Mark Reads ‘The Fifth Elephant’: Part 17

In the seventeenth part of The Fifth Elephant, Vimes tells the truth and then learns it. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of internalized bigotry, particularly relating to misogyny, transmisogyny, and homophobia.

WOW. WOW. WHERE DO I EVEN START?

Lady Sybil

Let’s start with her because I’m just so happy that she had such an integral part in making this plot HAPPEN. Honestly, if you take out Sybil, you lose out on two major plot points. The first is that she is able to help Vimes see the Low King by virtue of her genuine interest in dwarf opera. And that’s the key: she genuinely loves it, so much so that her recitation of Ironhammer’s “Ransom” song establishes a precedent for Vimes returning the Scone to the King. (I was also pleased by this because it meant I was right about that opera being very important to the story as a whole. I GOT SOMETHING RIGHT.) It’s a fantastic scene, one that is pure joy to read, and it also validates Sybil. It establishes her in the text as more than just a tertiary or secondary character because of how important she is.

We see that again later when her knowledge of Uberwald fat deposits – gained entirely through her curiosity at the notebooks that Sleeps left behind – allows her to negotiate a brilliant contract with the King for Ankh-Morpork. Those quirks are virtues, and I am a huge fan of the text giving us this.

Dee

I am still reeling from this, and to Pratchett’s credit, I can see how he used dwarf culture and combined it with the reader’s tendency to default characters to men to create this plot twist. This is also one of those moments that makes me want to immediately re-read the text to see how many clues went completely over my head, as I’m sure there were a billion.

However, it’s what is left unaddressed and what may happen off the page that transfixes me the most. With the reveal that Dee is a female dwarf, we’re introduced to a struggle that is unique up to this point: a female dwarf who is disgusted by what Cheery has chosen to do with her life. Well… it’s complicated, isn’t it? I’d have much less to say about this all if it wasn’t for one bit:

“How can you be king and allow this? Everywhere they are doing it and you do nothing! Why should they be allowed to do this?” Now Dee was sobbing. “I can’t! And I work so hard… so hard…”

Pratchett has Dee taken away while Cheery follows her, which provides us with a rather sweet moment of empathy: Cheery understands that Dee might need to talk about what a mess this is. Yet we have to interpret that line ourselves. My mind went to one place: Dee resented that Cheery had succeeded. That she had found happiness. That she was allowed to be herself. That she saw people like Cheery as morally bankrupt and horrible, and yet? The world had not cursed them. Stopped them. And what had she done? Work hard.

To do what, though? That could be a reference to working hard to make sure that Albrecht would be king, which included her alliance with the werewolves, who were just going to throw the whole system to hell anyway. But what if it’s a reference to her working hard to fit in? To pass? To appear as the perfect dwarf, pure and untainted by the corruption of Ankh-Morpork? There are so many real-world analogues to this. Initially, I could see a parallel to internalized misogyny, as well as a way you could use this twist to talk about internalized transmisogyny, too. To explain this further, I’ll use a personal example as it relates to homophobia. I knew I was gay when I was very young, but as I got older, I understood just how toxic and frightening it was to be out. Because of that, I overcompensated. I did everything I could to “pass” as straight, even if it made me deeply unhappy. By the time I got to junior high, however, my attempts were mostly futile, since there were still parts of me that got coded as gay or queer. (My hand gestures as I spoke, my voice not being as deep as my brother, my walk, etc.) And there’s a tragedy that happens when you realize that no matter how hard you tried to maintain this identity, it failed. It didn’t matter. Perhaps Pratchett meant this line as a reference to Dee’s own bitterness, too! But this is where my brain took me, and I’d love to hear other interpretations.

The Scone of Stone

Pratchett’s books are full of characters assigning meaning to things that may not intrinsically have any meaning at all. Words have power; beliefs can manifest things into reality; and if the vast majority of dwarfs believe that the Scone of Stone is real and has lasted thousands of years, then it is immaterial to them that it’s actually been replaced. A lot. In this reveal, Pratchett answers the question of the replica Scone and its purpose, but also delves into another theme. The dwarfs place importance in this artifact. Like the grandfather’s ax paradox or the Theseus problem, the Scone has been replaced so many times that it’s not the “original” Scone, which crumbled because it’s fucking bread. So does that matter? Is it important that societal value is placed on an object that’s been replaced over and over again?

What matters is that this object – replaced or not – means something to the dwarfs. It defines them. It is a part of their cultural identity. The whole reason its significance is because other people gave it meaning. What’s a little replica gonna do? Stand in the way of thousands of years of belief?

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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