Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and Duke of Ankh, thought that things were bad enough when he was forced to go to Überwald, a largely wild territory, on a diplomatic mission. That was before he found himself entangled in a plot to spark the dwarf equivalent of a holy war, not to mention running in the frozen wastelands of Überwald with werewolves on his trail.
The plot concerns the appointment of a new Low King of the dwarfs. It is a controversial choice and the cause of a rift in the dwarf community. Lord Vetinari sends Vimes as an ambassador along with Detritus and Corporal Littlebottom; the idea being trolls and dwarfs are ethnic majorities in Überwald, where the Low King resides. Littlebottom is not a typical dwarf, as she displays being female and even wears a dress, which is highly offensive to conservative dwarf society. Accompanying them as both guard and spy is Inigo Skimmer, a scholarship boy from the Assassins Guild.
Once in Überwald Vimes finds his relationships with dwarfs, vampires and werewolves very different from the ones he experiences back home. He also finds the 'Scone of Stone' (a large piece of dwarf bread the Low King must be crowned on) has been stolen. Perhaps there is a link to the recent theft of a replica of the Scone in Ankh-Morpork, and the murder of a manufacturer of prophylactics in that city. Vimes must use his detective skills to solve the mystery of the Scone while trying to stay alive. Having Lady Sybil with him is an education for both of them. Sybil sees the Sam Vimes who inhabits a world of criminals and still comes home with a (relatively) clean soul and Sam sees that Sybil is resourceful in the face of danger. After some failed attempts, Sybil finally manages to tell her husband that he's going to be a father.
A sub-plot involves Carrot Ironfoundersson and Gaspode going in search of Carrot's werewolf girlfriend Angua. The simultaneous absence of both Vimes and Carrot from the city watch requires one of the existing watchmen to be promoted. Sergeant Fred Colon is the senior officer, and so is made Acting Captain. Colon is not comfortable being a leader, and deals with the position very badly, becoming excessively strict and paranoid as the Watch crumbles around him.
The novel gives more detail on werewolf society, including the concept of yennorks, werewolves who cannot shapeshift, and are permanently in human or animal form. It also explores the society of dwarfs on the Disc, introducing the 'drudak'ak' (which roughly translates as "they who do not get out in the fresh air much"), conservative dwarfs who are the keepers and interpreters of dwarf law.
Popular References: Edit
The title of the Fifth Elephant comes from the Fifth Element, the 1997 movie by Luc Besson set in the 23rd century involving the recovery of four mystical stones essential for the defence of Earth. In Pratchett's novel the plot involves the recovery of the Scone of Stone, essential to the coronation of the Low King of the Dwarfs. In classical science, the fifth element is ether (the other four are air, fire, earth and water). In The Fifth Elephant the fifth element seems to be fat, since that is what the fifth elephant produced when it hit the earth in Uberwald.
In the opening paragraph, Pratchett says, "They say that elephants, being such huge beasts, have bone of rock and iron, and nerves of gold for better conductivity over long distances:. In the real world, elephants can communicate over long distances subsonically.
"When millions of tons of angry elephant come spinning through the sky and there is no one to hear it, does it...make a noise?" is a joke about the old philosophical questions, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?"
Sergeant Colon, as head of traffic police is installing the equivalent of a traffic speed camera on a pole using an iconograph. The clamp on the horse and cart is clearly a Denver boot.
All (as in, 'is that all Jolson") Jolson's name is based on Al Jolson, the American singer and actor who at the peak of his career was dubbed 'the world's greatest entertainer.'
The riot in Cable Street is a reference to the Battle of Cable Street, a riot started between Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and anti-fascist protesters in 1936. It was a seminal point in British history in stopping Britain from swinging in the direction that Germany was taking, drawing attention to the underlying violence of the fascist movement and forcing the government to take action against its rise. In Maskerade, Pratchett uses a group called the Cable Street Particulars as a pseudo-police force like the Baker Street Irregulars in Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Pratchett continues this theme in his later work, Night Watch.
Agi Hammerthief (the dwarf equivalent of Sweet Fanny Adams) is likely named after the Hammersmith company Agi Solutions. The term Sweet Fanny Adams for Sweet Fuck All has a macabre origin in the British navy from 1869 when tinned mutton rations were introduced. The sailors, who were not impressed called them FannyAdams after a little girl who had been murdered and dismembered a couple of years earlier - the suggestion being that they were her remains. The term eventually broadened to mean any useless or worthless thing.
