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 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.