All posts by Stephen Stofka

About Stephen Stofka

Writer, blogger, critic. Moonlighting as an engineering student when I've got the cash.

The Many Faces of Joker

Joker is one of the greatest villains of the 20th century, but the same things that make Joker such a great villain also make him difficult to portray properly. It has often been thought, since Joker’s primary role in the DC universe is as Batman’s foil, it is impossible to even understand Joker in the absence of Batman. Yet 2019’s Joker does just that, exploring one of Joker’s possible origin stories in a narrative intertwined with Batman’s own. Joker was also the vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character, an interpretation that is ranked the equal of Heath Ledger’s iconic 2008 turn as Joker. Yet it is also undeniable that, while both Phoenix’s and Ledger’s Jokers were — and are — iconic, they are quite different interpretations of Joker. They are also very different than his 20th century film interpretations (Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero), and both are deeply influenced by Mark Hammill’s portrayal of the character in the 1990s Batman animated series, a portrayal that, like Ledger’s and Phoenix’s, is also considered iconic in its medium. To understand what’s going on here, we have to understand why Joker is a compelling character, and how the character can be explored in compelling — and uncompelling — ways.

Batman’s Foil

Joker is, fundamentally, Batman’s foil. He is the opposite of Batman, and stands for everything Batman is opposed to. While some portrayals of Joker show him as a gangster with significant ties to organized crime (Jack Nicholson’s, in particular, comes to mind), it is worth noting that Batman’s rogues gallery already has a villain with a strong organized-crime shtick (Penguin), and that most portrayals of Joker show him as acting not as the head of a large organized-crime ring but rather as the head of a small and usually extremely loyal group. This is because, while Batman stands for the imposition of order, Joker stands for chaos, and organized crime is, well, a form of order imposed on the underworld by its leaders.

This sense of contrast, between order and chaos, also drives their characters and their backstories. Joker is, unquestionably, insane; the question is the nature of his insanity. Yet his insanity is also precisely of a nature that forces us to question Batman’s own sanity. In more camp portrayals of Batman, such as Romero’s and Nicholson’s (and, yes, in terms of portrayal, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is camp) this distinction is often one of flamboyance vs. somberness; in more serious portrayals of Batman, this contrast is developed through scenes of psychologically tense interaction between hero and villain. Key to this interaction is a sense of control, and one of the things that makes Joker scary is that he is a master of manipulating scenes to remain in control.

How to play Joker well: Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a film legend. Although not quite true, the urban legend that this role led to his death certainly sounds true enough to be believable. But the key to understanding Heath Ledger’s Joker is through the fine details of his acting. His Joker has a clear goal in mind — although he is an agent of chaos, he, like Littlefinger, is even more a master of manipulating chaos to bring about his own ends. At the beginning of the movie, Joker is a bank robber focusing on mob banks, but as Batman, the Gotham P.D., and Gotham D.A. pull the noose around the city’s organized-crime scene ever tighter, he soon finds himself working to break the noose, in particular by breaking its three primary actors: Batman, Lieutenant (later Commissioner) Jim Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent.

Joker in The Dark Knight is a chess grandmaster constantly pulling the strings, and leaving the main characters one step behind. Very little in the movie is not planned beforehand by Ledger’s Joker, and his plans go off without a hitch. By sustaining this manipulation of events, Joker maintains control and gains confidence. We also see this change in his character across the arc of the movie, from a psychopathic but small-time thief at the beginning of the movie, to the Joker at the edge of losing his veneer of control when he first meets the mob — the small tics of insecurity giving away that this is the first time he’s playing with the big boys. By the middle of the movie, when he allows himself to get caught in order to set up his gambit forcing Batman to choose between Harvey and the girl, though, Joker has gained complete control over his interactions. Thus the iconic interrogation scene: no matter how badly Batman beats Joker, Batman will not kill him — and they both know it. Batman is never in control of this interrogation. Joker always is. This plays through to the end, the last significant scene between Batman and Joker, where Batman comes closest to allowing Joker to die.

This, however, is the point. Heath Ledger’s Joker wants to break men, and to break Batman and Harvey Dent in particular. He succeeds in breaking the latter. But the only way to break Batman is forcing Batman to kill. Joker, in The Dark Knight, is a death seeker, constantly trying to goad Batman into killing him. While others have pointed out Heath Ledger’s Joker’s utter control over the situations he finds himself in, his constantly being one step ahead of the Batman-Gordon-Dent triumvirate, his seeming omniscience, it is this — the fact that Joker’s success in his ultimate gambit demands his death, and his complete and utter disregard for human life, even his own, this implies — that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker so scary.

It also calls into question who in The Dark Knight is really sane. Is it Batman? But nearly every serious superhero portrayal points out that there is something fundamentally broken in a masked vigilante’s psyche, that they are, psychologically, closer to the villains they hunt than they admit to themselves, and Christian Bale’s Batman is no different. Is it Harvey Dent, someone who brings up the entirety of Gotham’s underworld on RICO charges in one fell swoop? who has a penchant making important decisions on a coin flip? Is it Jim Gordon, who fakes his own death in an attempt to bring down Joker, something Joker himself seems to have foreseen? There is something said for the suggestion that Joker, whose displays advanced planning capabilities, who never, ever loses control of a situation, who seems to be, from the heroes’ perspective, all but omniscient — is the sanest character in all of The Dark Knight, and it is this knife-edge balance between insanity and hyper-sanity that Ledger gives his Joker.

How to play Joker well: Joaquin Phoenix

If Heath Ledger offers a vision of a fully-realized Joker, one with no clear background (just the way he likes it) and a hyperawareness of control and chaos, then Joaquin Phoenix offers a Joker origin story. In Joker, we find Joker getting his start as the bumbling clown Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward loner on a dozen different medications, one who lives with his housebound mother. Arthur Fleck’s working-class life is despairingly brutal. Yet, as we immerse ourselves into Fleck’s world, we find ourselves believing, as Fleck comes to, that insanity is the only way out of it — and we find there is more to the story than meets the eye. Is Fleck indeed adopted? or is he Thomas Wayne’s natural son, one who he forced Patricia Fleck to sign false adoption papers in order to get out of caring for a bastard, as Patricia goes to her deathbed believing? Joker makes a compelling case, amidst subterfuge and misdirection, that Batman and Joker are, in fact, brothers, a wrinkle that definitely deserves inclusion in the Batman canon.

Joker is a movie of disassociation. One by one, Arthur Fleck’s links to the real world — his job, his social-worker appointments, his standup attempts, his girlfriend — get taken away from him, until he at last snaps and starts killing wantonly. We see, in the birth of Joker, the death of Arthur Fleck, and as Joker takes control, he destroys the last few anchors Fleck may have had to the world. Joker has no identity, no backstory, and in Joker we see him expend efforts to make it that way.

Unlike Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix sought to emphasize the nature of Joker’s madness, a madness that comes across not so much as insanity but as hyper-sanity in The Dark Knight. He does so through brilliant acting — through the contrast between the contortions Fleck makes to fit into day-to-day society and the freedom Joker supplies. Yet this freedom comes with its own darkness. Not only does Fleck find himself increasingly willing to kill, but it is with the freedom that Joker lends him that Fleck falls for Sophie … and it is the realization that his entire relationship with her is a delusion, a figment of his imagination, that makes Fleck at last snap and become Joker.

