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Book review: “Monstrous Regiment” by Terry Pratchett

Some background: 

More than four centuries ago, during the Protestant Reformation, Scottish reformer John Knox published, while exiled in Switzerland, a small 20,000-word book that has kept his name alive ever since — The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women.

It was an attack on female monarchs — of which Scotland and England at the time each had one — contending that, to use more modern spelling, the monstrous regimen of women was counter to the Bible and “repugnant to nature.”  You can read it yourself here.

This, you’ll not be surprised, got him in trouble with Elizabeth I.  However, unlike some who had crossed her, Knox never lost his head. On the other hand, he was never permitted back into England either.

For the past 100 years or so, feminist writers have used variations on Knox’s title in an ironic way to tell stories of empowered women, including in 2003 Terry Pratchett with his 31st Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment.

Scholars note that Knox wasn’t really more prejudiced about women than most men of his era, and he wasn’t the first to write against female rulers.  And he wasn’t writing about military stuff — “regiment” being the now-archaic way of saying “regimen” which was another way of saying “rule.”

But that didn’t stop Pratchett from going off in the direction he did, to tell about Polly, a young woman who, in search of her brother, sneaks into the Borogravian army by masquerading as a man and finds that she’s not as alone as she thought.

A slimy Corporal

With the help of some well-placed trouser socks, Polly goes by the name of Oliver Perks although a really slimy “political” Corporal named Strappi immediately christens the recruit Private Parts.  Yuk, yuk. 

As I say, Strappi is slimy, and he gets slimier later and even slimier at the end of the novel.  He’s one of those tin dictators who uses name-calling as a method of control and dominance.  (Please don’t think of anyone in modern-day American politics.)  The names are silly, and they’re mean.

Pratchett is the least mean writer you’ll find, but he’s deeply into silly. 

The Discworld is filled with lots of different sorts of people, i.e., werewolves, vampires, golems, zombies, witches, dwarfs and so on, even human beings, like Polly.  And the troop of new recruits reflect with troll named Carborundum among the enlistees.

Polly was okay about trolls.  She met them up in the woods sometimes, sitting among the trees or purposefully lumbering along the tracks on the way to whatever it was that trolls did.  They weren’t friendly, they were….resigned.  The world’s got humans in it, live with it.  They’re not worth the indigestion.  You can’t kill ‘em all.  Step around ‘em.  Stepping on ‘em doesn’t work in the long term.

“Monstrous Regiment”

The troop of recruits is led by the battle-hardened but kind-hearted veteran Sgt. Jack Jackrum although, on paper, the command is held by Lt. Blouse who is what you’d expect of a character with a name like that. 

Anyway, this troop captures several Zlobenian soldiers, including a rather smug Sgt. Towering. Blouse is trying to question Towering, but it is an unequal contest:

To Polly, it was like watching a child bluffing in poker against a man called Doc.

Towering is saying that many Zlobenian units are trying to find Blouse’s handful of recruits, but the lieutenant can’t figure who why that would be.

“Everybody knows about you, Lieutenant.  You’re the Monstrous Regiment, you are!  No offense meant, of course.  They say you’ve got a Troll and a vampire and an Igor and a werewolf.  They say you….they say you overpowered Prince Heinrich and his guard and stole their boots and made him hop away in the altogether!”

Prince Heinrich is the ruler of Zlobenia, and he didn’t like the story going around of his bare-assed walk through the countryside because of a bunch of enemy recruits.  He wanted them captured.

This mystifies Blouse because the man they captured said his name was Captain Horentz.  Duh!  As if a captured head-of-state would reveal his real identity.

“Meat-and-two-veg”

And, as Towering relates, Heinrich also has another reason for revenging himself on the recruits:

“I heard from one of my mates that one of you kicked him in the meat-and-two-veg.”

Actually, when it occurred, Polly — who was masquerading as a boy solider — was then masquerading as a girl barmaid (which she had been in her pre-military life), and the man she knew as Captain Horentz was manhandling her, so to speak, and laughing until he “folded up with a gasp as her knee connected with his sock drawer.”

Stupid

Monstrous Regiment is very much a pro-female story, proving at every turn that girls can be just as good as boys.  And, well, just as bad, too. 

Pratchett’s point isn’t to say the female of the species is the better of the two genders, but that, woman or man (or, if he’d written this a bit later, nonbinary individual), a human being is a human being, just as prone to flaws and virtues as the next one.

But that’s only a secondary point that Pratchett makes. 

His main point is that war is bad because it’s destructive and makes the lives of most people worse and lends itself to the wiles of the demagogic, the mean-spirited, the cruel, the bullying and corrupt.

War is bad because it’s stupid.

Stupidity

Officers in the Borogravian army are known as “ruperts” because that’s often their name, that or something like Cyril or Reginald.  As an officer, Blouse turns out to be not a complete idiot, but, before he sees any action, he prattles a lot about the fame and honor that awaits soldiers in combat.  Sgt. Jackrum sees the prattling for what it is:

“The rupert should stick to sums.  He thinks he’s a soldier.  Never walked on a battlefield in his life.  All that rubbish he gave your man was death-or-glory stuff.  And I’ll tell you, Perks, I’ve seen Death more often than I care to remember, but I’ve never clapped eyes on Glory.”

Later in the novel, Polly sums up the many lessons she has learned:

“Sir, a day or two ago I’d have rescued my brother and gone off home and I’d have thought it a job well done.  I just wanted to be safe.  But now I see there’s no safety while there’s all this….this stupidity.”

“Bleedin’ stupid people”

When Polly mentions stupidity, she’s not talking about a lack of brain power, about those born with a low IQ.  She’s talking about people who are often smart and knowledgeable and educated who choose to do stupid things.  Who, out of laziness or greed or bias, choose to make life harder for those around them — for whole armies, even for whole nations.

War is one of those stupid things.  And, in railing against such stupidity, Polly is speaking for Pratchett who has written a comic novel that is bitterly antiwar.

On the last page of Monstrous Regiment, Polly speaks again for Pratchett, against war and against the many ways that humanity makes its life harder and crueler and more dangerous.

The enemy wasn’t men, or women, or the old, or even the dead.  It was just bleedin’ stupid people, who came in all varieties.

And no one had the right to be stupid.

Patrick T. Reardon

9.23.22

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