A pair of worn leather boots.

Revisiting Discworld | The Watch #2 | Men At Arms

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness.” —Sam Vimes, Men At Arms! by Sir Terry Pratchett

No other quote could begin this book, if for no reason than it’s probably one of the most famous Pratchett-isms of all time. It routinely goes viral around the internet, and it is also regularly discussed in lengthier articles and forums. As Vimes climbs the social ladder via his impending marriage with Sybil, he ruminates on the impossibility of pulling oneself up by their, well, bootstraps, which he himself has circumvented by marrying into a much nicer pair of boots by sheer, dumb luck. Will he accept himself as a man with more pairs of $50 dollar boots than he could wear in a hundred lifetimes? Is that the kind of man he wants to be?

This article contains SPOILERS from this point forward.

There are a lot of interesting things about this book that make it a truly unique read. First, there are two equivalent protagonists. Vimes, of course, is the soul of the Watch, and man whose journey drives the plot and themes. But Corporal Carrot Ironfoundersson actually has more on-page time, and ends up ultimately as the hero of the tale.

So, let’s talk about:


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Fairy tale fan art of Carrot and Angua by Chechula on tumblr.

It’s hard to get Carrot right in one picture. If fan art is any indication, readers tend to imagine his appearance very differently. He is certainly a huge individual, very upright, and covered in endless cords of muscle. He has a strong jaw, an honest face, and bright red hair. Despite his size, he was raised by dwarves, and thus grew up ducking or crawling through mineshafts until at last his family sent him off to join the Watch, somewhat out of embarrassment.

He says he’s a dwarf, though, and because he says it, he is. Pretty much anything he says goes. And that’s because Carrot is a force a nature. He has nearly perfect memory recall, as his mind is unencumbered by such clutter as doubt, fear, or second-guessing. He somehow knows the name of literally every person in Ankh-Morpork, and has every article of the city’s book of law memorized, even though most people weren’t even aware they wrote them down.

In a different fantasy series called Wheel of Time, the fabric of creation itself weaves around the three male protagonists, guiding them with threads of fate, bending reality to ensure their destiny is fulfilled at the end of all things. Carrot is like that. The world molds around him, shapes itself to accommodate his word. When he tells bar brawlers to calm down, they actually do. When he tells them to follow him into battle, they do that to — and that last bit is sort of the scary part.

Carrot also happens to be the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork. He’s got the whole fairy tale origin story backing him up on it. His parents were killed by bandits, he was raised a poor orphan in odd circumstances, and he’s even got an interesting sword and probably a birthmark. By merely arriving in the city, he sets into motion various plots and plans to re-seat him as the rightful king, because, well, Vetinari had his run and certain families want to gain more power by befriending the future king and so on.

And that’s where the idea of the gonne comes in. The gonne is a small handheld device that fires a little pellet at incredible speeds through the body of another person. It works at a distance. It is impersonal, powerful, and extremely effective. And, unfortunately, it drives men mad who hold it in their hands. In this device, Pratchett has recreated the Ring, right down to the evil whispers in the holder’s mind. Except, one imagines he said to himself, “Rings aren’t evil, okay? They’re just jewelry. The embodiment of evil in the Disc is the only gun in existence, plain and simple.”

So, we have the scene set: Carrot, heir to the throne. Vimes, about to become heir to more money than any other noble in the city. And the gonne, whose sole purpose involves the reason people have heirs in the first place.


Men At Arms is hands-down written as a procedural crime novel, at least for the first half, give or take, more or less, in a sense, definitely. We begin with a dramatic inciting event: the Assassin’s Guild explodes, and something has been stolen, though the Watch doesn’t know what, yet. The rising racial tensions of the city are mirrored in the Night Watch’s new recruits: a dwarf, a troll, and a werewolf. Vimes, to his credit, doesn’t like any of them, lumping them all into the same “generally bad” bucket into which he has also placed humans. Dwarves and trolls don’t get along at all, and no one gets along with werewolves, even really attractive, kind, and capable ones.

The first murder occurs soon after: a dwarven blacksmith known for a unique genius when working with complex mechanisms. The corpse’s wound is cruel, gruesome, and utterly baffling. Here, Vimes first learns of the gonne by name, if not yet its purpose. Shortly after this, Vetinari plays his dutiful role as the irate police captain, the crooked politician, etc. He is the authority figure who knows more than he lets on, and has expressly forbidden our hero to investigate the gonne any further.

In the first pinch, the killer fires at Vimes and misses. The chase ensues, and it even happens through alleyways! True danger here, Vimes. Follow the clues at your own peril!

Anyway, it sort of goes on like that — and then it sort of doesn’t. Rather than have Vimes go around questioning people until he puts it all together, the thread of “clues” only unravels further. The wielder of the gonne turns out to, well, not really matter all that much. If someone gets their hands on it, all they want to do is use it. And if they show it to someone else, well… The first thing the new person does is kill the last guy. The gonne speaks to you, makes you feel empty if you don’t point it at people and pull the trigger.

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If I believe this was the inspiration for the gonne, does that make it my head cannon? Eh? Eh?


