April 24, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #24: The Fifth Elephant


Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s delightful Discworld series, one book at a time.

Today’s entry is on the 24th book, The Fifth Elephant.

First Appearance:  Angua’s extended family, the Igor who joins the Watch, clacks towers

Introduced to Discworld:  Justice to Uberwald

Plot:  There’s an old dwarf legend on the Discworld on how there was once a fifth elephant on the back of the world turtle.  This elephant misstepped one day, flew into orbit around the Disc, and then crash landed on the world, causing the continents to form.  Whether it’s true or not is beside the point.  What is the point is the dwarves of Uberwald have some very valuable fat mines that Ankh-Morpork would love to get a good trade deal for.

They also have a legend about the Scone of Stone, an artifact of dwarf bread that allows the dwarves to pass the throne along from one Low King to another.  There’s a replica in the Ankh-Morpork Dwarf Bread Museum that goes missing.  Shortly thereafter, the owner-operator of a provolactive factory is found dead.

Normally, these sorts of baffling crimes would fall to Sir Sam Vimes to solve.  But, he can’t.  Vimes is named ambassador to Uberwald for the new Low King’s coronation by the Patrician.  Vimes isn’t really diplomatic material, and he knows it.  Sure, his wife was involved and probably just wanted Sam to get a nice vacation, but Lord Vetinari never just makes decisions like that based on a whim.  So, Vimes is off to Uberwald with his wife, Constable Littlebottom (a dwarf) and Sergeant Detritus (a troll), plus a civil servant who turns out to be a trained Assassin.  Angua was supposed go since her family are the local werewolf nobles in that part of Uberwald, but she disappears.

Captain Carrot would then be in charge, but he finds Angua’s goodbye note and decides to go after her, taking only Gaspode the talking dog with him as a tracker.  That leaves Fred Colon in charge of the Watch…and that is probably a really bad idea.

What Vimes finds when he arrives is plotting for the dwarf throne, bad behavior from Angua’s brother Wolfgang, and one Lady Margolotta, a vampire with some sort of agenda he can’t wrap his finger around.  Can Vimes figure out several crimes going on all at once while still getting Ankh-Morpork the fat rights he was sent to get in the first place?

Commentary:  This book may have had one of the densest plots so far.  The main plot would be the various crimes involving the Scone of Stone, and Vimes’ efforts to solve them, all while being both far from home and being a diplomat, something he has no interest in or as far as he is concerned ability to do well.  Meanwhile, there’s the ongoing Carrot/Angua plot.  That one actually saw some development of which I will say more in a minute.  There’s even a bit on what’s going on back home with the obviously unqualified Fred Colon named acting Captain and the rest of the Watch forming a Guild to go on strike under the leadership of Nobby Nobbs.  That’s not getting into Lady Sybil’s announcement to her husband (Sam Jr. is on his way), dwarf politics, werewolf traditions, and just what a scattered, messed-up place Uberwald is.

I think that may have hurt the book a bit.  When the witches dealt with Uberwald in Carpe Jugulum, the plot was unified in a way that The Fifth Elephant is not.  Yes, many of the various plot threads (even the Colon/Nobbs thing) do somewhat come together in the end, but for most of the book the story ranges all over.  This is also one of those books that seems to keep going well past when it should have.

Most of the focus is given to Sam Vimes dealing with dwarves, vampires, and werewolves.  Mostly the dwarves and the werewolves.  Vimes is typically depicted as a guy with strong opinions towards non-human races, who gradually learns to be less that over the course of a given book.  There’s even humor involved when Colon tosses off lines about dwarves and trolls in the Watchhouse and doesn’t understand why he’s saying the sorts of things Vimes says all the time but manages to not get in the slightest bit of trouble for it, but for Colon it causes various Watchmen to quit the force.  Vimes is not a diplomat, but his plain-talking ways do work in these sorts of diplomatic situations, as seen in Jingo.

But the real problem is that Vimes is a copper above all, so if there’s funny stuff going on, he’s going to undercover it and solve the case.

And then there’s Carrot doing something we’ve never seen before:  he acts out of love for an individual, and for once he’s rather bad at something.  Carrot is a decent, strong, noble person, who could be a king if he really desired it.  Even with Gaspode acting as a tracker, he goes into a cold, wild land without sufficient food or clothing, and then tries to actually punch out Angua’s homicidal brother Wolfgang.  These things end poorly for him, and while his basic good nature never changes, it is clear that Carrot wouldn’t survive on his own for very long in Uberwald.  What he does do, though, is show a new side to himself.  He makes a promise to Angua to do what is necessary if she ever goes the same way her crazy brother does, and further shows a knack for subterfuge re-establishing order in the Watchhouse when he gets back before Vimes does.

Much of the main theme for this novel comes down to traditional values, and when they don’t work.  The werewolves hold themselves as superior because of the Lore.  The dwarves have their own traditions, and the new Low King may be the one to break them.  And while Pratchett often shows new ways as being silly when the old ways work fine, that may not be the case here.  The clacks towers, machines designed to send messages over long distances, are pushing into Uberwald, making the wild people of that place start to see things like the people of Ankh-Morpork.  That means the rule of law instead of the rule of lore.  That means everyone wants to emigrate to Ankh-Morpork (including three old sisters clearly set up to parody the better known works of Anton Chekov for the more literary types reading Pratchett’s work).  Cheery Littlebottom, the female dwarf that actually wears dresses and make-up (while still having the long beard of all dwarves), plays a role in this when jealousy of actually looking female erupts in the fat mines.  Detritus is there, too, but mostly for comic relief whenever his massive crossbow is brought into play.

The lessons are not one-sided, though.  As much as the people of Uberwald learn from Ankh-Morpork, Vimes gets some valuable lessons on belief and tradition.  And hey, Sybil’s pretty handy to have when negotiating with monarchs.

NEXT BOOK:  We have a one-off novel, describing the first newspaper to appear in Ankh-Morpork.  Appropriately, I still have my paper copy of this one.  Be back sometime soon for The Truth.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites



Wyrd Sisters


Guards! Guards!


Moving Pictures

Reaper Man

Witches Abroad

Small Gods

Lords and Ladies

Men at Arms

Soul Music

Interesting Times


Feet of Clay



The Last Continent

Carpe Jugulum