The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett (1999) 259 p.

This is the first Discworld book I ever read, when I think I was about 12 years old; it came out in 1999, but I wouldn’t have read it straight away, and I turned 12 in late 2000. In fact I have a distinct memory of borrowing it from Karrinyup library, after umming and ahhing over it in the Big W books section (that being the limit of a provincial child’s browsing universe) and deciding I didn’t want to spend any of my limited purchasing power on a series of books which I’d seen all over the place but had always been leery of. I think it was the covers that put me off: Josh Kirby’s ridiculously muscular heroes and outrageously buxom wenches. I was too young to realise that the covers were themselves parodies of the fantasy genre; which is funny because Pratchett’s books had drifted away from generic fantasy parody some ten years and twenty books earlier.

But I was certainly still young enough to assume that a book cover portrays an event in a book, and so I thought The Fifth Elephant would be about some inexplicable cataclysmic impact, particularly since the book begins (as they all do) by explaining how the Disc is carried through space atop four elephants who in turn stand atop a gargantuan turtle. (Possibly at this point the animated series was also playing on the ABC after school, further influencing my idea that this was somehow important). But of course – as any Pratchett reader will tell you – these fundamentals of the Discworld are something Pratchett dreamt up for the first book in the mid-’80s, and they’re utterly irrelevant now, just as the legend of the Fifth Elephant, which supposedly crashed onto the Disc and left behind remnants of fat and bone matter, is utterly irrelevant to the plot of The Fifth Elephant; it’s merely an excuse for Pratchett to make a very silly pun about a contemporaneous film. (A very quirky, unique and excellent film, if you’ve never seen it. SBS Viceland dedicates at least one day a year to showing it all day long, and their program manager explained on Twitter that “I’ll stop doing it when it stops rating so well.”)

So anyway, that was a surprise for young me, reading this laminated hardback library book on holiday, as I recall, in an old caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s acreage down in Capel in what was probably the winter of 2000. (It rained incessantly, which was good for reading.) This book had nothing at all to do with an elephant crashing down from the sky. It was about a copper, a detective, a chief of police in a fantasy city, being sent away from his homeland to a strange and foreign country in which he’s expected to be a diplomat but instead finds himself embroiled in a criminal plot.

I must surely have read The Fifth Elephant again at least once since 2000; I remember it too well. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and the (recently, unwillingly ennobled) Duke of Ankh, is sent with his wife Lady Sybil to the mysterious country of Uberwald, a sort of wintry wilderness Germany/Russia hybrid, to attend the crowning of the new Low King of the dwarfs. (The High King was a historical office in Ireland, elected by the various smaller kingdoms to rule over them; it makes sense that the subterranean dwarfs would term their own ruler the Low King.) Uberwald has been a lawless place for generations, with the dwarfs and the vampires and the werewolves doing as they please while the human population mostly just tries to get by; but the dwarfs are ascending in power and status and threaten to upset this balanced trifecta. From the very beginning of The Fifth Elephant, the notion of modernisation and cultural change is present:

“I suppose you could say he’s elected,” said Carrot. “But really a lot of senior dwarfs arrange it among themselves. After listening to other dwarfs, of course. Taking soundings, it”s called. Traditionally he’s from one of the big families. But… er…”
“Things are a little different this year. Tempers are a bit… stretched.”
Ah, thought Vimes. “Wrong dwarf won?” he said.
“Some dwarfs would say so. But it”s more that the whole process has been called into question,” said Carrot. “By the dwarfs in the biggest dwarf city outside Uberwald.”
“Don”t tell me, that must be that place Hubwards of…”
“It’s Ankh-Morpork, sir.”
“What? We’re not a dwarf city!”
“Fifty thousand dwarfs now, sir.”

I was reminded of A.A. Gill’s essay about the cornucopia of America, and how Americans naturally celebrate the immigrant story as one of success and optimistic new beginnings; but viewed from the other side, from those left behind in 19th century Europe, it’s one of destitution and loss. The new Low King says this bluntly to Vimes:

“When people say ‘We must move with the times,’ they really mean ‘You must do it my way.’ And there are some who would say that Ankh-Morpork is… a kind of vampire. It bites, and what it bites it turns into copies of itself. It sucks, too. It seems all our best go to Ankh-Morpork, where they live in squalor. You leave us dry.”