For both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, there is more than one side to the Joker, more than one part of his character, and these parts of Joker’s character are at odds with one another. In The Dark Knight’s disappearing-pencil scene, we see Ledger relate the insecurities of someone who’s just been dropped into a very big pond and has to establish dominance over the other big fish there. In Joker, we see Phoenix relate the struggle between the down-on-his-luck clown Arthur Fleck and the chaos-agent Joker he would become. In particular, we see how Joker slowly but surely gains the upper hand by deceiving Arthur Fleck, until by the end of the movie he has abandoned the person he was and has fully committed to the role of Batman’s archnemesis. Both of these performances are masterful, but they are masterful precisely because of the subtleties and ambiguities Ledger and Phoenix bring out of the character. Just tattooing “Damaged” on one’s forehead is not enough to evoke the frightening insanity-that-may-not-even-be-insanity at the heart of Joker’s character.

Learning from Mark Hammill

Prior to Ledger’s breakout 2008 performance, the gold standard for Joker was Mark Hammill’s in the mid-90s Batman animated series. Hammill, whose other iconic role is Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, In part due to the series’ length, Hammill was able to bring a depth and richness to Joker’s character that earlier filmic portrayals had lacked. Hammill’s Joker is a criminal mastermind, true, but he does not have the mob connections Jack Nicholson’s has. He is shown having to work harder, and be more daring, that most of Gotham’s underworld, a nexus which puts him well and truly in Batman’s crosshairs. (In fact, Hammill’s Joker is almost a workaholic.) It is Hammill’s Joker that most fully explores the character’s charisma, a charisma hinted at in Joker, one which results in his recruitment of psychiatrist and sometimes-girlfriend Harley Quinn. Both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix took cues from Heath Ledger’s Joker, though in very different ways: as Phoenix’s Joker takes Fleck over, the expressiveness of character Hammill perfected shows through, as does Hammill’s Joker’s strong association with Arkham — indeed, Phoenix’s Joker may well perceive Arkham as his home.

The other major character role Hammill’s Joker perfected is his ability to manipulate, stay one step ahead of, and even control Batman — and it was this sense of manipulation and control that Heath Ledger brought to the table in his performance as Joker. Indeed, one can almost say that Joker’s character greatly matured in the animated Batman’s run, and that Phoenix takes as his inspiration the show’s early days, when Joker was less calculated but more psychotic, while Ledger took as his inspiration the show’s later days, as the character’s role as Batman’s foil led to him becoming involved in more and more intricate plots, and we see Joker’s planning and control abilities take center stage.

Concluding Remarks

Joker is as important to the Batman mythos as Batman himself is. It speaks volumes that Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Joker focuses on the character in and of himself. Joker’s character succeeds not because he is a gang ringleader or a psychotic nutjob, but because he exudes charisma and forces Batman to confront things about himself that are themselves overly simplistic. It is as this that we see Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yet Joker is a complex character in his own right, as much antihero as villain. In Joker, we find that Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness has sparked social unrest throughout Gotham, social unrest that seems prescient in an era when Americans — especially younger Americans — are finding out just how limited their access to the levers of power really are. Much can be said about the movie, and much more can be said about why Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix are such successful Jokers, how both have captured something of the dominant energies of the 21st century.

But I will sign off with something blunt: Dismissal of Joker is done at one’s own peril. It is easily the best film of its decade and hits the mark at capturing something in the water that is almost certainly going to define the next decade.

Lorelei…

Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei is one of the classic texts of German poetry. However, I am unfamiliar with the rules of German poetics, so let’s take a look at the text to try and figure them out.

Prosodically, German is often described as consistently stressing on the first syllable, which a predictable and consistent stress pattern. Like English, German is a stress-timed language, and as such, we should expect its poetics (as Old Norse’s were) to be driven by the line’s primary stresses, which in turn define the beat.

German does not in fact always stress on the first syllable of the word — take, for example, the past participle of enden (to end up), geendet. If the stress was indeed regularly on the first syllable of the word, we should expect the alternation en-den → ge-en-det, but the ge- prefix only occurs on weak verbs and is supplanted by separable and inseparable prefixes (e.g. the past participle of beenden “break up” is beendet), strongly implying it is not stressed. (Also of note, the English reflex of ge-, y- {which often becomes a- as in e.g. a-like}, is never stressed.) In other words, a better understanding of the rule at hand is that German consistently and predictably stresses the first syllable of the stem: en-den → ge-en-det; be-en-den → be-en-det.

So anyway, let’s dive in and take a look, shall we?

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

The first thing we find when we look at the piece is that we have a trimeter: there are three beats to the line. The second is that there is no further strict metrical consistency. The first line

Ich wéiss nicht, / was sóll es / be-déu-ten

is, for example, very clearly in amphibrachic trimeter, while the second

Dáss ich / so trau-/-rig bin

clearly reads as iambic trimeter with a leading trochee. The third line continues the trend:

Ein Mär-chen / aus ál-ten / Zéi-ten,

being most easily analyzed as a pair of amphibrachs leading to a final trochee. (Also of note is the bedeuten/Zeiten rhyme here, suggesting a merger of the relevant vowels in Heine’s register.) Finally we have

Das kómmt / mir nícht / aus dem Sínn.

The phrasal pacing implies prosodic stress on nicht in order to meet the trimeter, yielding two iambs. But the final phrase, aus dem Sinn, is clearly treated as an anapest.

The next quatrain reads like this:

Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Im Abendsonnenschein.

Let us note here that Heine has made both of the quatrains we’ve looked at sentential: that is, they are prosodically complete phrases of speech (i.e. sentences) as well as poetic quatrains. Heine is also using a strict ABAB rhyme scheme, and seems to be alternating feminine (bedeuten/Zeiten, dunkelt/funkelt) and masculine (bin/Sinn, Rhein/Abendsonnenschein) rhymes as well. (German is arguably a superior language to English for this sort of alternation.)

In

Die Lúft / ist kühl, / und es dún-kelt,

we find again the pattern of two leading iambs leading to a protracted final beat, either an amphibrach where und es is contracted into und’s, or a third paeon, the natural extension of an anapest for a feminine rhyme. Also of interest is the second line,

Und rúh-/-ig fliésst / der Rhéin;,

which, as with the second line in the first quatrain, is fully iambic. The successive line,

Der Gíp-fel / des Bér-ges / fún-kelt,

strangely enough, prosodically develops like the third line in the first quatrain, that is, as two amphibrachs and a trochee. However, the final line,

Im Á-/-bend-són-/-nen-schéin.,

is, like the quatrain’s second line, fully iambic. (Also for the record: I find Abendsonnenschein, which comes across as “evening sunshine”, one of the more poetic words I’ve encountered.)