As fear of the murders stokes the fires of racial tension, a bad call by the inept Day Watch nearly starts a race war between trolls and dwarves. At the center of this are Constable Detritus and Constable Cuddy, the new troll and dwarf recruits, respectively. At first, Cuddy takes every chance to call his partner stupid, in part because he thinks Detritus can’t count.

Cuddy said: “I just want you to know that I don’t like being teamed up with you any more than you like being teamed up with me.”


“But if we’re going to have to make the best of it, there’d better be some changes, OK?”

“Like what?”

“Like it’s ridiculous you not even being able to count. I know trolls can count. Why can’t you?”

“Can count!”

“How many fingers am I holding up, then?”

Detritus squinted. “Two?”

“OK. Now how many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two.. .and one more…”

“So two and one more is…?”

Detritus looked panicky. This was calculus territory.

“Two and one more is three.”

“Two and one more is three.”

“Now how many?”

“Two and two.”

“That’s four.”


“Now how many?” Cuddy tried eight fingers.

“A twofour.”

Cuddy looked surprised. He’d expected “many”, or possibly “lots”. “What’s a twofour?”

“A two and a two and a two and a two.”

Cuddy put his head on one side.

“Hmm,” he said. “OK. A twofour is what we call an eight”


“You know,” said Cuddy, subjecting the troll to a long critical stare, “you
might not be as stupid as you look. This is not hard. Let’s think about this. I
mean… I’ll think about this, and you can join in when you know the words.”

I’m sharing this entire dialogue not only because it’s great, and also not only because it’s cool that trolls have silicon brains, apparently. But it sets up one of the most beautiful scenes in the series. As the story becomes less about sorting out clues and more about confusion and raw emotion and madness, what Cuddy and Detritus learn is that they are no longer dwarf and troll, but two coppers attempting to stave off the chaos.

In one scene, as they flee from a pair of mobs waving sharp things at each other, Cuddy and Detritus take shelter in a cold storage warehouse, where Detritus suddenly gains multi-syllabic vocabulary and excellent reasoning skills. His silicon brain, it turns out, wasn’t dense, but instead mostly just overheating. The now-intelligent troll selflessly helps Cuddy escape, but he must wait for the dwarf to return to free him. As he waits in the cold, he grows increasingly smarter, until he begins to invent new maths even as he begins to freeze to death.

The scene in which they at last free Detritus makes me tear up every damn time. The whole scene is wonderful, but I’ll share the important bits below.

There was quite a crowd around them when they finally got the main door open. Lumps of ice clinked on the stones, and there was a rush of supercold air.

Frost covered the floor and the rows of hanging carcasses on their backward journey through time. It also covered a Detritus-shaped lump squatting in the middle of the floor.

They carried it out into the sunlight.

“Should his eyes be flashing on and off like that?” said Dibbler.

“Can you hear me?” shouted Cuddy. “Detritus?”

Detritus blinked. Ice slid off him in the day’s heat. He could feel the cracking up of the marvelous universe of numbers. The rising temperature hit his thoughts like a flame-thrower caressing a snowflake.

“Say something!” said Cuddy.

Towers of intellect collapsed as the fire roared through Detritus’ brain.

“Hey, look at this,” said one of the apprentices.

The inner walls of the warehouse were covered with numbers. Equations as complex as a neural network had been scraped in the frost. At some point in the calculation the mathematician had changed from using numbers to using letters, and then letters themselves hadn’t been sufficient; brackets like cages enclosed expressions which were to normal mathematics what a city is to a map.

They got simpler as the goal neared — simpler, yet containing in the flowing lines of their simplicity a spartan and wonderful complexity.

Cuddy stared at them. He knew he’d never be able to understand them in a hundred years.

The frost crumbled in the warmer air.

The equations narrowed as they were carried on down the wall and across the floor to where the troll had been sitting, until they became just a few expressions that appeared to move and sparkle with a life of their own. This was maths without numbers, pure as lightning.

They narrowed to a point, and at the point was just the very simple symbol: =

“Equals what?” said Cuddy. “Equals what?”

The frost collapsed.

Cuddy went outside. Detritus was now sitting in a puddle of water,
surrounded by a crowd of human onlookers…

…Cuddy draped the coat over the troll’s shoulders.

“Come on, on your feet,” he said. “Let’s get you home.”

The troll lumbered upright.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” said Cuddy.

Detritus peered.

“Two and one?” he suggested.

“It’ll do,” said Cuddy. “For a start.”

I’m spending so much time on this one because it really hits home the general theme that people have whole universes inside of them if you look hard enough. No one is ever what they seem. And the real kicker of it is, the really, really hard thing about that is, is that that’s why it’s so hard to say who or what a person is, ever, at all.


Every single main character in Men At Arms is, well, first of all, statistically unlikely to be a human man. Secondly, they are someone who presents as one thing, but is actually another, entirely different thing depending on the circumstances.