Incidentally, this is another point that went over my head when I was a kid – the Low King has been selected as a compromise between more powerful dwarf factions, and comes from a small clan near Llamedos, Pratchett’s stand-in for Wales. His speech is peppered with Welsh phrases like “see” and “look you,” a way of emphasising that king he may be, but he hails from humble origins; at twelve I would have had only a slight notion of what constituted Britain, let alone its vast array of accents and what they signify in a deeply class-based society. Anyway, the Low King isn’t wrong, exactly, in his characterisation of Ankh-Morpork; but from his foreign vantage point, what he fails to understand is that the dwarfs – and the trolls, and the myriad other species that have come to call the big city home – have irrevocably changed Ankh-Morpork as well.

There was also an ache across his back where an axe had been turned aside by his armour. He felt a twitch of national pride at that thought. Ankh-Morpork armour had stood up to the blow! Admittedly it was probably made in Ankh-Morpork by dwarfs from Uberwald, using steel smelted from Uberwald iron, but it damn well was Ankh-Morpork armour, just the same.

It’s an ironic moment, but Vimes (and Pratchett) really means it: it is Ankh-Morpork armour. It’s a physical manifestation of Lord Vetinari’s neat turn of phrase about multiculturalism in Feet of Clay: “Alloys are stronger.”

It was this kind of seriousness, this kind of gravitas, that most impressed me as a kid, a 12-year-old expecting some kind of apocalyptic adventure about a fiery elephant crashing into the earth and instead got something wholly unexpected. A funny book, yes, but funny in ways which speak to a deeper truth, a deeper seriousness; Pratchett being one of those people who uses humour to make a deadly serious observation. What stayed in my mind over the years was the central set-piece, one of the finest Pratchett ever wrote, in which Vimes escapes from a pitch-black subterranean dwarf prison using the last few matches in his pocket….

“Want to see a trick?” said Vimes.
“Watch this,” said Vimes, and brought his hands around and shut his eyes just before the match flared.

…and then has to run through the forest pursued by werewolves in their long-standing, morally revolting “game”:

The werewolves slowed as they reached the building. Their leader glanced at a lieutenant and nodded. It loped off in the direction of the boathouse. The others followed Wolf inside. The last became human for a moment to pull the doors shut and drop the bar across.
Wolf stopped near the centre of the barn. Hay had been scattered over the floor in great fluffy piles.
He scraped gently with a paw, and wisps fell away from a rope that was stretched taut.
Wolf took a deep breath. The other werewolves, sensing what was going to happen, looked away. There was a moment of struggling shapelessness, and then he was rising slowly on two feet, blinking in the dawn of humanity.
That’s interesting, thought Vimes, up on the gallery. For a second or two after changing, they’re not entirely up on current events…
“Oh, your grace,” said Wolf, looking around. “A trap? How very… civilized.”
He caught sight of Vimes, who was standing on the higher floor, by the window
“What was it supposed to do, your grace?
Vimes reached down to the oil lamp. “It was supposed to be a decoy,” he said.

All of which remains coupled with Pratchett’s excellent sense of humour. The Fifth Elephant has one of the series’ very best B-plots, a purely comedic exercise exploring the inevitable consequences of Vimes being sent away and then Carrot also unexpectedly departing, leaving the utterly incapable Sergeant Colon in charge; he soon goes mad with power and ends up barricaded in the Watch House while Nobby’s hastily organised watchmans’ union pickets outside. After observing the City Watch be built up by Vimes and Carrot over the course of five books from a handful of losers into an efficient, modern police force, it’s extremely funny to watch it disintegrate under Colon’s leadership in a mere week. Both Colon and Nobby are well aware of this, and have a repeated refrain of dread running through their heads during this crisis, which runs along the lines of: “Mister Vimes is going to go spare. He’s going to go absolutely mental.”

It’s solid gold stuff, from beginning to end. I’ve greatly enjoyed re-reading the Discworld series even when it doesn’t quite live up to my memories – but sometimes it does. Looking over Goodreads, the last Discworld book I gave five stars to was Men at Arms. Both of them are brilliant books all the way through, enhanced even further by frisson-inducing climaxes in which Vimes faces down a villain, torn between his instinct as a wronged man, a human being thirsty for revenge, for red-blooded justice… and for what he needs and demands and expects of himself to extract as a copper, as an officer of the law. A man who must demand of himself a more robust standard than the general public – of which he is also of course a member. The best of the City Watch books are the best things Pratchett ever wrote, combining all of his thoughtful themes with a truly admirable cast of characters, plot-driven mysteries which culminate in genuinely exciting moments, and never letting up on his trademark sense of humour even in the most desperate moments. I can see why 12-year-old me was so delighted to discover this book, and promptly devoured the rest of Pratchett’s works over the next few years. The Fifth Elephant is an absolute classic.

Rereading Discworld index