DISCWORLD DISCUSSIONS: The Fifth Elephant (1999)
‘The Fifth Elephant’ is one of those few books, Discworld and otherwise, that I remember the exact place that I read it the first time around. I was in a caravan in Devon, during an atmospherically stormy October. It isn’t as grim as it sounds – I really loved that holiday – but I think the extremeness of the weather is probably why I remember it so well. I certainly didn’t recall much of the book when I cracked it open this time; aside from Gaspode the dog and Captain Carrot featuring somehow, I couldn’t have told you anything about this story. Literally nothing. That’s a shame because this is, once again, a solid Watch novel and a great addition to the character development of a whole raft of our increasingly familiar characters.
Sam Vimes, reluctant diplomat, is forced to travel to Überwald, one of Ankh-Morpork’s rival regions on the Disc, along with Lady Sybil and an assistant who turns out to be an assassin. Whilst he is there, arguing with dwarves and being hunted by werewolves, he does not know that Captain Carrot has followed him to the country, searching for the missing Sergeant Angua, and leaving Fred Colon in charge back in the city. If you have been following these essays or read the books for yourselves, you already know that this is quite possibly the worst idea Carrot has ever had. Fred goes on to prove that in record time, attempting to clamp the opera house for being an obstruction to traffic and reducing the Watch to a handful of members by the time Carrot gets back. So far, so Ankh-Morpork.
The real strength of this story, however, lies in travelling out of the city with characters we know so well. The Witches have recently been in Überwald, fighting the vampires who threatened to overrun their kingdom but, to a certain extent, that is to be expected of them and their lives are so ‘Other’ anyway that going to such a place seems natural for them. The Watch members, however, are city people, and the strangeness of the clashing cultures in Überwald is strongly implied. The place certainly feels different from their points of view, whether Sir Terry meant to do that exactly or not. With the threat of the werewolves hanging over people’s heads, the vampires from the last book don’t seem that bad in comparison.
Being out of the city, and away from the ever present characters of Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, some other members of the team get their chance in the spotlight. Vimes is made to take Cheery Littlebottom and Detritus the troll with him, as representatives of their cultures, and the two make a real impressions here, especially Cheery. She is, you may remember, one of the first dwarves to openly identify as a woman in a culture made up of male pronouns and leather trousers for all. In a world increasingly concerned with trans issues and the nature of identity, Cheery’s story feels very fresh and relevant. Überwald is filled with dwarves who rarely even come above the surface, let alone understand the cultural change that is sweeping their kind in the modern, metropolitan Ankh-Morpork. Cheery withstands their scorn and their hate, buoyed in part by the help of her friends and the tentative support of some dwarves who are very interested in her story. At the end of the book, when the new dwarf king reveals herself to be a woman, it feels like the proper ending to the whole ordeal, and one that you hope is also a beginning, for dwarves everywhere. They are only a fictional race, in a fantasy world, but in many ways that does not matter. We see a young woman become increasingly confident in her own skin, supported by friends and with a superior who never questions her choice, and slowly things begin to change. That is, I think, a message that we can all appreciate to the fullest extent.
This novel also features the largest role for Lady Sybil since her introduction all the way back in ‘Guards! Guards!’, and it is a very welcome one. She seems a quiet and accepting sort of woman, not always happy to see her husband go running off to fight crime at every hour of the day and night, but we must not forget that she was a person who existed before she married Sam Vimes. Sybil knows people, better than they know themselves, and she uses every scrap of knowledge to her advantage. She is underestimated, because she was brought up to be polite and deferential, but that does not mean she is stupid and my favourite section of the whole novel is when she takes over negotiations for the fat trade, and drives a bargain so hard that the king is forced to give in. We know that Sam loves her but I think this is the first time that he really sees her for who she is; a very, very powerful ally. I look forwards to re-reading her again in the rest of the Watch books to come.
He [Vimes] was the most civilised man she’d ever met. Not a gentleman, thank goodness, but a gentle man.