So Lorelei’s prosody is complex. It seems to be trending towards an iambic rhythm, yet at the same time, resisting doing so. Let us see if the trend continues into the third quatrain:

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Our first line,

Die schön-ste / Júng-frau / sít-zet

is now an amphibrach leading two trochees. Let us note also continuation of the feminine/masculine rhyme alternation with sitzet/blitzet and wunderbar/Haar. It leads into

Dórt o-/-ben wún-/-der-bár,

which is metrically identical to Dass ich so traurig bin, and, as I’ve already noted, a leading trochee is a common variant in iambic meter. The pattern is now clear enough that it seems to be a clear rhythmic alternation — Heine, in other words, wants our ear to be drawn to the contrast between the quatrain’s non-iambic first line and its iambic second one.

The third line, then, is again non-iambic:

Ihr gól-de-nes / Ge-schméi-de / blít-zet,.

Here we find a second paeon (or amphibrach if goldenes is realized as two syllables, i.e. gold’nes, which seems to be what Heine actually intends) leading an amphibrach leading a trochee — again, we have a feminine line concluding a trochaic/amphibrachic line, while the quatrain concludes with

Sie kämmt / ihr gól-de-nes Háar.

This line begins with an iamb, but our treatment of its conclusion depends wholly on our prosodic understanding of goldenes. First of all, we can say for certain that ihr gol- is an iamb, but is goldenes Haar a cretic or a choriamb? If we go by what is written here (i.e. that goldenes Haar is a choriamb), sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar is two iambs followed by an anapest, which links the third quatrain with the first; but, as I pointed out in the preceding line, goldenes scans better as two syllables (i.e. that goldenes Haar is a cretic), yielding the fully iambic conclusion sie kämmt ihr gold’nes Haar.

Also of interest: we have yet to see an umlaut on an unstressed syllable.

Let us now examine the fourth quatrain:

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei.

The first line,

Sie kämmt es / mit gól-den-/-em Kám-me,

repeats the pattern we have already ascertained. I have marked it as being metrically identical to the poem’s first line, ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, rhythmically fitting for the introduction to the poem’s second half, but goldenem has the same basic problem as goldenes and can be interpreted gold’nem for two amphibrachs and a trochee. But this contraction in turn implies the contraction of sie kämmt es into sie kämmt’s, which seems more than a little bit at odds with Heine’s prosodic program thus far, and resolves the whole line as

Sie kämmt’s / mit góld-/-nem Kám-me,

i.e., two iambs leading into an amphibrach, here understood as the feminine-rhyme extension of an iamb. In other words, the line’s apparent prosodic contractions resolve this line into an iambic rhythm when the preceding feminine lines have all been decidedly non-iambic. This in turn suggests what Heine has in mind is a languid line, where the contractions (though present) are ignored in order to rhythmically develop the amphibrachic launch into iambic release we have seen drive the poem’s entire rhythmic pattern thus far.

The second line,

Und síngt / ein Liéd / da-béi;,

is also noticeably quicker than the previous, being (1) fully iambic, and (2) mainly composed of high open sounds, especially on the stresses: /’sɪŋkt/, /’lit/, /da’baɪ/. Hence, unlike the previous line, which seems to have been deliberately composed in such a way as to take some time to develop, this line is not only clearly fully iambic, but has been prosodically arranged to rush to a rhythmic conclusion. Rhythmically speaking, this implies this entire poem has been composed with a slow-quick-slow-quick succession in mind, with the “slow” lines being primarily amphibrachic, and the “quick” ones iambic.

However, as we move to our third line,

Das hát / ei-ne wún-/-der-sám-e,

we find ourselves unavoidably hit with an iamb. Either the iamb occurs on the line’s first foot, or it does on the second. Worse, the alternate foot must be an anapest, which is to be read here as an extended iamb, and implies that the final foot, an amphibrach to make the feminine rhyme, is an iambic extension. In other words, no matter how we scan this line, it has to be of fundamentally iambic shape. This is, we should now note, the first unambiguously-iambic feminine line in the entire poem.

It also segues into

Ge-wál-/-ti-ge Mél-/-o-déi.

The middle foot can be either an anapest (as shown) or an iamb (with the contraction gewalt’ge Melodei). It does not matter either way. This is an iambic line. Interestingly enough, though, unlike the previous masculine line, und singt ein Lied dabei, the stressed vowels are a bit lower and more closed, yielding a somewhat more sedate line.

This quatrain begins a new development of Lorelei‘s main rhythmic motif. With every line having either a potential or unambiguous iambic resolution, the quatrain, as a whole, is itself iambic, and being iambic, is of necessarily quicker pace than the amphibrachic/iambic alternations we had seen in previous quatrains. In particular, the quatrain as a whole has a quickening-fast-fast-slowing pace to it, perhaps echoing a melodic movement in the tune this poem is set to.

Let us now segue to the penultimate quatrain,

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh.

Our first line,

Den Schíf-fer / im kléi-nen / Schíf-fe

(literally, “the skiffer in a little skiff”), follows the same amphibrach-amphibrach-trochee sequence we should by now be familiar with, further signaling a return to the tonic tune from the quickened previous quatrain. It is succeeded by

Er-gréift es / mit wíl-/-dem Wéh;,

which, especially when the first stanza contracts to ergreift’s (hence why I put the foot there), is fully iambic. There’s also a sort of singsong undertone to this part of the poem, with Schiffer and Schiffe being, of course, variants of the same word, and wildem Weh being — something we now first notice in this entire poem — alliterative. It’s almost like Heine is using mnemonics to launch out on a new narrative idea here.

The next line,

Er scháut nicht / die Fél-sen-/-ríf-fe,

echoes, again, the amphibrachic feminine lines which have been a general hallmark of the poem. It is succeeded by

Er scháut / nur hín-auf / in die Höh.

This line is the melodic opposite of das hat eine wundersame, an “iambic” line that does not seem to be particularly iambic. In die Höh is clearly a cohesive anapestic phrase, but the scansion of er schaut nur hinauf is not particularly clear: German’s prosody has been much more strongly phrasal than English’s, with feet flexibly stretching and contracting in order to, in general, match phrasal boundaries, and this means the unclear assignment of nur (or perhaps even that er schaut nur hinauf might be a unitary phrase with two beats) makes it difficult to ascertain whether the foot goes before or after nur. In the end, I went with before, because I wanted to have an actual iamb in our theoretically-iambic masculine line.

There are also two other things to note here: first, that there is a third mnemonic in both of the quatrain’s last two lines starting with er schaut, and second, that Weh and Höh have been made to rhyme, suggesting that, to Heine, their realization was “wuh” and “huh”, respectively. In other words, that the vowels in Weh and Höh may not necessarily have merged, as the ones in bedeuten and Zeiten did, but rather that they were understood to converge, perhaps due to a rhyme that worked in a previous phase of the language but has since broken (like Marlowe’s love/prove).

We have now arrived at the poem’s final quatrain:

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.

This is, of course, the darkest quatrain in the whole poem, suggesting that its golden Lorelei (Rhine references to “gold” often alluding to the fabled treasure of the Volsungs in Germanic mythology) was a siren singing boatmen to their doom on the river.