  1. Carrot has decided he is a copper, subordinate to his hero Captain Vimes. Fate and all the gods and ta’veren strings pull him toward the rags-to-riches King story, except he rejects that destiny with all his heart.
  2. Angua lives life as an attractive blond human female, except that, unbeknownst to most (including her new lover, Carrot), she is one of the most hated, feared, and powerful beings in the city. In nearly every scene, she muses on whether she will run away tonight, or tomorrow, once Carrot learns the truth.
  3. Detritus is a genius in heat’s clothing, one Pork Futures refrigerator away from unlocking the secrets of the universe. And no one in the watch knows it but Cuddy, who also knows that reaching such heights (or lows, temperaturely speaking) might kill him.

All of this comes together show the really deep nature of the question inherent in this book. What makes a person good, or bad, other than the context we find them in? What makes them smart or dumb? What makes them friends or enemies?

And what makes them a murderer?

Can someone be a murderer? Or merely another regular person who commits murder? Because murders really do happen out here the real world. A person you know from work goes home one day and kills their family. It happens. And in Men At Arms, someone who was once a human suddenly becomes a monster the moment you place a loaded gun into their palm. Were they always a murderer? Or was it the context of that moment?

People are complex. They do things for strange, wild, passionate, complicated, impulsive reasons even they don’t understand. They are born rich or they are born poor, to parents who love them or parents who don’t, and none of it has anything to do with what sort of person they are. Life is chaos and all you can do try to be on the side of the helpers.

Because helping is doing. Maybe there’s no such thing as identity. Maybe that’s all just a big mess of trauma and best intentions. And who we are is what we do with all that.


So, yes, Carrot could be King Carrot. Maybe the reason he’s so good at not being king is precisely because he says he isn’t. I mean he’s a king, right? If he says he’s not one, it has to be true.

Carrot is the one who saves the day, too. It isn’t Vimes. Oh sure, Vimes does a lot of the sleuthing early on, but it’s Carrot who goes down in the muck and discovers the answer. When all hell breaks loose by way of race war in the city, Carrot uses his encyclopedic knowledge to form a legal militia of fired watchmen and take back the streets. All he has to do is show up and start recruiting people, and they can’t help but agree. Because it’s Carrot. In mere minutes, Carrot has an army behind him.

When the killer is at last cornered, it’s Carrot, not Vimes, who runs him through. As this happens, Carrot accidentally skewers the stone wall behind the villain, too, hardly even noticing he’s put his ancestral sword in the stone, then pulled it out again. It harkens back to this earlier, seemingly throwaway dialogue between nobles:

“My nurse told me,” said Viscount Skater, “that a true king could pull a sword from a stone.”

“Hah, yes, and cure dandruff,” said Lord Rust. “That’s just a legend. That’s not real. Anyway, I’ve always been a bit puzzled about that story. What’s so hard about pulling a sword out of a stone? The real work’s already been done. You ought to make yourself useful and find the man who put the sword in the stone in the first place, eh?”

When Carrot does save the day, and the Patrician, the conversation between the two at the novel’s end is, frankly, poetry. Vetinari, possibly for the first time in his life, is just a little bit afraid. It doesn’t manifest in any real way — the Patrician is humanly incapable of quaking in fear — but it’s there in the subtext. I won’t share the entire scene, because it’s really long and rather perfect in the unabridged state. But there’s a little snippet here, after Vetinari realizes Carrot could have taken over the city, but chose not to.

The Patrician stood up and limped over to the window. It was dusk. Lights were being lit all over the city.

With his back to Carrot he said, “Tell me, captain…this business about there being a heir to the throne… What do you think about it?”

“I don’t think about it, sir. That’s all sword-in-a-stone nonsense. Kings don’t come out of nowhere, waving a sword and putting everything right. Everyone knows that.”

“But there was some talk of… evidence?”

“No one seems to know where it is, sir.”

“When I spoke to Captain… to Commander Vimes, he said you’d got it.”

“Then I must have put it down somewhere. I’m sure I couldn’t say where, sir.”

“My word, I hope you absent-mindedly put it down somewhere safe.”

“I’m sure it’s… well-guarded, sir.”

“I think you’ve learned a lot from Cap — Commander Vimes, captain.”

“Sir. My father always said I was a quick learner, sir.”

“Perhaps the city does need a king, though. Have you considered that?”

“Like a fish needs a… er… a thing that doesn’t work underwater, sir.”

“Yet a king can appeal to the emotions of his subjects, captain. In… very much the same way as you did recently, I understand.”

“Yes, sir. But what will he do next day? You can’t treat people like puppet dolls. No, sir. Mr. Vimes always said a man has got to know his limitations. If there was a king, then the best thing he could do would be to get on with a decent day’s work.”


“But if there was some pressing need… then perhaps he’d think again.” Carrot brightened up. “It’s a bit like being a guard, really. When you need us, you really need us. And when you don’t… well, best if we just walk around the streets and shout All’s Well. Providing all is well, of course.”

As good as the “decent day’s work” is, to this day, the line I remember more often is, “a king can appeal to the emotions of his subjects.” It’s such a succinct way to explain the folly of humans. Carrot has, like Vetinari, come to understand that people feel driven toward authority because of the emotional payoff it promises. But Sir Terry liked rationality. That was sort of his thing.


Sir Terry Pratchett holding a lovely orangutan and grinning like a fool.
Two fuzzy guys who love books.

