Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Elephant’: Part 9

In the ninth part of The Fifth Elephant, Vimes does some diplomacy, and Carrot learns why Angua must travel to Uberwald. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as racism/blood purity.

Ah, this was so rich and dense! I loved it, LET’S TALK ABOUT WHY.

Vimes does a Diplomacy

The joke, of course, is that Vimes’s course and cynical nature suggests that he’d be abysmal at diplomacy. Yet that’s only a surface-level analysis of the character, and Pratchett shows us why Vimes is actually quite good at what he does. I can’t quite figure out if there’s a specific country or historical period (or combination of the two!) that he’s parodying within the references made of Uberwald, but it’s nice that there’s still quite a bit of meaning even without that knowledge. As Vimes’s coach finally approaches the gates for the town of Bonk, a power play ensues. Initially, Vimes tries to appeal to the nature of all guards, something that Vimes is familiar with as a member of Ankh-Morkpork’s City Watch. He does this to avoid having the coach searched, and it’s a witty and tense sequence that plays off of Vimes’s penchant for rejecting bullshit. He knows that he can be let in the city without a search! The trick is finding out how to use his kind of diplomacy in order to get that to happen.

Now, this was both interesting and entertaining, but I’d like to focus on one specific part of this sequence because of how it reflects on the greater themes I’ve already noticed within The Fifth Elephant. Uberwald is, for lack of a better term, far less progressive than Ankh-Morpork when it comes to… oh god, there are too many things to list! A later scene in this very part of the book shows us how a conservatism runs through some werewolf clans, and we’ve already seen the poor reaction Cheery has gotten because she’s chosen to present publicly in women’s clothing.

Yet Vimes utterly rejects the absurd rules that are placed on Detritus for two reasons. The most obvious one is that Vimes uses the power he has as an ambassador – as well as the awkwardness that comes of his decision to stay ten miles out of town – to get the powers-that-be to make an exception for Detritus. But I’m most impressed that Vimes, the same character who once openly spouted bigotry and misinformation about all non-humans (and some humans, too), calls Bonk’s policies as the garbage they are. The request for Vimes to carry a passport for Detritus, one that states that Vimes owns the troll, is horrific and barbaric, and Vimes knows it. Yes, this may have been how humans dealt with trolls in the past, and maybe Uberwald is a different culture. It doesn’t make the act any less reprehensible, and Vimes refuses to play a part in it. However, it’s this part that captured my attention:

“Those lads had old Burleigh and Stronginthearm weapons, Mister Skimmer. Made in Ankh-Morpork. So did the men on the gate. Trade, Mister Skimmer. Isn’t that part of what diplomacy is all about?”

In this, Pratchett hones in on the hypocrisy that is often present in anti-immigrant or racist rhetoric: the things that people of a certain group produce are okay, but not the people themselves. It’s an insidious logic because it can so easily become a part of a citizen’s thought process. For example, I’ve known people here in southern California who will swear up and down that Mexican cuisine is the best cuisine in the world, particularly the fascinating ways in which the culinary palettes of, say, Sonoran food are adapted for American palettes. Yet those same people supported shit like Proposition 187 in California. Or still support building a wall to keep people out. We love to consume cultures here in America, and we’ll demonize the people while we do it. I am certain that this same behavior is familiar to some of you in the UK, too, who have witnessed this particularly brand of cognitive dissonance.

And I love that Vimes wants nothing to do with it.

Angua Family Politics

Unless there’s something Angua is holding back from Carrot (and that’s still possible at this point), then we finally know why Angua was willing to drop everything and high-tail it to Uberwald. The risk was great, of course, but Gavin (I STILL LOVE THAT THIS IS HIS NAME) provided information she couldn’t ignore. Wolfgang is planning something. Yes, everything’s very ambiguous, but given the history that Angua relates to Carrot here, it makes sense why she’d take this so seriously. Pratchett comes at this by invoking blood purity in werewolves, which helps us to understand why Wolfgang is more than just some sort of super-masculine werewolf. No, he’s a traditionalist who believes than anyone who exists outside of his interpretation of werewolf culture is to be purged. Literally so in this case, since we learn that HE KILLED HIS OWN SISTER. Why? Simply because she was different.

It’s horrifying, isn’t it? A young girl was murdered by her brother in a culling meant to keep the bloodline pure. It inspired Angua’s other brother to leave the family permanently because he didn’t want to be the next member killed. So when Angua learned from Gavin that Wolfgang was teaming up with the dwarfs in Uberwald for something, it’s a giant red flag. It’s ten red flags that all combine to form one enormous red flag that summons an even bigger red flag. So now we’ve got Anuga, determined to stop Wolfgang from doing whatever horrible thing he’s planning, heading into the unknown. The Game (hunting random people) has already started again, and there are threads from other plots at work here, too. I wonder if Angua’s presence would be enough to stop Wolfgang. My guess? Not at all. I think they’ll have to fight. But I also have very few parts of the whole, so I’ll have to see where this goes.

Evidence

I’m enjoying (and that might seem like a weird word out of context) the various ways in which Pratchett demonstrates the casual and blatant methods of Uberwald’s politics and culture. The cartoonish number of animal heads mounted on the wall at the consulate where Vimes is staying might have just been silly, a bit of an awkward cultural difference, if the collection had not included a taxidermy troll head. In that moment, something that is probably harmless and expected of the people of Uberwald is an active nightmare to Vimes and Sybil, who initially try to prevent Detritus from seeing it. Detritus’s reaction is interesting, since he pulls out an old human skull piece that he’s kept for years. It’s evidence of a time gone by, though I’d say if you extrapolate that to a real-world metaphor, it gets kinda messy? It makes sense on the Disc, though, because trolls have changed a lot in the past hundred years as well.

I read the scene as an example of picking battles. It’s something I do all the time. What pisses me off? What do I feel is worthy of outrage? Sometimes, it’s not that I feel something isn’t fucked up, but that there’s little I can do to enact any sort of change. If you remember when I was reading The Lord of the Rings, I noted that the depiction of the Orcs seemed exceedingly racist, and I was also aware of the letters that Tolkien had initially written that confirmed they were based on racist stereotypes. At the same time, I was coming to the series late. Surely, what I thought was not even remotely original. So why do anything about it? I let it go because it was not a battle worth fighting, if that makes sense.

I am glad that Vimes picked the battles he did, though. Bravo on that!

Mark Links Stuff

– In the very near future, these are going away. Please visit my new site that will act as a portal for all announcements. If you’d rather not have to rely on checking a website regularly, sign up for my newsletter instead! This will cover all news for Mark Reads, Mark Watches, and Mark’s fiction career. 

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

This entry was posted in Discworld and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.