The Beast and The Better Angels of Our Nature; A Reading of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
“The nature of the night changed, but the nature of the Beast remained the same.” – Night Watch
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – from Abraham Lincoln first inaugural address, 1861
In his first outing in Guards! Guards!, the 8th Discworld novel, Sam Vimes, then Captain of the night shift police was barely holding it together. Drunk by day, drunker by night, he described life as “…just chemicals. A drop here, a drip there…A mere dribble of fermented juice,” and everything seem to…focus- on the bottom of a bottle. We didn’t know then his how or his why, but one thing was clear, he was unsatisfied at how fate dealt his cards. Terry Pratchett, possibly didn’t have anything planned out for Sam Vimes. He was a convenient point of view. His cynicism, a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre where heroes are supposed to be contemplating the grandeur of goodness and the virtues of fighting evil.
Terry Pratchett must have reconsidered this state of affairs. Because for a man to remain angry and discontented even after being Knighted, awarded Dukery and given Command of one of the most relatively efficient medieval police in all of fantasy, not to mention happily married to the richest woman in the city who is currently carrying his first child, a history of Sam Vimes must be told.
It was in Night Watch, the 34th Discworld novel. Sam Vimes is chasing after a psychopath cop killer named Carcer on the roofs of Unseen University’s library, when a freak magical accident transported them both back in time. It was thirty years previously, lilacs scent the air, there are deeper shadows in the dark. It was fresh in Sam Vimes’ memory, a memory he is not keen on reliving because he knows how it ends. In fact the reader is told how it will end and how it goes on- from bad to worse.
In a series of historical meddling, Carcer had murdered Vimes’ hero and it is up to Vimes to assume his hero’s identity if he is to keep history from happening so he can go back to the future, for now a future as explained by the Lu Tze, one of the History Monks (who featured in the previous novel, Thief of Time). So Vimes becomes John Keel, the martyr of the impending revolution.
But knowing what happens is not a relief. Vimes must choose between trying to save as much lives as he can and change history, his story, or be a witness to the injustice of the past where things don’t work. When the justice system managed not only to fail protecting the innocent but also punish them.
VILLAINS & BEASTS
Most villains in Discworld have always been very straightforward- people who can’t help it. In Hogfather, Mr Teatime is a killing maniac, in Small Gods, Vorbis is an efficient priest who tortures for faith. Carcer, one of the villains in Night Watch, is a psychopath on the lose. The other villain, Swing, Captain of another branch of the Watch, oversees the torture and death of suspected revolutionaries. Terry Pratchett doesn’t provide much background for these villains. We assume that they were born that way. No soppy childhood where they were neglected or any traumatic experience that changed them for the worse. And that makes them more terrifying. They are the worst humanity could ever be.
On the other hand, we have people like Vimes, who goes face to face with the beast everyday. And from that face, the eyes looking back at him was as hollow as the deepest pit in hell.
BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
It was born in these broken nights. Vimes calls it the Beast, the unquenchable rage at injustice asking for retribution. According to him, the only thing that stops the Beast was his badge, a shield that protects him from himself. Because if he gives in to the Beast and let it have its brand of justice then it’s not justice at all. True justice has a human face.
Despite what Vimes says, he loves his city and the people in it. He is familiar with their weaknesses and knows in his heart that those are his weaknesses too. And he knows that they try hard to be better. If only they would be left alone in their crafts and trades, if only they are free to do the small and petty crimes (his favorites) instead of scheming big revolutions.
And in the tradition of the best Terry Pratchett characters, Sam Vimes found a way to accept the Beast not as a weakness but as the fuel to keep running long after everyone have given up.
BLACK HAT DAY
Today, Discworld fans all over the world would don their black hats (metaphorically for some), pin sprig of lilac on their lapels, and whisper cryptic messages (Ook!/The Turtle Moves) to the world. Born 28th of April 1948, Terry Pratchett will be remembered for his wit and humanism.
I’ll never forget the moment I fell in love with Discworld. It was in the preface for Guards! Guards!
“They may be called the Palace Guards, the City Guard or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attach the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.
This book is dedicated to them.”