The name of the country of Borogravia is a combination of the word "borogrove" from Lewis Carrol's poem The Jabberwocky, with the line "all mimsy were the borogroves" and "Belgravia" a district in west London. Interest in the resources of Uberwald could be compared to the interest in the western economies in the former Iron Curtain countries after the collapse of communism. Certainly Borgravia has many parallels to Romania, including a similar warlike national anthem.
The line, Uberwald remains a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma.'" is a minor paraphrase of Churchill's quote regarding Russia. "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key." Pratchett plays with this theme in Men At Arms as well.
The crowning of the Low Kings has obvious parallels to Britain, Ireland and Scotland before they became nations. B'hrian Bloodaxe, is clearly a take off on Brian Boru (c.940-1014) who was the most famous of the Irish High Kings. Brian Bloodaxe, was the name of a platforms 'n ladders style computer game for the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, etc. in the mid-1980s.
The Scone of Stone is an obvious reference to the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny on which the Scottish stone and later British rulers are crowned. Both it and its Round World counterpart were stolen by nationalists to return it to its rightful place in its country of origin. The name makes a natural parody for the dwarfs since a scone is a type of baked good and they make stone hard bread to use as food and weapons. The Round World version is kept in the ruins of Scone Abbey in Scone, Scotland. The actual theft is referred to as a stupid crime because as Vimes points out, "other people would notice if you had a great rock up your jumper." In the Round World, the thieves did in fact get away without being caught. Pratchett says that dwarf bread is more forged than baked because it is so rock hard. This is a play on words and foreshadowing because later in the novel it is clear that the Scone of Stone has been forged - ie is a forgery or fake.
Twurp's Peerage is the directory of all the nobility of Ankh-Morpork and its satellites, describing their lineage and titles. On Roundworld the catalogue of English nobility is Burke's Peerage.
Vimes can "parallel process" which is Pratchett's take on a male equivalent of the female saw regarding "multi-tasking". In parallel processing, the male can think of other more interesting things while they are listening to and carrying on a conversation with their wives.
The dwarf Watch member, Cheery Littlebottom's coming out and wearing women's clothing instead of dressing in chain mail, has obvious parallels to members of the LGBGTQ movement in "coming out of the closet."
"An open and shut case, sir" says Cheery after the theft of the Scone of Stone, a play on the concept of the case being solved immediately and the fact that they thieves opened the window and didn't shut the door after they left.
Ping says that his name is "...s a dialect word meaning "watermeadow", sir.'" According to Terry, 'ping' is in fact a Cornish dialect word meaning 'watermeadow'.
The line, the conservative sector of the dwarfs "...act as if B'hrian Bloodaxe was still alive. That's why we call them drudak'ak." could be said about any of the traditional, ultra-orthodox religious sectst in Roundworld, like Chassidic Jews, the Amish, Fundamentalist Islam, etc.
The Baroness Serafine says that Vimes is "...a paper man. A man of straw. An insult." A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. Someone who uses this type of argument is said to be "attacking a straw man" which Baroness Serafine plans to do against Vimes. She refers to Vimes as a "thief taker" which in English legal history, was a private individual hired to capture criminals in the days before the establishment of professional police. Serafine's name comes from Hebrew and relates to the Seraphyms. It means fiery one.
Serafina tells her husband that it is after six and to change when he comes in from the garden, a reference to the higher classes changing for dinner but in this case, changing from his wolf to human form.
To re-enforce the habits of the upper class, Pratchett has Vimes throw Skinner a piece of fruit, which the latter interprets as an upper class habit and is "mildly appalled at the upper class's habit of fruit-hurling."
The packet of "Sonkies" is obviously a packet of condoms as tonkie is slang for a condom.
Leonard de Quirm (Leonardo da Vinci) invents a machine that makes, 'Very fast coffee.' a very obvious pun on an Espresso.
Vimes talks about going on a "Grand Sneer" in his youth, an activity patterned after the young nobles from the 1600s to mid 1800s who took a Grand Tour of the continent upon reaching the age of majority and very similar to the current practice of traveling for cultural enrichment, taking a break for a vacation or to do volunteer work in a gap year before entering university or grad school- almost a rite of passage. In New Zealand this is known as "doing an OE" (Overseas experience).
