Wasps in the Beehive

This is going to be about Terry Pratchett. But it will also be about the much more trivial matter of who rules us and what we can do about it.

Due to the things I want to say, there will certainly be spoilers, particularly about the Terry Pratchett novels “Guards! Guards!”, “Witches Abroad” and “Lords and Ladies.” If you haven’t read these and don’t want to be told the plots right now, please don’t read on.

I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett ever since 1988, when the fifth Discworld novel, “Sourcery”, came out. At first, what I loved about his stuff was the sheer funniness of it. The jokes had panache and style. Most of all, perhaps, it was very apparent that he was having a whole lot of fun in the writing – which is, both then and now, a pretty rare thing.

As each new book came out – and it must be remembered that for a long while this happened twice a year, an amazing rate to be producing work of such high and increasing quality – well, as I say, as each new book came out, it was as if he were discovering new vistas to the range of his powers. One could almost hear him saying, “Oh, it turns out I can do THIS… Now how would it be if I tried THAT as well?… Oh, wow!”

And it quickly became clear that as well as jokes he could, and would, also do more “serious” things.

Now at this point I’m running up against the oddities of language which act against comedy. Because if I say that his comedy gained “depth” and “seriousness”, that definitely implies the comedy became less funny, which isn’t the case. Applying comedy to real life doesn’t kill comedy. It changes the laugh, that’s all.

I should probably be terribly careful about the words I use, but I can’t be bothered. Let’s just take it as read that “seriousness” can also be an ingredient in comedy, and move on.

One of the “serious” themes that Terry Pratchett has come back to again and again is the problem of the corrupt and evil absolute ruler, and specifically how to get rid of them.

In “Guards! Guards!” (1989) the city of Ankh-Morpork is taken over by a fire-breathing, people-eating dragon, summoned from another dimension by a feeble-cunning schemer called Lupine Wonse, who believes he will be able to control the thing he has called. Of course I would not dream of suggesting that Lupine Wonse reminds me of anyone in public life today.

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The dragon first terrorises the city and then becomes its King. Wonse discusses the situation with the civic leaders. The dragon needs tribute: gold for its pile. It also needs feeding….

“The silence purred at them as Wonse talked. They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought: one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapproved, because at a time like this it behooves all decent men to nearly stand up and be almost heard…”

And so it is that the Dragon quite suddenly flips in the people’s minds from being the enemy of the city, attacking it and flaming its citizens, to its revered (or, what is practically the same thing, feared) ruler. The dragon itself is puzzled when Wonse suggests it doesn’t actually need to threaten people with its flames in order to rule: people will give it their gold, even sacrifice to it their monthly virgin, of their own free will. Wonse tells the dragon:

“And in good time, they’ll come to believe it was their own idea. It’ll be a tradition. Take it from me. We humans are adaptable creatures.”

The dragon gave him a long, blank stare.

“In fact,” said Wonse, trying to keep the trembling out of his voice, “before too long, if someone comes along and tells them that a dragon king is a bad idea, they’ll kill him themselves.”

The dragon blinked.

For the first time Wonse could remember, it seemed uncertain.

“I know people, you see,” said Wonse, simply.

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This is the thing, the recurring idea from Terry Pratchett that has kept coming back to me all through these last few years. While the dragon remains outside the power structure, it is the enemy. But once it gets through, and becomes, however grotesquely and horribly, the “King”, it has become at some group psychological level “one of us” and it is as if we are powerless to resist.

In “Lords and Ladies” (1992), the kingdom of Lancre is invaded by evil elves and they threaten to take over the kingdom altogether. The book makes a metaphorical connection between this and beekeeping:

“That was the thing about bees. They always guarded the entrance to the hive, with their lives if necessary. But wasps were adept at finding the odd chink in the woodwork around the back somewhere and the sleek little devils’d be in and robbing the hive before you knew it. Funny. The bees in the hive’d let them do it, too. They guarded the entrance, but if a wasp found another way in, they didn’t know what to do.”

Yes, it does sometimes feel as if Terry Pratchett were somehow satirising this, our era of Trump and Brexit, 20 or 25 years before it happened. The wasps, the dragons, have taken over.

This has nothing to do with politics. You don’t need to be a liberal “snowflake” to see and hear with your own eyes and ears the nature of Donald Trump. You don’t need to be of the cosmopolitan liberal elite to notice the naked lies and corruption that have characterised the Brexit project from the beginning.

But, even granted the prophetic nature of Terry Pratchett’s books, the question still follows: What can we do about it? It’s all very well saying it’s is a remarkable prediction of the fix we are in, but does he also give any clues as to how to get out? In the two tales I have mentioned, the narrative conclusions are not much use to us: battles, slayings, a last-minute romance for the dragon. They make for satisfying endings, but it would be unwise for us to rely on them in our own circumstances.