Emotional wildness means people might do all sorts of wild things, some quite harmful to themselves or others. Carrot has chosen to uphold the law, not because he can, but because people should be able to trust authorities, not simply follow them around blindly. Because, in his mind, that’s how to be the best helper he can be. That’s what he’s chose to do, not what he has decided to be. And that distinction is at the heart of this novel and all the intriguing characters in it.

We all love Vimes, but I’ve often wondered what it is about Sam that Carrot idolizes so much. It’s not that he idolizes him, because of course he does. But I’ve wondered at the specific why of that a lot. But there’s actually a really phenomenal scene in Men At Arms that I think hints at the why.

Angua, who has problems trusting people, has taken an opportunity to snoop around in Vimes’s things.

More or less. It was hard to tell. Even a prisoner in a cell manages to stamp his personality on it somewhere, but Angua had never seen such an unlived-in room.

“This is where he lives?” said Angua. “Good grief.”

“What did you expect?”

“I don’t know. Anything. Something. Not nothing .”

There was a joyless iron bedstead. The springs and mattress had sagged so that they formed a sort of mold, forcing anyone who got into it to instantly fold into a sleeping position. There was a washstand, under a broken mirror. On the stand was a razor, carefully aligned toward the Hub because Vimes shared the folk belief that this kept it sharp. There was a brown wooden chair with the cane seat broken. And a small chest at the foot of the bed.

And that was all.

“I mean, at least a rug,” said Angua. “A picture on the wall. Something.”

Carrot deposited Vimes on the bed, where he flowed unconsciously into the shape.

“Haven’t you got something in your room?” Angua asked.

“Yes. I’ve got a cutaway diagram of №5 shaft at home. It’s very interesting strata. I helped cut it. And some books and things. Captain Vimes isn’t really an indoors kind of person.”

“But there’s not even a candle!”

“He finds his way to bed by memory, he says.”

“Or an ornament or anything.”

“There’s a sheet of cardboard under the bed,” Carrot volunteered. “I remember I was with him in Filigree Street when he found it. He said ‘There’s a month’s soles in this, if I’m any judge.’ He was very pleased about that.”

“He can’t even afford boots?”

“I don’t think so. I know Lady Sybil offered to buy him all the new boots he wanted, and he got a bit offended about that. He seems to try to make them last.”

“But you can buy boots, and you get less than him. And you send money home. He must drink it all, the idiot.”

“Don’t think so. I didn’t think he’d touched the stuff for months. Lady Sybil got him on to cigars.”

Vimes snored loudly.

“How can you admire a man like this?” said Angua.

“He’s a very fine man.”

Angua raised the lid of the wooden chest with her foot.

“Hey, I don’t think you should do that — ” said Carrot wretchedly.

“I’m just looking,” said Angua. “No law against that.”

“In fact, under the Privacy Act of 1467, it is an — ”

“There’s only old boots and stuff. And some paper.” She reached down and picked up a crudely made book. It was merely a wad of irregular shaped bits of paper sandwiched together between card covers.

“That belongs to Captain — ”

She opened the book and read a few lines. Her mouth dropped open.

“Will you look at this? No wonder he never has any money!”

“What d’you mean?”

“He spends it on women! You wouldn’t think it, would you? Look at this entry. Four in one week!”

Carrot looked over her shoulder. On the bed, Vimes snorted.

There, on the page, in Vimes’ curly handwriting, were the words:

Mrs. Gaskin, Mincing St: $5
Mrs. Scurrick, Treacle St: $4
Mrs. Maroon, Wixon’s Alley: $4
Annabel Curry, Lobsneaks: $2

“Annabel Curry couldn’t have been much good, for only two dollars,” said Angua.

She was aware of a sudden drop in temperature.

“I shouldn’t think so,” said Carrot, slowly. “She’s only nine years old.”

One of his hands gripped her wrist tightly and the other prised the book out of her fingers.

“Hey, let go!”

“Sergeant!” shouted Carrot, over his shoulder, “can you come up here a moment?”

Angua tried to pull away. Carrot’s arm was as immovable as an iron bar.

There was the creak of Colon’s foot on the stair, and the door swung open.

He was holding a very small cup in a pair of tongs.

“Nobby got the coff — ” he began, and stopped.

“Sergeant,” said Carrot, staring into Angua’s face, “Lance-Constable Angua wants to know about Mrs. Gaskin.”

“Old Leggy Gaskin’s widow? She lives in Mincing Street.”

“And Mrs. Scurrick?”

“In Treacle Street? Takes in laundry now.” Sergeant Colon looked from one

to the other, trying to get a handle on the situation.

“Mrs. Maroon?”

“That’s Sergeant Maroon’s widow, she sells coal in — ”

“How about Annabel Curry?”

“She still goes to the Spiteful Sisters of Seven-Handed Sek Charity School, doesn’t she?” Colon smiled nervously at Angua, still not sure of what was happening. “She’s the daughter of Corporal Curry, but of course he was before your time — ”

Angua looked up at Carrot’s face. His expression was unreadable.

“They’re the widows of coppers?” she said.

He nodded. “And one orphan.”

“It’s a tough old life,” said Colon. “No pensions for widows, see.”

He looked from one to the other.

“Is there something wrong?” he said.

