I am currently enjoying Terry Pratchett’s 38th novel set on the Discworld, I Shall Wear Midnight. This is the fourth Tiffany Aching witch novel and, so far, is doing a decent job of further developing that character.
I don’t really like this book as much as some of the other Discworld novels. Of course, dislike is a relative thing–not liking a Discworld book is very different from not liking, say, a Stephen King book. This novel has a very straightforward, linear plot. I find Pratchett is at his best when the plots are complex, the story is scattered and even a bit confusing at the start. The best books start out with you wondering for a bit what exactly is going on, but at the end all the threads come together. The Watch novels are probably the best example. The easiness of this book is certainly due to its younger target audience.
Even so, the book does have some interesting things to say. Pratchett always uses his books to examine and satirize the real world. This is one of the things that makes his work so enduring. In that case of I Shall Wear Midnight, Pratchett digs at power relationships, hierarchy, and the concept of duty.
Regarding power relationships and protocol, there’s this humorous passage about arranging the meal table at the castle for a significant event:
And then there would always be the problem of seating. Most of the guests would be aristocrats, and it was vitally important that no one had to sit next to somebody who was related to someone who had killed one of their ancestors at some time in the past. Given that the past is a very big place, and taking into account the fact that everybody’s ancestors were generally trying to kill everybody else’s ancestors, for land, money or something to do, it needed very careful trigonometry to avoid another massacre taking place before people had finished their soup.
I just love how he points out the absurdity of holding on to past legacies and past grievances. Go back far enough and you can find justification for anything.
Here’s another funny passage:
There is a lot of folklore about equestrian statues, especially the ones with riders on. There is said to be a code in the number and placement of the horse’s hooves: if one of the horse’s hooves is in the air, the rider was wounded in battle; two legs in the air means that the rider was killed in battle; three legs in the air indicates that the rider got lost on the way to the battle; and four legs in the air means that the sculptor was very, very clever. Five legs in the air means that there’s probably at least one other horse standing behind the horse you’re looking at; and the rider lying on the ground with his horse lying on top of him with all four legs in the air means that the rider was either a very incompetent horseman or owned a very bad-tempered horse.
It is important to not here that Pratchett attributes this idea to “folklore” or what “is said to be a code” rather than delivering it as a certain fact, as he often does with funny details of life in the Discworld. It is clearly a conscious choice. I think what he is getting at here is the ability of people to read meaning into things separate from any real truth or established fact. When you think of it logically, how could every artist in the world that ever sculpted a horse be in on this secret code? They couldn’t. But people believing in some hidden conspiracy in horse statues is quite possible.
And here’s one last bit that gets deeper on personal relationships and the ideas of duty and loyalty:
When Mr Aching had worked for the old Baron, they had, as men of the world, reached a sensible arrangement, which was that Mr Aching would do whatever the Baron asked him to do. Provided the Baron asked Mr Aching to do what Mr Aching wanted to do and needed to be done.
That was what loyalty meant, her father [Mr Aching, Tiffany’s father] had told her one day. It meant that good men of all sorts worked well when they understood about rights and duties and the dignity of everyday people. And people treasured that dignity all the more because that was, give or take some bed linen, pots and pans and a few tools and cutlery, more or less all they had. The arrangement didn’t need to be talked about, because every sensible person knew how it worked: while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.
I will be loyal to you, while you are loyal to me, and while the circle is unbroken, this is how things will continue to be. And Roland was breaking the circle, or at least allowing the Duchess to do it for him. His family had ruled the Chalk for a few hundred years, and had pieces of paper to prove it. There was nothing to prove when the first Aching had set foot on the Chalk; no one had invented paper then.
Rulers try to claim ancient roots to defend their right to rule, but most are just momentary regimes in the larger scheme of things. It is the people who have true roots in the land, who have community and history, continuity.
Here is also an important lesson on leadership, relevant even in the modern age–“while you’re a good master, I will be a good worker.” A respected leader is one who offers respect in return. And a respected leader will always be more productive. Regardless of the rigidity of a hierarchy, there will always be a little back-and-forth between leaders and the led. Those on the bottom have as sense of what should happen, and if it doesn’t, there will be discord. Good leadership and proper rule is that which synchronizes the two ends of the rope, binding them into the “circle” as Pratchett describes it. Bad leaders break the circle and damage the relationship.
Well, that’s it for now. I still have about a quarter of the book to finish and will offer my final thoughts at that time. If you haven’t read a Discworld novel before, I strongly urge you to give one a try. The best place to start, in my mind, would be with Small Gods or Monstrous Regiment, which are two of my favorites and are both stand-alone stories. As many of the Discworld books are part of different series and use recurring characters, it would be best to start with a stand-alone.
Thanks for reading!