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Book review: “The Fifth Elephant” by Terry Pratchett

This is where I came in.

In 2000, The Fifth Elephant was Terry Pratchett’s 24th Discworld novel, and his American publisher was pushing the book and the Discworld series as another Harry Potter.

Pratchett’s series about a flat world riding on the backs of four gargantuan elephants standing on a really large turtle was, according to the HarperPrism publicist, as popular in the United Kingdom as J.K. Rowling’s books.  But, in the U.S., not so much.

I was a feature writer at the Chicago Tribune and the one who got the pitch since I wrote a lot about books and authors.  Pratchett was doing a U.S. book tour.  Would I like to interview him? 

Well, yeah.  Especially after I’d started reading The Fifth Elephant.

Not the same avidity

I could see pretty quickly why Americans weren’t buying the Discworld books with the same avidity with which they were gobbling up the Potter series. 

(Around the same time, a new Potter book came out just as our family was leaving for a driving trip to New York and Washington, D.C.  Because both of our kids wanted to read it in the drive, we got two copies.  No one needs book-squabbling on a journey of a couple thousand miles.)

Although both fantasy novel series were written by Britishers, the Rowling books had all the earmarks of a successful American franchise, whether in books, music or movies:

  • They were very serious.  After all, they were about a kid who had been literally marked for death by a Satan-ish character.
  • They kept the same cast, so they were comfortable from installment to installment.  
  • And the key elements of their magical universe comprised an otherworldly arsenal that was very similar to the glittering, gee-whiz weaponry of the bestselling Tom Clancy novels.

Inhabited by magic

The Discworld books were nothing like that.  I could tell from The Fifth Elephant that Pratchett put a high premium on silliness.  And he was also big on puns.

There was virtually no magic in The Fifth Elephant, but, as I would learn from reading other Discworld books, Pratchett’s characters don’t exactly have magic powers along the lines of a saber they could wield or bazooka they would fire.  Instead, they are sort of inhabited by magic. 

Those who are skilled and humble are able to direct the magic somewhat, but, when they do, it is as if they are in partnership with the mystical.  Those who are proud and bitter find in magic their destruction.

Commenting on the real world

The key difference, though, was that Rowling’s seven books told the simple, oft-recounted story of an orphan trying to find his place in the world.  By contrast, Pratchett used his Discworld stories as a way of commenting on the real world in which the reader lives.

For instance, The Fifth Elephant is peopled by werewolves, vampires, dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, Igors (i.e., the sort of guy who works for Dr. Frankenstein), zombies, golems and humans — parallels to the racial and ethnic groups of the modern real-life world.

I remember I made a point about that high up in the story I wrote about the book and my interview with Pratchett. I thought the concept of commenting on racism and similar prejudices through these groups from a long-ago fairy tale was brilliant, funny and on-target.

The product of belief

I also remember that, in my interview with Pratchett, we talked about belief of all sorts — religious faith, cultural conviction and ideals such as defense of the lowly in the face of bullies.

Faith plays a role in The Fifth Elephant in the form of the Scone of Stone, the large loaf of dwarf bread (a cultural delicacy that is almost inedible) used as the throne in the coronation of the dwarf Low King.  (It wasn’t until later that I learned that the English employ a similar-looking oblong block of redstone, called the Stone of Scone, in the crowning of their kings.)

A Low King can’t be crowned unless the Scone of Stone is there, but, as the novel opens, it appears to have gone missing, as has a replica of it.

As I said above, the Scone of Stone is made a dwarf bread, but, as Pratchett’s novel showed, it is more the product of the belief that has been invested by generations of dwarfs over hundreds of years.

The belief thing and Death

That idea of belief creating the object of belief is a theme that, I later found, runs through most of Pratchett’s novels.  Since interviewing him, I’ve read all of his 41 of his Discworld books (and nearly all of his other books), and I’m now in the process of reading them again in order. 

Not that they need to be read in order, but it’s fun to watch Pratchett develop as a writer and to ride along as his Discworld grows more and more real in its fictional rightness and as his rotating central characters remain as quirky as they started while also going through many changes.