Carrot relaxed his grip, turned, slipped the book into the box, and shut the lid.

“No,” he said.

“Look, I’m sorr — ” Angua began. Carrot ignored her and nodded at the sergeant.

“Give him the coffee.”

“But.. .fourteen dollars.. .that’s nearly half his pay!”

Carrot picked up Vimes’ limp arm and tried to prise his fist open, but even though Vimes was out cold the fingers were locked.

“I mean, half his pay!”

“I don’t know what he’s holding in here,” said Carrot, ignoring her. “Maybe
it’s a clue.”

He took the coffee and hauled up Vimes by his collar.

“You just drink this, captain,” he said, “and everything will look a lot… clearer…”

Klatchian coffee has an even bigger sobering effect than an unexpected brown envelope from the tax man. In fact, coffee enthusiasts take the precaution of getting thoroughly drunk before touching the stuff, because Klatchian coffee takes you back through sobriety and, if you’re not careful, out the other side, where the mind of man should not go. The Watch was generally of the opinion that Samuel Vimes was at least two drinks under par, and needed a stiff double even to be sober.

“Careful.. .careful…” Carrot let a few drops dribble between Vimes’ lips.

“Look, when I said — ” Angua began.

“Forget it.” Carrot didn’t even look round.

“I was only — ”

“I said forget it.”

Carrot idolizes Vimes because he is uncomplicated in at least one sense: he is a helper to his core. Vimes does not “look for the helpers.” He has dedicated his life to ensure he is the helper others look for. Sam Vimes has a universe within him, and every star goes something like, “Young lady I’ll get to the bottom of this for you, don’t you worry about it, mark my words, alright?”

Carrot, rightfully, is a little scared of himself. He knows exactly who he is, and he knows what he could do with that, and no matter how he tried, ruling with appeals to emotion would never end well. He knows that. And it’s no accident that Vimes’s ancestor is the one that killed the last king —i.e. killed Carrot’s ancestor. Old Stoneface Vimes was vilified for this, even though everyone was glad he did it. If Carrot became king, one day, it might end up with Carrot on one side, and the current Vimes on the opposing one. That’s how bloody destiny would have it. And that just wouldn’t do.

In Men At Arms, we see the Watch minus Samuel Vimes, and, it turns out, absolutely no one likes that alternative melodrama. We see, here, the anger of Sir Terry referenced in the Gaiman quote from my previous Discworld article. Most of us read a Chosen One story and feel emotionally swept up in the grandeur of destined greatness. Pratchett reads the same story and sees red.

The Patrician looked at Carrot. He seemed to be shuffling futures in his head. Then:

“Yes. I accede to all the requests, except the one involving Corporal Nobbs. And you, I think, should be promoted to Captain.”

“Ye-es. I agree, sir. That would be a good thing for Ankh-Morpork. But I will not command the Watch, if that’s what you mean.”

“Why not?”

“Because I could command the Watch. Because… people should do things because an officer tells them. They shouldn’t do it just because Corporal Carrot says so. Just because Corporal Carrot is… good at being obeyed.” Carrot’s face was carefully blank.

“An interesting point.”

“But there used to be a rank, in the old days. Commander of the Watch. I suggest Samuel Vimes.”

The Patrician leaned back. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Commander of the Watch. Of course, that became a rather unpopular job, after all that business with Lorenzo the Kind. It was a Vimes who held the post in those days. I’ve never liked to ask him if he was an ancestor.”

“He was, sir. I looked it up.”

“Would he accept?”

“Is the High Priest an Offlian? Does a dragon explode in the woods?”

I wouldn’t call Men At Arms a perfect novel, exactly. Pratchett deliberately fills it with red herrings and endless twists as parody, and it makes the plot feel too meandering at times. It’s the first novel where The City of Ankh-Morpork is a true member of the ensemble cast instead of a mere setting, with the various guilds and ancient histories stepping to the forefront of the plot. There was so much of it that I think Pratchett got a little lost in all the details of his creation he wanted to share. Also, the switch in the second half to following Carrot around instead of Vimes is, while brilliant in the meta, fairly jarring in terms of narrative flow.

But that’s all relative, really. It’s still excellent, and has some of the most lasting moments in Discworld: the Boots theory, Detritus in the Pork Futures warehouse, and the final “showdown” between Carrot and Vetinari. It features the One Ring of Discworld, which in many ways is far scarier because it’s a lot less vague in its evil. And because once you destroy the Ring, at least that can never be made again.

But the gonne is just an idea. And ideas have ways of popping back up again, just when you least expect them.

As a coda, I do want to point out that Cuddy makes a little fan and heat sink for Detritus’s head, featured here along with the troll’s commandeered siege weapon. Maybe one day we’ll find what what it all equals, and why it somehow equals 42. Hey, Pratchett and Adams were friends, you know?

Constable Detritus with his fan helmet and the Piecemaker.
Corporal Detritus, his Heatsink Helmet, and the Piecemaker
Artwork depicting Nobby, Carrot, Vimes, and Colon of the Watch series in Discworld

Revisiting Discworld | The Watch, Book 1: Guards! Guards!

Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.” — Lord Vetinari, Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

This article is split into two halves: the first contains no spoilers. The second, after a big red warning, contains many.