When we look at the first line of this quatrain,

Ich gláu-be, / die Wél-len / ver-schlín-gen,

we find a line that is prosodically identical to the poem’s first, and one that hasn’t been stretched to fit, either. It is followed up by

Am Én-/-de Schíf-fer / und Káhn;,

a line that better resolves with the contraction am Ende Schiff’r und Kahn, but nevertheless retains its iambic shape, and one that slams hard into what is the most metrically opaque line so far:

Und das hat mit ihrem Singen.

We can see that hat and Sing- are two beats, but where is the third? Is it on the leading und, yielding a trochee into a dactyl into an amphibrach: únd das / hát mit ih-/-rem Sín-gen? Or is on ihrem, yielding an anapest into an iamb into an amphibrach: und das hát / mit íh-/-rem Sín-gen? To make things worse, the line’s phrasal prosody — und das hat / mit ihrem Singen — more neatly fits the latter, iambic, approach to the line, while the rhyme scheme and its attendant rhythm more clearly fit the former, more amphibrachic — here clearly trochaic — approach.

While we saw an amphibrachic line resolve iambically earlier, I think, in part because und (“and”) seems better at holding a beat than ihrem (“you(r?)”), and in part because Heine most likely did not wish to do so twice in the same poem, that this line should resolve as a trochee-dactyl-amphibrach (or perhaps ditrochee-third paeon) sequence:

Únd das / hát mit ih-/-rem Sín-gen.

Which brings us to the very easy to resolve, and obviously iambic, final line:

Die Lór-/-e-léi / ge-tán.

Further Thoughts

So what have we learned from this exercise? First, that German remains prosodically qualitative — unlike in English prosody, where beats became intimately tied to expressions of specific feet, in German prosody, both foot and phrase mattered in the compositional process. It is significantly more difficult to compose in e.g. iambic pentameter in German than in English, with structural phrases (e.g. mit einem) stretching across more syllables. German’s intonational stress is also stronger than English’s, allowing its prosodic feet to have one foot, so to speak, in the intervalistic realm of classical poetry, and the other in the phrasal realm of ancient Germanic poetry. (This is in contrast to English’s full embracing of interval-based poetics, and the development of phrasal poetics with the breakdown of available moraic distinctions in the Romance languages.)

Heine’s Lorelei is, in terms of form, a ballad. Unlike in English’s ballad meter, which alternates tetrametric and trimetric lines, Lorelei alternates long prosodic phrases with short ones, a distinction that seems to be best understood as being rooted in an alternation of (loosely) amphibrachic and (loosely) iambic lines, with the rhyme scheme signaling which of these opposed schema we should be looking for in a particular line. In other words, in Lorelei, instead of using an extra beat to begin a phrasal theme, Heine uses longer intervals, and shortens them to end it. It’s quite a different approach than what we commonly find in English poetry.

It’s also worth pointing out that this exercise demonstrates that you can scan a language you do not necessarily intimately know, so long as you know its overarching prosodic rules (providing they are regular, of course). I am nowhere near as familiar with German as I am with the Romance languages, but I know, on a high level, how the language ought to behave prosodically, and with this information I can find a line’s beats.

Anatomy of a Character: Sir Samuel Vimes

samuel_vimesLong-lasting series are built from great characters, since, in a sense, every great story is character-driven, and this is as true for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as it is for any other. Indeed, given the complex and sprawling nature of Discworld, composed, as it is, of several discrete arcs set in the same overall setting (i.e. the Disc), one can assume that Pratchett is uniquely gifted at breathing life into a plethora of characters.

Let us today, then, take a look at one of these, the protagonist of one of the Disc’s primary arcs — His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.

When we first meet Vimes in Guards! Guards!, he is a lost hopeless cynic, a man Brought Low by a woman, that woman being not a woman per se but rather the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. He is a drunkard who can barely keep himself sober long enough to make it through a shift, and, all too often, seems rather unaware of what is going on around him. He is, in short, what someone subjected to the drudgery and occasional terror of being a fantasy watchman would inevitably turn into.

Vimes, at this stage, can’t sustain a novel on his own merits: his vice prevents it. Until his Palace point man, Lupine Wonse, pushes him to the edge halfway through Guards! Guards!, he would rather drink his problems to oblivion than confront them head-on. Vimes can at best be thought of as a deuterotagonist at this point, playing second fiddle to his foil, the naïvely cheerful Lance-Constable Carrot.

Yet when Wonse forces Vimes to give up his badge, and when Vimes meets Vetinari talking to rats in the Palace dungeons, he changes quite a lot — from someone who uses alcohol as a refuge of oblivion to someone willing to use the resources at his disposal (as Vetinari does with Skrelp the rat) to solve problems and better his situation. It is the first of two profound changes that occurs to Vimes in the first three Watch novels, changes necessary for Vimes to sustain a novel by himself, as he does in Night Watch and later Snuff.

The second major change occurs not in Guards! Guards!’s sequel, Men at Arms, where Vimes does succumb to the temptation of drink as the stress of the case gets to him, but rather in Feet of Clay, where, in a similar moment of temptation as that which occurs in Men at Arms, Vimes finds the bottle of whiskey in his desk more high-end than the “aged for three days” Old Bearhugger’s he’s used to drinking, and in that moment, realizes he’s being framed.

It is this moment in Feet of Clay when Vimes would last be seriously tempted by drink, and it is part of the genius of how Terry Pratchett handles this that it is not evident in the second, third, or even fourth readings (never mind the first!). It is at this point that Vimes’ initial character arc, from the drunkard to the commander, is complete, and it sets the stage for his second major arc, where he becomes Lord Vetinari’s protégé; this latter arc occupies Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, and Snuff, though Night Watch is a return to the initial Night Watch trilogy’s themes, only this time with young Sam Vimes in Carrot’s shoes and an older Vimes, masquerading as John Keel, training his younger self.

One rather suspects Vetinari saw that in Vimes all along, a man who was a gifted leader of men (and dwarves and trolls and so on), or, more accurately, would be if he could keep himself sober but for five seconds. Thus, once Vimes proves his leadership abilities in Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Jingo, and his idiosyncratic political acumen in the latter as well, he graduates, as it were, to becoming Vetinari’s preferred ambassador for the stickiest of situations, a role we see him in in The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, and Snuff as the main character, and in the otherwise one-off Monstrous Regiment as a minor character.

It is worth pointing out that much of Vimes’ character development comes courtesy of his wife, Sibyl Ramkin. The sibyls were the prophetesses of Roman myth (cf. Aeneid VI) and Sibyl represents Vimes’, well, sibyl — and Valkyrie — wrapped together in one package. It goes beyond Vimes’ reenacting of Perseus freeing Andromeda with Sibyl in Guards! Guards!: by Men at Arms, Sibyl is the driving force behind Vimes’ sobriety (though he relapses in that novel); she is the primary means by which he becomes an aristocrat; and one rather suspects that Sibyl’s unclear relationship with Vetinari is part of what convinces him to give Vimes chances, such as making him a diplomat in The Fifth Elephant, a role Vimes excels in.

Vimes is, in short, driven to become the Commander who dominates the latter Watch novels instead of the pitiful trainwreck of a man we see in Guards! Guards! because of his deep and abiding love for Sibyl. It is a love that shines through in the two novels where the two extensively interact — to wit, The Fifth Elephant and Snuff, perhaps moreso in the latter than the former (where relationship problems form an important thematic subtext).