It is comforting too to imagine that we will be saved a Pratchettian hero – a Sam Vimes or a Granny Weatherwax. But they are, of course, fantasy figures: who we would be if we had the cojones. Which reminds me… here’s another passage from “Lords and Ladies”:

“Magrat stuck the sword in the mud and hefted the battleaxe….

“She knew there was such a thing as heroic odds. Songs and ballads and stories and poems were full of stories about one person single-handedly taking on and defeating a vast number of enemies.

“Only now was it dawning on her that the trouble was that they were songs and ballads and stories and poems because they dealt with things that were, not to put too fine a point on it, untrue.”

But let’s turn to “Witches Abroad” (1991). It’s a story about the power of stories, and especially of fairy stories. Pratchett knew all about the power of stories; they were his bread and butter. They provide solace. They give power to the powerless. They give hope. They can also, in the hands of the powerful, be a very effective means of controlling people.

Even when you know you’re being manipulated by a story into ignoring certain obvious facts, you still feel the story’s power which can be impossible to resist.

(For instance, after the 2016 Brexit Referendum there were calls to revoke Article 50, or to annul the Referendum; and there were good reasons to do so – the Referendum’s advisory nature, the closeness of the result, the lies told, the overspending, the manipulations, the corruption. But all the same, there was a strong narrative feeling that it was “too late” – you can’t close Pandora’s box, you can’t turn back the clock. These were narrative reasons and not really logical, but they were powerful all the same. And now it really is too late.)

In “Witches Abroad”, in the far-off city of Genua, a witch, a fairy godmother, uses stories to wield power. Cinderella, the Frog Prince, the Sleeping Beauty, all become mixed up in a narrative that cannot be assailed because it is so strong. The fact that the result will not be happy for anyone concerned is an irrelevance.

“Lily is using them,” said Granny. “Don’t you see that? You can feel it in this whole country. The stories collect round here because here’s where they find a way out. She feeds ’em…. She wants the girl to marry the prince because that’s what the story demands.”

The “story” is heading towards a “happy ever after” which, in real and actual fact, is an awful manipulation of the “Cinderella” figure of the tale (here called Emberella). In order to save Emberella from a happy ending worse than death, the “story” must be destroyed. (Brexit is the Will of the People. Brexit is a golden opportunity to unleash Britain’s potential which has been shackled too long in the chains of Europe. Sunlit Uplands! Hurrah!)

But the story is too strong to be destroyed willy-nilly. You have to know how to do it, at just the right moment where the story is amenable to change. Yes, indeed. Every story has a “crisis”, a moment of reversal, perhaps several. It is at this moment that the story is vulnerable to change.

Granny Weatherwax finds the right moment: “All stories had a turning point, and it had to be close… The story whipped along like a steel hawser. She gripped it.” I said I was going to give spoilers, but this moment is really too good for me to give much away. If you need details, read the wonderful, brilliant book.

Yes, that’s the way to fight back: see the story that is being told us, and find the amenable moment to wrest it from the other side’s power and to tell our own story, which is closer to the actual reality of things.

There have been moments aplenty in the past few years when the Brexit story could have been seized on the Remain side; especially during the period when we had a hung Parliament, and the Government’s slender majority leaked away to nothing and beyond. Those moments have been lost now, in spite of everything. Maybe another chance will come again, but if it does, there will have to be an Opposition wily enough to know what to do and (crucially) when.

In America, the story is approaching a new turning point with the upcoming election; again, the right moment will only be seized if the opposition knows exactly when and how to do it.

We don’t need a Sam Vimes or a Granny Weatherwax, though should either happen to come along, they would do very nicely. We just need people in opposition who are good enough.

Oh, this has gone on too long. I’ll wrap it all up like this. Back in the 1990s, it was a common observation that young people in the UK (and in the US too?) were only reading Terry Pratchett. This was often assumed to be a bad thing. Perhaps it’s easier to see these days that his works are more complex, sophisticated, and downright good than many noticed at the time. But the major point is that, if the rumours were true, there is now a whole generation steeped in his works and their attitudes, and 25 years on they are in exactly the right place right now to see Trump, and Johnson, and all the rest of them, and to know exactly what they are looking at; and, perhaps, to have an inkling of how to respond.

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3 Comments

    1. Thank you! Coincidentally, I was just reading a speech given by Pratchett in which he recommended new readers of his stuff *not* to start at the beginning of the Discworld novels. Maybe “Guards! Guards!” would be a good way in (even though I’ve spoilt the plot for you)….

      Liked by 1 person

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