I’ve read nearly every Discworld novel. To some, it’s silly English satire. But I count myself among the ranks of devotees who consider it the best literature of the modern era on par with, as correctly asserted by Brandon Sanderson, Shakespeare. Yes, really. No, don’t @ me.

“Pratchett isn’t just funny, Pratchett is transcendent. There are lots of funny writers. Some are hilarious. A few are good at making you think at the same time. But most humorists, while brilliant, have trouble with story. If I put their book down, I remember the laughter, but feel no urgency to return. Those narratives don’t get their hooks in me—they don’t have that pull, like gravity, that a good plot builds. In short, they don’t make me think—bleary-eyed at 3:00 a.m.—that I need to read one more chapter.

Pratchett, on the other hand, routinely makes me lose sleep. His best stories… have excellent narrative urgency, but add to it a level of riotous wit. Then, if that weren’t enough, they kick you in the head with moments of poignant commentary—unexpected, brazen, and delightful.

This has to be the highest level of fiction. It does everything that great fiction does—but then makes us laugh too.”

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Might Be The Highest Form of Literature on the Planet” by
Brandon Sanderson for Tor.com

There’s something very special about the mastery of craft seen in Discworld alongside the brazen, utter irreverence of the narratives. There’s no doubt that Pratchett, had he been of the mind, could have written non-humorously and had a real chance at some of the highest literary accolades. But, for many reasons both complex and simple, he didn’t. If I had to guess why in a nutshell, I’d say it was because he had what Contrapoints calls the darkness, that roiling anger which drives almost every comedian you’ve ever encountered.

“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully.”

Neil Gaiman: ‘Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry’” excerpted by The Guardian from Gaiman’s introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fiction by Terry Pratchett
An artwork by Paul Kidby of the Discworld atop four elephants on the shell of Great A'tuin, the giant turtle who floats through space.
“The Great A’tuin” by Paul Kidby

Guards! Guards! is the 8th installment in a series of 41 Discworld novels, all of which take place on a flat disc supported by four elephants who stand atop the shell of a giant turtle. It is not, in fact, turtles all the way down. Everyone knows turtles can swim.

Discworld is actually several subseries mostly independent of one another, though meandering interconnectivity is common. Guards! Guards! is the first of the subseries called the City Watch, at the center of which is the chronically dour Captain Vimes. In this book, Discworld finally discovers its heart, where the complex balancing act of its narratives finally finds its stride, and that stride is along ancient cobblestones in a pair of cardboard-soled boots worth $10.

See, the first Discworld book was bald-faced parody, a fantasy comedy that, in the words of Pratchett, “was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns.” The first three or so are good, but few would count them among the classics. Book 4, Mort, is the first in the Death storyline, is excellent, and is the one most cite as the first to really feel like a Discworld novel.

The first seven novels steadily improve and are in no way bad reads. In revisiting Guards! Guards!, I would even argue the first half of this book feels like Old Discworld, to some extent. But, somewhere in the middle, Pratchett really starts to dig in.

Vimes, deliberately or not, is a clear avatar of Pratchett himself on the Disc, defined by an irate, self-debasing internal monologue, alcoholic escapism, and obvious depression. But, like I said, we don’t start to truly feel like we’re in Real Discworld until about halfway through. The book begins with Vimes, but I’d argue that the captain, by himself, is not the core of the series — the Hub of the Disc, if you will.


If you haven’t read Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett,
stop here and just go do that already, sheesh.

The heart of the Watch is Vimes plus Lady Sybil Ramkin. It is not until the dragon-obsessed aristocrat meets and eventually courts Vimes that the book really starts to delve into themes explored throughout the rest of the series.

It’s important to note several things about Lady Ramkin as a foil toward Vimes’s search for a purpose in life.

  1. Sybil is introduced as a person whose enormous personality is only matched by her physical size. She is an absolute powerhouse of presence.
    • “Even shorn of her layers of protective clothing, Lady Sybil Ramkin was still toweringly big. Vimes knew that the barbarian hublander folk had legends about great chain-mailed, armor-bra’d, carthorse-riding maidens who swooped down on battlefields and carried off dead warriors on their cropper to a glorious roistering afterlife, while singing in a pleasing mezzo-soprano. Lady Ramkin could have been one of them. She could have led them. She could have carried off a battalion. When she spoke,every word was like a hearty slap on the back and clanged with the aristocratic self-assurance of the totally well-bred. The vowel sounds alone would have cut teak.”
  2. Vimes is a scrapper who grew up poor to a single mother, and knows his way around a fight. By making Sybil more physically imposing, Pratchett thus establishes that she is more powerful than Vimes in every way imaginable. He states this explicitly, too.
    • Vimes’s ragged forebears were used to voices like that, usually from heavily-armored people on the back of a war charger telling them why it would be a jolly good idea, don’tcherknow, to charge the enemy and hit them for six. His legs wanted to stand to attention. Prehistoric men would have worshiped her, and in fact had amazingly managed to carve lifelike statues of her thousands of years ago.
  3. Though she is unapologetically upper-class, her passions (tiny, ailment-prone swamp dragons) have made her an outsider among the aristocracy, just as Vimes considers himself an outsider among, well, pretty much everyone.
  4. Over the course of the story, it is not Sybil’s size nor wealth that makes her an ally to Vimes, but rather her intelligence, in particular her encyclopedic knowledge of dragons.
  5. She represents everything Vimes simultaneously hates and wishes for himself. Despite this, he eventually realizes that (just like him) she wants nothing more than to be the best person she can be, in spite of it all.
  6. It is no stretch to imagine that Pratchett, an animal conservationist so devout he made an orangutan a main character, symbolized her innate goodness as kindness toward animals. The swamp dragon in Discworld is the lowest of the low, a genetic mishap just as likely to explode by accident that survive long enough to procreate. Sybil’s love for these downtrodden creatures despite her wealth and power is at the heart of her character.

