In the nineteenth and final part of The Fifth Elephant, Vimes realizes how the parts make up the whole. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Just in terms of craft, The Fifth Elephant has impressed me. Pratchett pulls influences and jokes and references from all manner of things, but often, those references are singular. There might be a repeated idea or gag, but the way he’s tied the whole axe paradox / Theseus dilemma into the greater theme of the novel… shit, y’all. This is good.
It’s also a damning condemnation of the idea of purity. That manifested within this book in two specific ways: the traditional dwarfs and in the werewolves’ supremacist beliefs. The more “conservative” element of the dwarf population wanted a world where everything stayed the same, where women weren’t allowed to express themselves through make-up and clothing, where those who had left the mines of Uberwald were shunned and ostracized. Legally so, I might add! They may have lost their right to call themselves a dwarf and all the special privileges that come with that. Wolfgang and his family, on the other hand, believed in a purity of power. He saw himself and his kind as existing at the top of the food chain and the social hierarchy, and thus, all other species and races were impure and beneath him. So what’s a little murder mixed in with that? What’s a little political chaos?
Both of these groups saw Uberwald as changing, so much so that they were convinced that Uberwald would become something entirely new. Nevermind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course! The point, however, is that they saw this change as one that was intrinsically harmful to their identities. If Uberwald changed too much, then who would they be?
Pratchett dismantles that in so many ways in this book. You can see it addressed in Lady Margolotta, who leads a group of Uberwald vampires in an attempt to change how their pursue and nab power. Are they still vampires? Absolutely. They’re just different. And is that such a terrible thing? You can see it in the story about Angua’s fear that she’ll become like her brother, which is why she ran away from Carrot in the first place. Her fear is that there’s no option for her life, that she’ll become the purity-obsessed werewolf like her brother and her family. That’s an interesting way to look at this theme because Angua’s fear is rooted in this terror that the world is black and white, that there are no grays, no degrees of existence, but two stark opposites.
But of every plot here, the story of the Low King is what captured me the most. Whether people like it or not, there is a great diversity among the dwarfs and their culture, one that’s always been there but had been historically repressed by rules, by cultural shame, by fear. As dwarfs began to leave Uberwald and build a life for themselves in Ankh-Morpork, they discovered what happened to them when they were free of such restrictions.
You can’t control those sort of transformations, no matter how hard you try to clamp down on them. Trust me, as someone who grew up in a time where we watched the beginning spark of acceptance of gay people unfold live on television…. there’s a lot here that resonates with me. I think Pratchett knew that this would hold meaning to other people. I think he knew that there were many people all over the world who had grown up in repressive regimes and environments, who’d been hiding in plain sight, who quietly find ways to fight against a culture that shamed them for who they were. It’s why I admire the Low King as much as I do. She found ways to quietly change her own life, and then began to make bigger overtures once she came to power. I STILL CAN’T GET OVER THE FACT THAT THE LOW KING IS A FEMALE DWARF, Y’ALL. And that’s the point! It’s the other side of the coin, a chance for Pratchett to show us the spectrum of existence for people like Dee. Like the Low King. Like Cheery. They’re all at different stages of acceptance of themselves, and that journey is something that’s always going to be personal to them.
At the same time… y’all. Shaking Cheery’s hand. Shaking Detritus’s hand. Yes, they’re symbols, and Pratchett openly address that they’re not solutions to hundreds of years worth of traditions. But they’re a start. It’s a way for a political figure who has immense power to offer affection and attention to people who are viewed as disgusting or immoral by most of a society. I love how Pratchett explains this:
It occurred to him that in two handshakes the white-bearded, elderly dwarf had done more than a dozen devious plots could have achieved. By the time those ripples reached the edge of Uberwald, they would be tidal waves. Thirty men and a dog would be nothing by comparison.
Yet in the end, it’s still Uberwald. Just because individual pieces of this country will change doesn’t mean the whole isn’t the same. Just because Vimes has invited a young and ambitious Igor to be a medic in the Watch does not mean the Watch has been diluted. Its components might be different, but it’s the same problem all over again, just as it is with the grandfather’s ax, just as it was with the Scone. Do the parts define the whole or the other way around? In the end, these entities are changing, but Pratchett argues that the purists have got it wrong. By maintaining their idea of purity, they’re actually hurting people. It is simply impossible to expect that all parts of the whole will always remain exactly the same forever.
I was glad that Vimes got an actual vacation at the end of this, especially since THERE IS A BABY NOW OH MY GOD I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE NEXT WATCH BOOK. But I was just as pleased by the eventual end for Angua and Carrot, who have been struggling with Angua’s insecurities for a few books now. Carrot may infuriate Angua with his lack of cynicism, but the last scene in The Fifth Elephant might very well be my favorite between them. After everything that happened, Carrot refuses to look back. He’s ready to charge into an uncertain future with Angua, and I can’t imagine anything more romantic than that.
Seriously, y’all, the books lately have been so GOOD. I AM SO HAPPY. Onwards to Discworld book #25!
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