Love is certainly one of Terry Pratchett’s major character drivers — Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, and Ponder Stibbons are all driven by a love of craft, and the former two for their respective countrysides as well; Death is driven in part by a gnawing love of the souls he reaps, and his granddaughter Susan (though she could quite possibly only admit it under torture) by her love for her grandfather; and “survival” often seems more important for Rincewind’s motivational calculus than “love”.

Which makes Vimes’ love of Sibyl his primary character driver unique among major Discworld characters. Most Discworld characters find their sources of love in places and craft, not so much a significant other, but Vimes was unable to amount to much when driven by craft alone. For him, while his love of policework is certainly an important character driver, it is clearly secondary to his love of Sibyl, because it is Vimes’ love of Sibyl that keeps him in a condition where he is able to pursue his love of policework at all.

One shrewdly wonders here (especially given Neil Gaiman’s anecdote in A Slip of the Keyboard) whether or not, in Sam Vimes, Terry Pratchett has realized his most autobiographical character, someone given to self-destructive tendencies were it not for the love he shared with his wife, Lyn, powering him through the day and making him be better than himself.

It is also worth pointing out here that the grand arc, the dramatic tension, Pratchett set out with Vimes and Carrot from Guards! Guards! on, is that they would inevitably find themselves implacably opposed. Carrot’s cheerful naïveté from Guards! Guards! has progressed, by The Fifth Elephant, into a surety that he is the king, but a king content to remain where he is because he does not believe he can do a better job than what Vetinari is doing; Vimes, meanwhile, is constitutionally allergic to the whole idea of kingship, a trait, perhaps, inherited via the Disc’s magic from his Cromwell-esque ancestor, “Old Stoneface” Vimes. Were Carrot to publicly step forward and claim his birthright, Vimes would — necessarily — oppose him, and, in all likelihood, Carrot would win.

There was a period around 2000 where I believe Paratchett was intending to wind Discworld down: one notes that Carpe Jugulum, the last “true” Witches novel before Tiffany Aching revived the arc, Thief of Time, the last Death novel, and The Last Hero, which satisfyingly closes the Rincewind arc where he is an independent protagonist, all date to about this era. So does The Fifth Elephant, and it is in The Fifth Elephant where the events that would theoretically drive the conclusion of Carrot’s character arc — his potential conflicts with Vimes and Angua — are most heavily foreshadowed. So what happened?

I think Vimes had, at a certain level, become too autobiographical: that he was fated to die, probably at Carrot’s hand, and Pratchett found he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t kill someone who had quite literally become a mirror of himself on the mirror of worlds off. Instead, the clacks — a metaphor, of course, for the Internet — suggested a new thematic direction for the Disc, and in exploring it (most prominently in The Truth and the Moist arc), Pratchett further emphasized Vetinari’s hypercompetency, which in turn led to Carrot’s diminution as a character and the Watch arc becoming, more and more, the Vimes arc.

Night Watch is, more than anything else, the ultimate love letter a writer could write to a favored character, and while it was perhaps meant to be a swan song while Terry dithered on what he thought he had to do, in the end, it heralded the absurd Vimes-centrism characterizing itself, of course, and Snuff, and it should be pointed out that Thud!, which is the least Vimes-centric of these latter three, is still as Vimes-centric as The Fifth Elephant and more Vimes-centric than any of the first four Watch novels!

Does this mean Vimes is a Marty Stu (a male Mary Sue)? Absolutely not: Marty Stus’ main character flaws are their lack of character flaws, a meta-flaw that gets in the way of the willing suspension of disbelief and hence setting immersion — which is why they’re poorly-written characters. Vimes, by contrast, has plenty of flaws, flaws held barely in check by his love for Sibyl, flaws like his alcoholism and his checked rage, and it is precisely these flaws which makes Vimes such a compelling character.

Is it a flaw on Pratchett’s part that he could not summon the willpower necessary to kill his favorite character off? To an extent. But ask any writer: characters are ultimately extensions of the writer’s personality, and killing them off is frankly not unlike asking someone to sacrifice their children or pets. Very few can really do it, and almost none — George R.R. Martin included — can kill characters they’ve invested multiple novels of time and effort into.

Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff”

514saxouvnl._sx277_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Thud!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Snuff.

Lady Ramkin has finally prevailed — Sam Vimes is to take a vacation in the countryside, away from the bustle of Ankh-Morpork, with their son, Young Sam, at their manor house. But where the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is, crime is sure to follow, and sure enough, after Vimes puts a hotheaded young blacksmith in his place, the smith disappears and he is framed for murder. Poorly. But it makes it clear, someone doesn’t want Vimes there.

It turns out somebody was murdered — a goblin girl, one whose blood was used in the botched attempt to frame Vimes. And the goblins know Vimes is about and prevail on him in their quest for justice. As soon as he begins tugging at the loose end, Vimes unravels a criminal conspiracy large enough to threaten to bring down one of Ankh-Morpork’s most influential families. Oh, and that goblins themselves are a sapient species in their own right.

Snuff is, after Night Watch, the most Vimes-centric novel in the Watch arc, and — as Pratchett would never write another novel in that arc again, the last time we ever see His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor. It is, at its core, the novelistic equivalent of a summer blockbuster where Vimes is hot on the trail of a criminal willing to do anything to throw him off it — a novel, in short, where Vimes is in his element, where the political subtexts of Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud! fade into the background, and Vimes, just by being Vimes, is able to accord a sentient species the rights they deserve almost as a by-product of his relentless pursuit of justice.

If Night Watch is, at some level, Vimes’ bildungsroman, then Snuff also does something else — it gives us a deeper look at Sam Vimes, as a character, than any other novel. Long gone is his constant alcoholic haze in Guards! Guards!; instead, Snuff showcases Vimes’ family relationships at the expense of his professional ones — his wife, Sibyl, and manservant (“gentleman’s gentleman”), Willikins, emerge as major characters here that they do not even achieve in The Fifth Elephant and Young Sam’s scatological inquisitions offer a background of comic relief.

Perhaps the most telling detail of how Vimes-centric Snuff is, is how it handles the novel’s secondary plot, where Fred Colon discovers, by sheer chance, a rare type of unggue (or goblin pot) in his cigar: there are, in all, maybe five scenes in the whole book devoted to this subplot, only two in which Carrot appears and one with Angua — a far cry from the significant Carrot-and-Angua subplot of The Fifth Elephant. 

Nor are there structural reasons for this, the way there were in Night Watch . . . In Snuff Vimes has at last taken over the Watch series, and it is fair to say that, outside of perhaps the occasional adventure novel, Pratchett has found himself in a corner. The long-foreshadowed conflict between Vimes and Carrot is not, and will never be, resolved; instead, we see in Snuff that Carrot has chosen his own diminution in the face of Vimes’ and Vetinari’s competency.

While Snuff is the last Discworld novel we will tackle for a while — I remain uncertain on which arc to tackle next, for one thing (Witches? Death? Rincewind? Moist?) — we will finish off this, what has turned out to be a much more substantial project than I was intending, with an exploration of Commander Vimes’ personality and perhaps why Pratchett was unable to resolve the Watch arc the way he was originally intending.

