A Clockwork Pratchett: The City Watch and the Choice to Be a Person

Terry Pratchett’s Watch books are set in and around Ankh-Morpork, a city-state ruled by a benevolent tyrant in Pratchett’s fantasy universe Discworld. The series primarily documents the rise of its protagonist, Sam Vimes, from drunk and disreputable Captain of the misfit Night Watch to His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander of the City Watch, diplomat and public figure. As Vimes slowly gains legitimacy and ascends the social ladder, his rise is echoed by the modernization of Ankh-Morpork and the opening of society to the city’s marginalized populations. Several of the novels are outright narratives of a population’s quest for legitimacy and personhood, usually, like Vimes’s own, through the vehicle of the Watch.

In a universe populated by fantasy creatures, the question “What is human?” (or, for clarity, “What makes a person?”) can be uncomfortably literal at times for the characters who feel the need to ask that question of themselves. Pratchett’s most effective explorations of this question come from the interior struggles of the characters who exist in the liminal state between Human and Not Human. Angua is a Captain of the City Watch and a werewolf. She pays for the livestock she kills during the full moon, and struggles to keep a firm grip on her bloodthirsty instincts at all times. Her brother Wolfgang does not. He kills with impunity both animals and people and takes an atavistic pride in his brute strength and bestial nature. When informed of Wolfgang’s death in The Fifth Elephant, Angua asks Vimes if he killed him. “No,” Vimes responds, “I put him down.” The orc working in the wizard’s university denies his species’ dark past and his own threatening physicality in favor of a fascination with people and football (or soccer, for us Yanks). Even Vimes is not exempt from such introspection. The Beast, a defense mechanism of mindless strength and savagery, struggles to take control in times of stress and outrage, and Vimes must fight it back. The implication of all this is clear: to be human is to have the choice between mindlessness and thought, and the decision to choose consciousness and empathy. It is immoral to choose mindlessness if you have the choice, and it is likewise immoral to deny others that choice, since in doing so one turns one’s back on empathy.

Pratchett’s exploration of individual personhood and humanity can be extrapolated to apply more broadly to the denizens of Ankh-Morpork and to modernity itself. Humanity and society are mutually inclusive, after all, and so to a certain extent choosing to be a person is choosing to be a part of modern society. Although he presents tradition and conservatism as absurdities, Pratchett also implies that they are as dangerous to an inclusive society as one’s animalistic nature is to one’s humanity. Keeping a menagerie of elderly hippos and owls to paint heraldry from life is ridiculous; taking advantage of the city’s latent monarchist sympathies to overthrow the legitimate government and install an ineffective puppet king (or worse – a dragon king) is dangerous. Tradition, like bestial mindlessness, is easy. It keeps animosities alive for millennia, and blinds its adherents to the evidence that ancient enmities are irrelevant now and had been a mistake all long. It allows us to sail comfortably through life knowing good from evil, person from nonperson, without thought or change. Thinking that one intrinsically knows person from nonperson does not allow for equal treatment or for the individual expression of “nonpersons” in society. In the eyes of the traditional dwarf leaders, Corporal Cheery Littlebottom is not a real dwarf, because she openly identifies as female. In the opinion of the Ankh-Morpork priesthood, Constable Dorfl is not a person, he’s a golem: created from clay by man, not even technically alive. Progress comes in the form of allowing all conscious beings the autonomy to choose to be themselves.

On the flip side of this, once traditional blocks to personhood and social inclusion have been removed, it is the responsibility of the formerly-marginalized individuals to choose to enter society. This is why the City Watch is so crucial to the rise of Ankh-Morpork’s marginalized populations, why in Snuff Vimes muses, “It had become a tradition: if you could make it as a copper, you could make it as a species.” The civic involvement of being a member of the City Watch provides the fastest way to become part of society, and the nature and history of the Watch as an entity welcoming to misfits makes it the perfect place to start. It also presents a microcosm of how the benefits of an inclusive society outweigh the negatives. Returning to Captain Angua’s situation, it is easy to see how having a werewolf on the force would be beneficial, despite the uneasiness of her colleagues: an intelligent officer and K-9 unit in one. Each new species joining the Watch provides a different perspective. It also allows for each individual to express themselves on their own level, which then provides the larger society to see members of these groups as individuals instead of representatives of their respective populations. Forensic officer, alchemist, and out female Cheery Littlebottom may have retained her beard and helmet, but presents an aspect of dwarfdom totally opposed to the exclusively-male gold-axes-and-beer stereotype, thus paving the way for Unseen Academical‘s Madame Sharn (a dwarf) and her couture chainmail gowns for ladies of all species.

This emphasis on treating everyone equally, allowing people their individual expression, extends to class distinctions, as well. Sam Vimes, as reluctant nobility, still adheres firmly to his underclass roots. His wife, Sybil Ramkin, scion of the oldest noble family in Ankh-Morpork, serves as counterpoint to the rest of the city’s gentry, who are for the most part a hidebound and abhorrent group of people. In Men At Arms, Vimes notes, “if you had enough money, you could hardly commit crimes at all. You just perpetrated amusing little peccadilloes.” Here, too, the City Watch acts as a leveling force. One of the things that Vimes’s rise allows him to do is hold the wealthy accountable for their crimes – just like his ancestor, an Oliver Cromwell-esque figure who beheaded the city’s last king because of a combined affinity for dungeons and children. As Vimes ascends, so does the legacy of Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes. The Watch is on the side of the common people, who, as Vimes says in Feet of Clay, are “nothing special. They’re no different from the rich and powerful except they’ve got no money and no power. But the law should be on their side.” Everyone should be treated as an individual; everyone should be held accountable.

There isn’t anything revolutionary about Pratchett’s political philosophy. It falls solidly into the auspices of classical liberalism – everyone deserves a fair shot in society, and society is bettered by the inclusion of individuals. But given the rising inequality in English-speaking Western countries – especially in the United States – it is important to remember our philosophical roots. And if we get them from sources as wide and varied as supposedly apolitical parodic fantasy novels as well as political polemics, all the better.


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