I started the re-reading process when, in 2015, at the age of 66, Pratchett died as a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Looking back, I feel very lucky to have been able to talk with him for an hour about his books and his writing.  I wasn’t even a full fan then since I’d only read The Fifth Elephant and maybe one or two of the earlier books. 

But The Fifth Elephant was, in many ways, the perfect book for me to start with.  For one thing, there was that belief thing, and also there was the key Discworld character Death, the personification of death, a guy who talks in capital letters, often about the meaning of life, and who seems, in many ways, as human as the next guy.

“Justice, mercy and pity”

Pratchett himself turned out to be a short, balding, gnomish guy, filled with humor and excitement about life and his work and, well, everything, even what comes after.  Recounting a scene from one of his books, the author told me:

“Death says, in a conversation, that you need to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny so you can believe in the big things, like justice, mercy and pity.”

Those virtues only exist, he said, because humans believe in them and live them — make them real by exhibiting them in their daily lives, make them real by believing they’re real.

As for his own religious beliefs, Pratchett told me:

“I am a Victorian atheist — which is someone who is angry at God for not existing.”

Yet, he was also someone who was fascinated by the Cosmos, by the clockwork mechanisms of Nature, as well as by the wildly illogical thoughts and actions of human beings.  And he acknowledged:

“I cannot believe the universe, as complex as ours is, has not, at some level some unifying…force, perhaps…I can’t think of the right word — that some people might call God.”

“Only one king”

The Fifth Elephant was also the perfect Discworld novel to get me started because it focused on Sam Vimes, the Commander of the City Watch, a hard-bitten copper who, one day at a time, is on the wagon and has fallen in love with and married a Duchess. 

Which makes him a Duke.  

Which is how the Patrician, the guy who runs Anhk-Morpork, the major metropolis of Discworld (a New York City kind of place), was able to send Vimes (kicking and screaming) as an ambassador to Uberwald for the coronation of the Low King.

Which is how Vimes, of all people, ends up in fancy dress.

Vimes is such an attractive character to me because he is cynically idealistic or, maybe better, idealistically cynical. 

A good cop in other words.

An ancestor of his was known as the guy who, during a time of civic turmoil, cut off the head of Anhk-Morpork’s last king, a piece of ancestral history that people like to point out to Vimes.  Such as in his first conversation as a diplomat with the new Low King:

“And you had a famous ancestor, I believe, who was a regicide?  Took an ax, he did, and cut the head off?”

Here it comes, thought Vimes.

“Yes, Stoneface Vimes,” he said, as levelly as possible.  “I’ve always thought that word was a bit unfair, though.  It was only one king.  It wasn’t as if it was a hobby.”

“A riddle wrapped”

What’s also great about the Discworld novels featuring Vimes is that the droll Patrician — he of the steel-trap mind and rapier instincts — often shows up, as well as the rest of the wildly odd members of the City Watch, such as Sgt. Fred Colon.

For instance, the Patrician decides to send Vimes forth as an ambassador to Uberwald where vampires, dwarfs and werewolves have long lived in uneasy non-war and where many other nations are now wanting to get control of newly discovered deposits of fat (from the fifth elephant of the title) for its many uses.  And this exchange takes place:

“Uberwald remains a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Vimes.  “Uberwald is like this big suet pudding that everyone’s suddenly noticed, and now with this coronation as an excuse we’ve all got to rush there with knife, fork and spoon to shovel as much on our plates as possible?”

“Your grasp of political reality is masterly, Vimes.”

A few days later, after Vimes as gone off on his diplomatic mission, Colon finds himself suddenly in charge of the City Watch and, one of Nature’s natural sergeants, he tries, in his awkward manner, to act officerly.

In this vein, he is trying to describe to his buddy Corporal Nobby Nobbs why he’s afraid that Vimes will never return from Uberwald.

“Nasty place, Uberwald.  I heard where it’s a misery wrapped in a enema.”

It’s no wonder, with lines like that, that The Fifth Elephant and Discworld and Pratchett hooked me.  I am so glad they did.


Patrick T. Reardon


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