Terry Pratchett’s “Thud!”

51yspmmo6ul._sx289_bo1204203200_The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Night Watch; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Thud!.

Things get all political for the Watch. Again.

The League of Temperance, a.k.a. the Black Ribboners, have at last prevailed on Sam Vimes to hire a vampire officer, vampires being the creatures on the Disc Vimes least likes. But that isn’t all that’s on his plate, not by a long shot. For a grag — the dwarves’ spiritual advisors — recently moved in to the city, where he has been preaching anti-troll invective.

And now he’s dead. The dwarves think a troll did it, and the trolls are fervently hoping it wasn’t actually one of them that did it. But the anniversary of the most famous great battle between dwarf and troll, Koom Valley, is just days away, and an interspecies war is on the verge of breaking out in Ankh-Morpork.

The stakes could not get any higher. Vimes is more frazzled than ever. And he has to solve the mystery and get to the guilty parties before something else does.

Thud! is, in a word, a combination of Guards! Guards! and Night Watch-style detective novel and Jingo and The Fifth Elephant-style political intrigue. The problems between dwarves and trolls have at last come to Ankh-Morpork, largest and most cosmopolitan city on the Disc, and, just as in Jingo, Vimes races to solve a crime as the world teeters on the edge of war.

But this is a more diplomatically-experienced Vimes than the Vimes of Jingo. Where, in the latter novel, it turned out he’d had to leave the city before relations between him and Lord Rust got too sour, here, he’s forced to find a solution that does not lead to fighting on his turf.

Thus, he has to find a happy medium between dwarf and troll to investigate the grag’s murder, a medium which turns out to be Captain Carrot, a dwarf too human for the deep-downers and too dwarfish for the trolls. But even beyond that: investigating the murder, Vimes uncovers the true purpose of the dead grag’s sojourn in Ankh-Morpork, a truth that leads to the most Da Vinci Code-esque twist the Disc has ever seen.

And just like that, Vimes is racing to find out the truth — what actually happened at Koom Valley — before the deep-downers destroy it.

At the same time, the miners know the mine has gone bad, and when a mine goes bad, it can unleash potent magic on the world. A beast has been summoned, and it’s trying to lever its way into the mind of the nearest available champion — a watchman named Sam Vimes. Overworked and overburdened, Vimes is fighting a war on two fronts: an outer war to keep the peace in a world on the brink of, well, war, and an inner one against this magical entity. Can he?

I would augur that Thud! is the last “mature Pratchett” novel: though Sam Vimes has little room left to grow, he’s such a favorite no one much cares, and in Thud! the themes from the first three Watch novels (and Night Watch) meet those from Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, and just as in Night Watch viz. Guards! Guards!, we can see, in Thud! viz. Jingo, incredible character growth in Sam Vimes just from the sheer contrast in how they handle the situation at hand.

This isn’t the thriller romp Snuff turns out to be — though all the Watch novels are, of course, thrillers — with a more compelling cast and a complex subplot as well, where, just as Cheery had to learn to make peace with Angua the werewolf in Feet of Clay, so too must Angua make peace with the vampire Sally in Thud!. (Unfortunately for such a fun character — and despite the later Pratchett obsession with continuity — this is Sally’s only appearance on the Disc.) Indeed, the scenes where the two bond are some of the best-written in the entire Discworld corpus, bar none.

It is worth pointing out, too, that another key theme in Thud!, beyond the critique of fundamentalism, is of parenting — a theme Pratchett only really broaches here and in Snuff (where Young Sam is a wildly curious six-year-old). Being There to read at six is vitally important to Vimes, the main responsibility of parenthood this very, very busy father bears, and the novel’s entire climax is built around what happens when he is, in fact, unable to do so.

Thud! is also a masterful juggling of a complex plot, where all of the subplots come together in a wholly satisfying climax, one which is, I daresay, one of the most satisfying in the entire Discworld corpus: every little detail comes together here, and the way they come together is so artfully foreshadowed that they can neither be read in advance (perhaps the biggest problem Pratchett has with handling complex plots) nor do they have a deus ex machina WTF-ishness about them.

This is incredibly difficult to do, and do well, so much so that Thud! is perhaps the ultimate exemplar of how to do it well. It is this structural feat that really makes Thud! stand out, even in an arc as full of gems as the Watch one is.

Next, we will move on to the last Watch arc novel, and the only one squarely in the late Pratchett corpus, Snuff, where Vimes takes a busman’s holiday out to the country at last and there discovers a goblin slaving ring.

Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch”

9780062307408_p0_v3_s550x406The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored The Fifth Elephant; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Night Watch.

Discworld goes sci-fi. Chasing a criminal across Unseen University’s roofs, Sam Vines, in an unforeseen combination of a major temporal shattering (see Thief of Time) and magical accident, gets sent back to the past.

Not just any old past. His past. The plaything of the Fate (or perhaps the Lady), Vimes is forced to assume the identity of Sergeant-at-Arms John Keel, who, as it happens, in his brief time with the Ankh-Morpork City Watch trained one wet-behind-the-ears lance constable from a working-class part of town named . . . Samuel Vimes.

Worse, this curtailed last period of Keel’s life — according to History, he died a mere week after taking the job — was one marked by political turmoil in Ankh-Morpork: the city’s wheels were breaking down under the weight of the current Patrician, Mad Lord Winder, and his replacement, Snapcase, had curried favor with its citizenry.

As tensions reach a breaking point, it’s all Sam Vimes can do to keep himself together, bereft of his friends and colleagues — Carrot, Angua, Detritus, Cheery Littlebottom — and last, but not least, his wife Sibyl. And he has to do this while keeping his section of the city safe, training himself, keep himself alive until an opportunity presents itself to return to his own time, and, of course, nab the psychopathic maniac who got slung back to the past with him, who, naturally, in these difficult times quickly rises in society.

Unlike previous Watch novels, each of which have surprising twists in them, Night Watch is remarkably straightforward. There is no real mystery to solve here, like “Who killed John Keel?”; rather, the entire novel is driven forward by the strength of Sam Vimes’ character as he tries to survive and not lose himself in the past.

It’s also a throwback of a novel, one reminding us how far the Watch arc has come. Night Watch’s Watch is more like Guards! Guards!’ Watch than, say, Thud!’s. Young Sam reprises Carrot’s role in that novel, though in the similarities contrasts emerge: Carrot is bold and brash, all forward, going so far as to arrest the Thieves’ Guild’s master on his very first day, while Young Sam is much more cautious, quiet — observant.

One even gets the soupçon of an impression Young Sam has cottoned to Keel’s secret identity by the end.

Unlike the plots of its period’s other Watch novels, in which the mysteries inevitably involve international politics, Night Watch is, like the first three Watch novels, Ankh-Morpork-centric; the minutiae of Lord Snapcase’s replacement of Lord Winder some two decades prior have little bearing on, say, the situation in Uberwald or Klatch today.

Yet at the same time, despite its apparent simplicity, Night Watch’s political subplot is perhaps one of the most impactful on the Disc, for, just as we see Keel’s training of Young Sam, so too do we see Vetinari’s own education as a trainee Assassin under the hand of his wealthy Genuan aunt, Madame Roberta Meserole.

