Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

I stumbled on this edition of Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms in a charity book shop. Despite already owning a copy of this book, I couldn’t resist the £2.99 price tag and its garish but strangely spectacular cover.

It’s an old edition and I couldn’t stop myself from buying several other similarly early Pratchetts shelved alongside it. Whoever generously donated these books to the Oxfam book shop in Herne Hill, thank you.

Men at Arms is the second novel following Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, which now has among its ranks six-foot-tall adopted dwarf Corporal Carrot, actual dwarf Lance-constable Cuddy, actual troll Lance-constable Detritus, feminist and werewolf Lance-corporal Angua, and Corporal Nobbs. I can’t begin to describe Corporal Nobbs.

Last but not least, the watch’s long-suffering Captain Sam Vimes, who leads his men on an investigation into a series of murders across the city carried out by assassin Edward d’Eath, who is on a quest to restore the Ankh-Morpork’s monarchy.

Among the Discworld novels, I have always loved those centred on the City Watch – I’m afraid they come second only to the Death books, in particular Mort. However, Men at Arms has all the qualities of an excellent Pratchett: haphazard comradery, a bizarre yet somehow comprehensible unfolding of events, and most importantly, nimble and sharp prose.

Humour is used dexterously and in a variety of ways, mostly through puns and a distinctly Pratchett turn of phrase. For example, d’Eath steals a gonne, which is a gun that makes people ‘gone’. But most of all, it is played out in conversation:

“’This,’ said Corporal Carrot, ‘is the Hubwards Gate. To the white city. Which is what we guard.’
‘What from?’ said Lance-Constable Angua, the last of the new recruits.
‘Oh, you know. Barbarian hordes, warring tribesmen, bandit armies… that sort of thing.’
‘What? Just us?’
‘Us? Oh, no!’ Carrot laughed. ‘That’d be silly, wouldn’t it? No, if you see anything like that, you just ring your bell as hard as you like.’
‘What happens then?’
‘Sergeant Colon and Nobby and the rest of ‘em will come running along just as soon as they can.’
Lance-Constable Angua scanned the hazy horizon.
She smiled.
Carrot blushed.”

And of course, footnotes:

“A swamp dragon is a badly run, dangerously unstable chemical factory one step from disaster. One quite small step.
It has been speculated that its habit of exploding violently when angry, excited, frightened or merely plain bored is developed as a survival trait.*

*From the point of view of the species as a whole. Not from the point of view of the dragon now landing in small pieces around the landscape.”

“’Everyone knows that trolls can’t even count to four!’*

*In fact, trolls traditionally count like this: one, two, three … many, and people assume this means they can have no grasp of higher numbers. They don’t realise that many can be a number. As in: one, two, three, many, many-one, many-two, many-three, many many, many-many-one…”

It’s very hard to review this book without taking up a lot of space with quotes. Perhaps this comes across as lazy, but I think for a writer like Pratchett, it’s best to let his writing speak for itself.

He often reminds the reader that this is, in fact, a book and he, the author, likes to talk directly to them. He may be the only writer who I enjoy doing this, from anyone else it would be impertinent and even a bit rude.

The characters arrive on the page fully-fledged. Angua is shrewd and observant, and her added werewolf-ness is a clever device. She is simultaneously marginalised and empowered. She teams up with Gaspode, a loquacious and streetwise stray dog, because of their shared canine sensibilities and she uses this friendship to her advantage.

“Other trails, faint or powerful, criss-crossed the street.
There was one that smelled like an old privy carpet.
‘Yo, bitch,’ said a voice behind her.
She turned her head. Gaspode looked no better through canine vision, except that he was at the centre of a cloud of mixing odours.”

It’s a simple book with simple characters, and a cosy and familiar beginning, middle and end. But Pratchett, being the brilliant writer that he was, elevated this format to something more.

He was able to lift things that were considered mundane into significance; he made small things seem important. At the same time, he demoted the extraordinary and exposed its ridiculousness, encouraging the reader to question our ideas of what is exceptional and worthy of praise.

Ankh-Morpork is a fictional city with realistic divides. Trolls and dwarves hate one another and there are many conflicts that dissect and weaken its society. However, the Watch forces differences to collide, and while this is certainly told in an entertaining way, it points to larger issues of prejudice and hate, which seem as relevant today as they did at the time of writing.

Racism, sexism, classism, among other themes, play out in this book and they are not discussed delicately, but with a heavy hand. However, they are explored with humour, which I found to be quite resonant. Witnessing the baseless hate between trolls and dwarves, humans and werewolves, just goes to show how absurd any form of prejudice really is.

It irritates me when I hear people dismiss fantasy as a genre that is merely about other worlds, magic, dragons and elves. I understand it’s not to everyone’s taste, but as a genre I’ve heard it being talked about like it is a literary punching bag, worthy of little more than an endless series of jabs and low blows.

It takes the very best writers, no matter what genre they write, to communicate, investigate and comment on significant issues that dominate conversations our own lives.

Fantasy tackles every issue under the sun, from racism and prejudice, to trauma and survival, and it does so often in the safety of another universe. Creating a new world is not a tool to escape important discourse, it is a vehicle in which to explore them in a new and perhaps more inoffensive light. 

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (Corgi, 1994)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Olive Grove by MyGel

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