difficulty in challenging a dominant narrative. I know it’s not easy, and I wouldn’t ever suggest that. That’s the case here, too! I don’t know a simple or risk-free way to stop the dragon, you know? (Actually, I don’t think I know any way to do so yet; I imagine that the Librarian and maybe the Supreme Grand Master are the only ones in Ankh-Morpork to know, since they’ve seen the book.)

So why doesn’t anyone want to do anything here? Why is it easier to just accept such a horrible system of rule and pretend it’s actually reasonable?

The scene between the “civic leaders” of Ankh-Morpork sheds some light on that. I was totally convinced (and utterly wrong) that Lupine Wonse was trying to make the best of a bizarre and frightening situation. He was using the language of the bureaucracy of Ankh-Morpork – most likely made common by the Patrician’s work – to deal with the new “king” who had taken residence in the Palace. Given how the last section ended, I thought that was the joke. A dragon shows up, says nothing, roasts a couple of people, and the brilliant people of Ankh-Morpork crown said dragon king because what else can they do? And thus, governmental policy is drafted around the dragon, who still just sits around hoarding and eating and roasting, until it is every bit a part of the society, as common as the thieves and assassins. It’s the Aknh-Morpork way!

So we’ve got this long scene, one that is littered with euphemisms and red tape and absurdity, and I was utterly prepared to accept the parody that Pratchett was putting onto the page. All these people would accept the dragon as long as it didn’t personally affect them. They’d dance around calling the king what it actually was. They’d use language to avoid acknowledging reality. This is remarkably common of government officials or chancellors or anyone in a position of power in the Discworld, so I thought I knew what was going on! (With one exception: the Patrician. He may use some of these techniques, but he himself knows exactly what he is doing.)

Oh god, I WASN’T EVEN CLOSE TO UNDERSTANDING THIS:

What kept going through his mind were Wonse’s last words, as he shook the secretary’s limp hand. He wondered if anyone else had hear them. Unlikely… they’d been a shape rather than a sound. Wonse had simply moved his lips around them while staring fixedly at the assassin’s moon-tanned face.

Help. Me.

And then Pratchett immediately jumps to Wonse’s point of view, where I find out that THE DRAGON IS NOT A PASSIVE PLAYER IN THIS. THEY ARE OPENLY THREATENING AND MANIPULATING WONSE TO GET WHAT THEY WANT. Not only is this horrifying and unnerving, but we see how Wonse is trying to minimize the damage within Ankh-Morpork as best as possible, all while dealing with a creature that can read his every thought. He can’t even think about creating a plan to overthrow the dragon because the dragon will know. Worse, the dragon can’t seem to understand why Wonse isn’t just letting them run rampant in the city, eating and burning whomever they desire. It’s true that Wonse, working under the Patrician, knows humanity, and he knows exactly how he can manipulate people’s fears and traditions so that the dragon is never challenged. This confuses the dragon, because… well, the dragon knows it is a dragon and knows how people have generally reacted to dragons in the past. And yet, there will be no heroes and no warriors sent to destroy it as long as the dragon does as Wonse directs.

It’s almost laughable right up until the point that the dragon fully understands what Wonse means about human apathy:

You have the effrontery to be squeamish, it thought at him. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape – the great face pressed even closer, so that Wonse was staring into the pitiless depths of his eyes – we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality. 

WELL, THIS BOOK IS CERTAINLY NOT LIKE THE OTHER DISCWORLD BOOKS. How do you contend with something like that? It’s not like the dragon is wrong in assessing the great evils of humanity, even within the Discworld. Hell, we don’t even really know what the dragon is referring to within this fictional universe, and yet, it rings so horribly true that it hurts to read. The dragon is an immoral antagonist and the dragon KNOWS THIS. So what’s humanity’s excuse?

It’s fitting, then, that the scene that follows this bit involves the remaining members of the Watch – Carrot, Nobby, and Colon – dealing with just such a test of their moral fortitude. While they’re busy missing Captain Vimes – er, Citizen Vimes now, the palace guard arrive with their first proclamation for the Watch. Well, it applies to the whole city, but it’s the Watch’s job to post it up about town so that the citizens know what what’s expected of them. Oh, right, they’re expected to give up a virgin girl once a month as part of their “social contract” with the dragon. GREAT. And what is the group’s reaction?

Well, Carrot wants to know what they can do to stop it, signifying that he’s ready and willing to fight it. But both Sergeant Colon and Nobby have unfortunately optimistic hopes about what they’ll need to do:

“So I suppose we’ve got to wossname, proclaim it. But don’t worry, lad,” he said, patting Carrot on one muscular arm and repeating, as if he hadn’t quite believed himself the first time, “it won’t come to that. People’ll never stand for it.”

Despite knowing it’s wrong, they defer to the rest of Ankh-Morpork, all in the hopes that everyone will refuse to fulfill the king’s demand. I don’t imagine that will go well.

So what does Citizen Vimes have to say about all of this? The realization that he’s not in the Watch is still slowly sinking into him when Pratchett finally cuts over to his POV. I don’t know that he’s had a moment where he’s fully accepted it, and I don’t know that he will. How can you just leave such a huge part of your life behind? Hey, at least we find out that Errol is preparing to fight the dragon in his own little way! I don’t know if a swamp dragon could actually damage a real dragon in any measurable way, but it’s still kind of adorable. He is so determined! As for Vimes, he doesn’t really have anywhere to turn, at least not yet, so he bids Ramkin goodbye with the understanding that this might be it for him. They may not cross paths again if the world just accepts this dragon as king, which they seem to be doing rather quickly. It’s clear that both characters have an affinity of sorts for one another, though. Whether that’s romantic or not… well, it remains to be seen. I don’t know! Ramkin has never seemed all that interested in romance anyway, but she has grown to like Vimes a whole lot.

Unfortunately, I don’t see how any of this is going to be resolved. I DON’T SEE A WAY OUT. And I know I’m a broken record at this point, but WHERE IS THE SUPREME GRAND MASTER???

The original text contains use of the word “mad.”

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

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