Indeed, it is perhaps in Night Watch where we learn more about Vetinari than any other novel . . . and one suspects, too, that Meserole’s failure to see her political goals advanced under Snapcase was a large part of why Vetinari became Patrician. In the young Havelock, we see the same drive towards hypercompetence that would define his future self’s Patricianship, but at the same time it seems unlikely he could wheel and deal his own way to becoming Patrician. His traits better fit someone who can keep being Patrician than becoming one to begin with!

Unlike any previous Watch novel, Night Watch is Vimes qua Vimes — and, coming out hot on the heels of The Fifth Elephant, where Carrot’s arc is more heavily foreshadowed than any other novel, one gets the feeling this was Vimes’ swan song. Not only does thrusting him into an environment more like Guards! Guards!’ make his growth as a character apparent, but the contrast between Young Sam and the adult Vimes lets us see not just two, but three sides to his character.

And, as he points out to Vetinari at the end, there is very little left he can bribe Vimes with. Where can this character grow? His arc seems complete.

Next, in Thud!, we will find out where Vimes’ character grows.

Terry Pratchett’s “The Fifth Elephant”

41y7ywngtvl._sx340_bo1204203200_On a personal note, The Fifth Elephant is the first Discworld book I read, and the one I’ve reread more than any other.


The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Jingo; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, The Fifth Elephant.

Someone has stolen a replica of a priceless dwarven artifact! Of course, since it’s a replica, it has minimal value in its own right, which makes the theft that much odder … Meanwhile, Sam Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Commander of the Watch, has been called away to the distant land of Überwald on a diplomatic mission, where, he learns, the original dwarven artifact, the Scone of Stone — a key relic in their new Low King’s coronation ceremony — has also been stolen.

Überwald! A land where feudal vampire and werewolf clans rule the surface and the dwarves rule the underground! And it sits exactly halfway between Ankh-Morpork and Genua, a major problem with the rise of the clacks companies, hellbent as they are on driving the Grand Trunk (a railroad reference) between the two cities. Lord Vetinari needs Überwald (or at least the bit of it in Ankh-Morpork’s way) to look to, well, Ankh-Morpork.

But the Uberwalders have other ideas, as Vimes soon discovers to his chagrin. Not all of them want to move with the times — with Ankh-Morpork’s times — and some of them protest. Strenuously. Chief among these are the Barons von Überwald, an ancient werewolf clan from around Bonk (pronounced bey-onk), one which Angua hails from, and whose power is currently mainly wielded by the baroness, Serafine, and her son, Wolfgang.

And Angua! As all this is going down, she gets called back home rather urgently — too urgently, in fact, to take the coaches with Vimes and Co. — and, just as in Jingo, Carrot must choose between what’s responsible and what’s personal. And this time, Angua says something in her letter that provokes Carrot enough to follow her home.

Plates are spinning, and in The Fifth Elephant, Vimes can barely even keep up — as characters and events converge, he has to use all his diplomatic resourcefulness to uncover the truth.

Discworld plots, on the whole, are not especially complicated. They are often villain-driven, with a clear antagonist animating the work as a whole. We see this with Men at Arms’ gonne, for example; with the antagonist in Feet of Clay; and with Carcer in Night Watch. But in Jingo and — especially — in The Fifth Elephant, the plot’s complexity ramps up tremendously; in fact, in the latter, Vimes is, at a certain level, surplus to requirements. The new Low King, Rhys Rhysson, had the upper hand the whole time, but we do not find out exactly how until the dénouement, when the Scone’s own secret — a secret the conspirators were wholly ignorant of — is at last revealed.

In a way, the shell game of The Fifth Elephant’s plot makes way for some of the greatest thematic depth of any Discworld novel. As Jingo is a meditation, ultimately, on war, The Fifth Elephant is one on diplomacy, and diplomacy itself is a game countries play with each other not unlike the games played within families — or even partnerships. Thus Angua’s strained relationship with her family takes center stage. Thus Angua’s relationship with Carrot becomes a major focal point of the novel, where here it is both a relationship and a mirror of other relationships, especially Vimes and Sibyl’s, whose marriage, it is revealed, is not all it could be, in large part due to Vimes’ workaholic attitude. Thus we have introduced the character of Lady Margolotta, perhaps Lord Vetinari’s mentor and almost certainly his ex-lover, a relationship whose subtle machinations underscore the complex diplomatic games being played around Bonk.

And the clacks, too, represent a major thematic shift in Discworld novels. Up till now, technology has been an antagonistic force on the Disc, with Moving Pictures’ moving pictures unmaking reality and Men at Arms’ gonne being both sentient and evil. But in the period between Men at Arms and The Fifth Elephant, there has clearly been a rethinking of the role of technology on the Disc. Perhaps Vetinari has been inspired by the gonne’s murder of Hammerhock due to its jealousy the dwarf could replicate and even mass-produce it — realizing, from the object’s action, that one way to neuter the technomantic powers new inventions tend to have on the Disc is to allow them to proliferate (a theme picked up again in The Truth and Raising Steam, for example).

But, on the other hand, semaphore technology is not a new thing the way the gonne is in Men at Arms, the printing press in The Truth, or the train in Raising Steam. What is new is its application to mass communications, a revolution not unlike the development of the telegraph on our world — or the telephone — or the Internet — or the smartphone. The question of technology on the Disc remains a live one, but in The Fifth Elephant a major — permanent — thematic shift has been made, one where the Disc is no longer hostile to the adoption of new technology.

One final note needs to be made here, and that is that The Fifth Elephant foreshadows planned resolutions to key tensions underlying the Watch series as a whole. Angua makes Carrot vow to go after her should she ever go feral (a real concern for a werewolf), and in seeing the differing fates of Carrot and the wolf Gavin, Angua’s two paramours, Vimes frets about the day he must oppose Carrot.

We can see here the thematic plan for how the Watch series would come to an end: Carrot would, eventually, be forced to put Angua down; and Vimes and Carrot (presumably after Vetinari’s death) be placed in a position of implacable opposition over the question of whether or not Ankh-Morpork should have a king. Carrot is the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, and in the end of The Fifth Elephant, he demonstrates (if it hadn’t been clear enough already) he knows this, all but saying outright that the traditional King’s Shilling is a vow made by the Watch to him personally.

Of course Pratchett never executes this plan. Perhaps by The Fifth Elephant he had become too attached to his characters ever to. A prompt for a fanfic, perhaps?

Beginning with Feet of Clay, we entered what I think of as the “Watch highstand”, a series of good Watch novels some five books long. Next, we will continue this highstand with one of the most inventive and imaginative Discworld books, Night Watch.

Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo”

41jhzesnlelThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Feet of Clay; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Jingo.

The mysterious island of Leshp has risen from the depths of the Circle Sea! Unfortunately, Ankh-Morpork and Klatchian fishermen were fishing in the vicinity when it appeared, and both have laid claim to the place. As Ankh-Morpork and Klatch — the Circle Sea’s two most dominant states — can best be thought of as being in a state of guarded peace, Leshp’s appearance can only further exacerbate tensions. Calls for war begin to ring out in both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, and at the heart of it all, Commander Vimes suspects there’s a crime going on.

