After having emerged from the greatest exhibition of democracy in the world, with our elections, it would perhaps not be unfitting to delve into a book about the nature of democracy itself. Don’t let the topic fool you; the book which undertakes this complex and delicate topic is none other than Terry Pratchett’s eighth Discworld novel, Guards! Guards!. For those unfamiliar with Pratchett’s works, he is a brilliant fantasy and humour writer whose most famous works include the Discworld novels, set in an alternate realm called Discworld. Discworld is of course a disc, or flat world, and it is carried on the backs of four enormous elephants that in turn are perched atop the shell of a massive tortoise swimming through space. This borrowed idea from Indian mythology accompanies the various other analogies to life on earth, like its cultures and beliefs. Discworld is, after all, an exaggerated (but just), comical and fantastic version of our own mortal world, laughing at us while still acknowledging our worth.
This book, like many of Pratchett’s other books, deals with a central issue, with his signature humor and wacky story telling. Here the issue raised is the nature of democracy, power politics and the role of human nature in determining them. Along with typical Pratchett humour comprising of a myriad of puns, comic situations and hilarious references to real life people or incidents, there are some surprisingly astute comments regarding the nature of power and human nature which set it apart from children’s fiction.
The plot follows the City Watch (or policeman) as a new recruit named Carrot who unaccountably wishes to catch thieves and arrest assassins much to the ire of the government authorized Thief and Assassin guilds. The guards themselves are confused by his over the top zealousness and by the long out dated law book he carries which actually possesses laws the city must follow. Alongside this a secret group comprising of a clever and manipulative leader and his stupid assistants attempt to summon a dragon to take control of the city, Ankh-Morpork. However the dragon, once summoned, decides to take things in its own hands instead of following the biddings of worthless humans, and proclaims itself as the king. Moreover he demands that the people bring him gold and regular virgin sacrifices. The surprising thing is that ultimately the people agree to all of the dragon’s demands, instead of rising in protest as Captain Vimes of the Watch, expects them to. As the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, the clever and morally ambiguous Vetinari remarks, in reality people “will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness.
Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.” However, once aware of the utter lack of initiative on the part of people, Captain Vimes finally awakens to the novel idea that the Watch can only take action and protect the citizens. What follows is a lot of action and hilarious incidents as the Watch attempt to take on the dragon all on their own. The ending is genius itself, with an undermining of the classic happy ending which shows that the only happy ending is one where nothing really changes except people’s perceptions. As Vetinari tells a disheartened Vimes towards the end of the book, “’I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You are wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.’
One of the best Discworld novels, this book is a must read, simply because it goes beyond mere fantasy and speaks of the workings of power in such humorous fashion as to make even its cynical revelations palatable and delightful.