These come together to create a person that, frankly, confuses the hell out of Vimes. He is both intimidated by her, and, more importantly, doesn’t understand her at all. Vimes is constantly portrayed as a man who experiences reality just a little too intimately and is hounded by it. This stated as his fellow guards discuss him and the Discworldian concept of “knurd.”

“Nine dollars a month,” said Colon. “I saw the pay scales once. Nine dollars a month and two dollars plumes allowance. Only he never claimed that bit, Funny, really.”

“He wasn’t the plumes type,” said Nobby.

“You’re right,” said Colon. “The thing about the captain, see, I read this book once… you know we’ve all got alcohol in our bodies… sort of natural alcohol? Even if you never touch a drop in your life, your body sort of makes it anyway… but Captain Vimes, see, he’s one of those people whose body doesn’t do it naturally. Like, he was born two drinks below normal.”

“Gosh,” said Carrot.

“Yes…so, when he’s sober, he’s really sober. Knurd, they call it. You know how you feel when you wake up if you’ve been on the piss all night, Nobby? Well, he feels like that all the time.”

“Poor bugger,” said Nobby. “I never realized. No wonder he’s always so gloomy.”

“So he’s always trying to catch up, see. It’s just that he doesn’t always get the dose right.”

Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

I don’t think you could show that to one frequent imbiber alive without it resonating. I happen to be a person who, while never quite dipping into the swimming pool of alcoholism, have certainly waded in the shallow waters of, “Listen, I’m your doctor and we tested your liver and we might have just a few slight but extremely important recommendations, okay?” Or, as Sir Terry once said toward the somber sunset of his life, “I drink enormously. It makes you feel better, and feeling better is part of it.

Sir Terry with his blurry cat and badass meteorite sword.

By the end of the novel, the acerbic, self-loathing Vimes has saved the city of Ankh-Morpork against all odds with the help of his fellow guards and Lady Sybil Ramkin. Also a rambunctious little swamp dragon named Errol whose story, I still maintain, likely inspired the female dragon romantic subplot in Shrek. But anyway.

The second half of Guards! Guards! deviates from previous novels in that it truly asks questions that have no answer. Rather than shine light upon, as is generally the purview of satire, it delves into the nature of. It asks not only about good and evil, but the concept of them in the sense of the utterly mundane — the difference between inequalities we, as a species, accept vs. those we resist.

This double-edged theme is explicitly stated in a pair of exchanges, the first stance of which is uttered by the stone-cold Patrician, Lord Vetinari, the soft-spoken, razor-sharp, steadfastly non-despotic dictator of Ankh-Morpork. The quote is what began this article, relating to the banality of wickedness by the average person, who need only do nothing to abet the villain.

Vimes balks at the Patrician’s view, but struggles to come up with a convincing counterargument. Here’s the full conversation:

“Down there,” he said, “are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no. I’m sorry if this offends you,” he added, patting the captain’s shoulder, “but you fellows really need us.”

“Yes, sir?” said Vimes quietly.

“Oh, yes. We’re the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”

“Maybe. But you’re wrong about the rest!” said Vimes. “It’s just because people are afraid, and alone—” He paused. It sounded pretty hollow, even to him.

He shrugged. “They’re just people,” he said. “They’re just doing what people do. Sir.”

Lord Vetinari gave him a friendly smile. “Of course, of course,” he said. “You have to believe that, I appreciate. Otherwise you’d go quite mad. Otherwise you’d think you’re standing on a feather-thin bridge over the vaults of Hell. Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death. I quite understand.” He looked at his desk, and sighed. “And now,” he said, “there is such a lot to do. I’m afraid poor Wonse was a good servant but an inefficient master. So you may go. Have a good night’s sleep. Oh, and do bring your men in tomorrow. The city must show its gratitude.”

“It must what?” said Vimes.

The Patrician looked at a scroll. Already his voice was back to the distant tones of one who organizes and plans and controls.

“It’s gratitude,” he said. “After every triumphant victory there must be heroes. It is essential. Then everyone will know that everything has been done properly.”

He glanced at Vimes over the top of the scroll.

“It’s all part of the natural order of things,” he said.

Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

This conversation is during the denouement, after the dragon has been beaten. Essentially, Vetinari says everyone is inherently bad, but are also inherently bad at it because they’re lazy. Ignoring all the interesting characterizations we can conclude about the Patrician here, it stirs up a flurry of questions Vimes has no answer to:

Where does Captain Samuel Vimes stand in a worldview like that? Say what you want about Lord Vetinari, but isn’t he always, in a general way, correct? What’s Sam’s place in the natural order? For that matter, where does the City Watch stand? Or the Lady Sybil Ramkins of the world — the historic commanders of the rabble infantry from which Vimes is descended?

As part of its response to these questions, the ending of Guards! Guards! makes a promise. The promise goes like this: Alright, Vimes, you always hated the upper crust, right? Resented them, shook your fist at them, right? Well, now you are one. Right! So, who are you, Vimes, when you’re not poor? When you’re not the wallowing rabble infantry? When you’re more than just a copper? Who are you when you have everything handed to you on a porcelain plate that has got blue line drawings of windmills and things?

Who are you, Sam Vimes, if you love someone you always thought should be despised?

That’s why Sybil & Vimes are inextricable as the heart of Discworld. It’s also why so many people feel betrayed that the BBC cast Lady Sybil as a very slight person who stands 5 foot 5 (and who I’m sure is very nice and talented and we must remember casting is not the fault of the actor thankyouverymuch). It is popularly contended that her imposing physical presence is almost a character in its own right.

To say nothing whatsoever of how profoundly Vimes’s mannerisms should not, in any way, resemble a certain rum-loving pirate from a popular Hollywood franchise.

Captain Vimes and Lady Sybil by fernacular

Vimes is many things, but he’s not a talker. His strength is in actions, not in speeches. That’s why, when he finally discovers the refutation to Vetinari’s argument, he doesn’t say a damn thing. There’s no clever dialogue or anything. He just laughs.

Let’s set the scene. Vetinari gathers the Watch and offers them a reward, whatever they want as recompense for saving Ankh-Morpork and, possibly, the entire Disc. But the Patrician is genuinely surprised and annoyed to discover Vimes never imagined there would be a reward, much less what it might be. The guards, thankfully, come to his rescue. They request, quite nervously, a $5-dollar increase to their wages, and a replacement for the tea kettle inadvertently eaten by Errol the Swamp Dragon.

The Patrician leaned forward, gripping the arms of his chair.

“I want to be clear about this,” he said coldly. “Are we to believe that you are asking for a petty wage increase and a domestic utensil?”

Carrot whispered in Colon’s other ear. Colon turned two bulging, watery-rimmed eyes to the dignitaries. The rim of his helmet was passing through his fingers like a millwheel.

“Well,” he began, “sometimes, we thought, you know, when we has our dinner break, or when it’s quiet, like, at the end of a watch as it may be, and we want to relax a bit, you know, wind down…” His voice trailed away.


Colon took a deep breath.

“I suppose a dartboard would be out of the question—?”

The thunderous silence that followed was broken by an erratic snorting.

Vimes’s helmet dropped out of his shaking hand. His breastplate wobbled as the suppressed laughter of the years burst out in great uncontrollable eruptions. He turned his face to the row of councillors and laughed and laughed until the tears came.

Laughed at the way they got up, all confusion and outraged dignity.

Laughed at the Patrician’s carefully immobile expression.

Laughed for the world and the saving of souls.

Laughed and laughed, and laughed until the tears came.

Nobby craned up to reach Colon’s ear.

“I told you,” he hissed. “I said they’d never wear it. I knew a dartboard’d be pushing our luck. You’ve upset ’em all now.”

Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett

Throughout his early career, Sir Terry struggled to be taken seriously as a writer. It was also very difficult to break into markets outside the UK, the only place where his brand of scathing, understated wit was immediately identified as an art form. His first major writing award was the British Science Fiction Award for Pyramids in 1989. See, that was the immediate predecessor of Guards! Guards! and…

Look, I have to put together a bit of a narrative here. After seven consistently excellent books, he at long last found some validation, anything to give credence to his passion for writing fantasy. It must have been an amazing feeling, and also a very complicated one. Scary terms like impostor syndrome and whatever the term is for oh shit oh god what do I do now have I peaked is this it then is it over where do I go from here and WHY do I go from here and so on and so forth.

The why is the thing, really. Vimes isn’t a talker, and he certainly isn’t a writer (looking at you, Stephen King). He doesn’t have a whole fantasy series to work out the why for himself. But Vimes does have laughter, and that’s what he does, in the end. That’s his answer to Vetinari. It’s the thing to which Vetinari has no rebuttal. Humor, you see, is how we win.

So the not-yet-Sir Terry Pratchett wins a big award and probably hears a lot of talk during that process where important people say, “He’s a talented man by gum no doubt about that, but why’s he got to do humor? Why’s everything he write have to be so silly?

By the end of Guards! Guards!, Discworld finds its answer, the final product of a potion whose ingredients include a pervasive, searing fury alongside an overdose of reality. The answer is to laugh and laugh, and laugh until the tears come.

I plan to write a new article after I finish each book of the Watch during this re-read, and will continue to mourn the fact it’s not a show, meaning I can’t call it Re-Watching the Watch. By day, I’m a musician and author with a completed manuscript for a Syrian cyberpunk novel. By night, that’s none of your business. Thanks for reading.