He’s right.

Said crimes, of course, include “behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace” (because “that’s what warfare is”), “conspiracy to cause an affray, going equipped to commit a crime, obstruction, threatening behavior, loitering with intent, loitering within tent, traveling for the purposes of committing a crime, malicious lingering, and carrying concealed weapons” (p. 403).

But, as the situation deteriorates, Ankh-Morpork’s war hawks prevail on Lord Vetinari to step down, and his replacement, Lord Rust, is … less than competent. To top it all off, Angua’s stowed away on a Klatchian ship a-spying and Carrot, earnest boyfriend that he is, worries something’s happened to her. (He is, of course, right.) With Rust trying to force his will on Vimes’ Watch, Angua missing, and open hostilities right around the corner, Vimes is forced to make tough choices, choices which ultimately lead to the difference between life and death.

He even has a buggy Dis-organizer to tell him exactly that.

In the first three Watch novels, Vimes and Co. were concerned mainly with small crimes, crimes like homicides, which in turn led to much bigger ones (usually conspiracies to unseat Vetinari). Here, Vimes knows in his water the crime is much, much bigger: not just a crime affecting the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork but one affecting the broader international community. Leshp is at the tip of the iceberg; both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch have been jonesing for war for some time now, and the place is mainly an excuse.

But when it comes to warfare, neither side wants to be seen as the aggressor, and so the diplomatic game hinges on creating conditions whether both sides can argue they’re acting in self-defense — one, usually dishonestly. Vimes knows this. And he’s absolutely certain that it’s his own Ankh-Morporkian kith and kin acting in bad faith. Naturally, along the way, he meets his Klatchian counterpart — who, likewise, believes it’s his own kith and kin acting dishonestly. Who is right?

At its core, Jingo is thus a meditation on war, on the causes of war, and on its effects. As Vimes and Co. race to figure out what’s going on before said behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace causes a breach of the peace, he has to figure it out, and fast.

Naturally, the Discworld’s version of Julius Caesar or Sun Tzu, General Tacticus, becomes a major theme of this novel. Elsewhere in the series, we learned that Tacticus was the most effective general Ankh-Morpork ever had, one whose effectiveness was in part due to a refusal to play by the same rules numbskulls like Lord Rust liked to, and because of this, when Genua wrote to Ankh-Morpork needing a king, Tacticus was made a duke and sent off, where, naturally, his first action on getting crowned was to assess Genua’s threats, paramount of which was … Ankh-Morpork.

In Jingo, the Librarian lends Vimes a copy of Tacticus before he sets off, and Tacticus quotes come into play several times in the novel, yielding some of Pratchett’s best lines, lines such as: “When a defender occupies an impregnable fortress, see that he stays there”, or “when outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned, don’t have a battle”. As Vimes seeks the truth, we see how badly Rust has ignored Tacticus’ advice — at Jingo’s climax, Rust is about to try to assault the enemy’s impregnable fortress with an outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned army — the question is, in fact, whether Vimes can figure out what’s going on before Rust leads Ankh-Morpork to certain disaster.

So far in the series, Vimes has been antipolitical. Not so much apolitical: he speaks his mind with brutal honesty, and this is a quality that Vetinari prizes in him but also thinks of as a weakness. But in Jingo, we see the next major change in the Watch novels’ tenor — by the end of the novel, Vetinari sees the political value of Vimes’ antipolitical approach to politics, thus setting us up for the next novel, The Fifth Elephant, where Vetinari throws Vimes to the political wolves.

In Jingo, in short, the Watch goes from CSI: Ankh-Morpork to Homeland: Discworld. And as always, Terry Pratchett makes sure we enjoy the ride.

Terry Pratchett’s “Feet of Clay”

51lp3gka4glThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Men at Arms; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, and Detritus in its sequel, Feet of Clay.

Feet of Clay begins with a bizarre murder mystery: two harmless old men — one, a religious scholar, the other a dwarf bread aficionado — have been murdered, murdered with neither motive nor any real place to start except some white clay feet found on the premises. Meanwhile, Lord Vetinari is getting poisoned, and the means by which he is are proving to be an utter mystery. And if that wasn’t enough, Vimes has to go see about a coat of arms — one where he learns his family used to have one, but it was stripped from them due to his ancestor Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes, who beheaded Ankh-Morpork’s last king, Lorenzo the Kind (who was “very fond of children”).

And if that weren’t enough, the Watch is hiring again! This time they’ve brought on a forensic alchemist, who, at this stage is an alchemist putting together the “forensic” part on the fly. Cheery Littlebottom is an Uberwalder dwarf who instantly takes a shine to Angua but is leery of the rumors of a werewolf in the Watch. What follows is a rollicking good adventure in which the two discrete threads — the old historians’ murders and the Patrician’s poisoning — come together in a comic detective novel revealing Terry Pratchett at the height of his powers.

It is impossible to talk about Feet of Clay without talking about golems, one of its main thematic foci. When the novel begins, golems are treated the same way we treat robots: tools, automatons, and Certainly Not Human (TM). But, as the golems’ characters slowly get revealed, mainly through the slaughterhouse golem Dorfl, we realize that this popular conception is — wrong.

In this way, Feet of Clay begins a new iteration on one of the Disc’s oldest themes, the one started with Equal Rites and elaborated on in Men at Arms: the need to treat everyone with the same respect one accords oneself. To further this point, Feet of Clay takes up as a subplot Cheery’s growing femininity against the background of genderless dwarves, and the reactions of power couple Angua and Carrot to both: Angua’s distaste for the golems elevating their station, due to them being even lower than the undead, and Carrot’s (a dwarf, lest we forget) inability to get his head wrapped around the idea that girl dwarves may wish to express themselves differently than male ones.

Kings also make a comeback — one of the great unresolved arcs of the Watch series, and perhaps the main reason Pratchett stopped writing it earlier than other key Discworld subseries, is the tension between the desire for a king and the extreme competence of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari. Carrot, we understand by the end of Men at Arms (if we haven’t already!) is in fact the true king of Ankh-Morpork, and is aware of at least this as a possibility, but is content to stay in the Watch precisely because he is aware that he could not possibly do a better job of running Ankh-Morpork than Vetinari. Thus, in Feet of Clay, as Vetinari is poisoned and a power vacuum momentarily appears at Ankh-Morpork’s top, a new — different — king candidate is proffered, one who would be a puppet of the aristocracy and Guilds. Naturally, he does not take a shine to the role.

Feet of Clay is probably one of the most underrated Watch novels. I find it better than Men at Arms, and this is in large part because — unlike it — Feet of Clay knows where it stands. As the third Watch novel, Feet of Clay codifies several key themes that strongly characterize the first half of the Watch subseries, including rewarding Vimes at the end, and it also — in a much more rewarding manner than the first two — develops key ethical themes common to the Watch novels as a whole, as well as the political themes which would come to dominate the middle Watch novels — Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, in particular.

The Watch novels are some of Pratchett’s best, and Feet of Clay is their codification — the most typical of the Watch novels, adroitly handling the development of themes common to the whole group.