When Vimes is reviewing his notes for his trip ,"The first page showed the crest of the Unholy Empire [...]" an allusion to both Holy Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. Tsar Ivan "the Terrible" supposedly nailed some visiting Turkish ambassadors' turbans to their heads when he felt they did not show him the proper respect and the same story is told of Vlad the Impaler 'Dracula': Supposedly, the Venetian ambassadors failed to take their skullcaps off before him explaining that they had special dispensation saying that they were allowed to keep their heads covered even in the presence of the Pope, whereupon Vlad had the caps nailed to their heads.) The coat of arms of the Unholy Empire is "a double-headed bat." The coat of arms of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, sported the black double-headed eagle, which is also seen, in different colours, in other Eastern European heraldry such as the Austria-Hungary coat of arms and on the Albanian flag. All these references point to Pratchett connecting Uberwald with the Imperial power of Eastern Europe. The Pass of WIlinus is the entrance on the border of Uberwald just as Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) is an entrance on the border to Russia.
Schmaltzberg means "Fat mountain" in German. Schmaltz is rendered chicken or goose fat. It has also come to mean excessively sentimental or cheesy.
The line that "'Silver has not been mined in Uberwald since the Diet of Bugs in AM 1880 [...]'" is an obvious play on words with the political meeting of the Diet of Worms -meaning meeting at Worms (the town) not meal of bugs. During this meeting Martin Luther was ordered to defend his Reformist teachings against Pope Leo X's threat of excommunication. When he refused to recant, he was banished and declared to be an outlaw as per the Edict of Worms. This is also an important piece of foreshadowing since silver bullets are used to kill werewolves so werewolf nobility would be keen on banning its use.
"Chicken Lake." is clearly a take of on the production of Swan Lake.
When Visit is feeding the birds he says"'And you shall have some corn, provided locally by Josiah Frument and Sons [...]'" 'Frument' means grain (from the Latin 'frumentum'). Frumenty (porridge made from wheat) was an important medieval and Renaissance peasant staple. Pratchett adds that "[...] he was making headway with the religious instruction of the pigeons." which is a reference to St Francis of Assisi, who preached to the birds and is usually depicted with them on his arms.
Carrot says in regards to Angua, "it's really quite stressful, being a werewolf in a big city." a reference to Warren Zevon's song Werewolves of London.
Carrot sets off to look for Angua at the Shambling Gate. All the gates to the city have names that are puns. In this case the reference is to walking with a shuffling step or shambling gait.
The clack towers sending and receiving messages to and from far of places is a reference to the advances in communications and commerce in the Round World today with moblie phones, the internet and on-line commerce. This theme plays an important part in Pratchett's next novel "The Truth"
The town of Scant Cullot" is a play on the French word culotte which is a pair of panties, pants, or knickers. In other words, almost naked.
Colon mentions that "officering" is easy "once you got the bull between your teeth." Mixed metaphors are a longstanding tradition in comedy to show stupidity. In this case the two metaphors are "take the bull by the horns" and "get the bit between your teeth."
Detritus's crossbow which fires multiple arrows is called the "Piecemaker" which is a take off on the Colt 45 Army revolver known as the Peacemaker.
In speaking about the wolf Gavin, Angua says that he doesn't pounce "on wandering kids or eat up the odd grandmother' a reference to Little Red Riding Hood. The theme is repeated later in the novel when Vimes escapes from underground.
The guards in Bonk wear a rainbow coloured uniform - rainbow colours being the symbol of the LGBGTQ movement.
The derogatory reference to dwarfs as "lawn ornaments" is an obvious comment on the Round World tendency to place plastic figures of the seven dwarfs on one's lawn as a decoration. Pratchett uses this term throughout his works.
The dwarf king responds to Vimes comment about moving with the times with the words, "... always Ankh-Morport times". Perhaps it was while he was writing these lines, that Pratchett thought of the idea for the newspaper, The Ankh-Morpork Times, used in his next book The Truth. Whatever the case, the line is very appropos given the tendency in the Round World of empires throughout history to insist that other countries conform to their standards - most recently in the case of the British Empire and the American Empire.
The knockermen in the dwarf mines were "dead dwarfs walking" an obvious illusion to "dead man walking" which originally was a term for a condemned man walking to his execution and now means anyone facing an unavoidable fate. Later in the novel, when Vimes is lying in the hot springs and is confronted by Wolf he refers to himself as a "dead man bathing."
"Bulls Blood" is a Hungarian full bodied red wine but in the vampire castle it is the real thing.
"And I might be the Fairy Clinkerbell" is an obvious reference to Tinkerbell from James Barrie's Peter Pan. A 'clinker' is the residue left over from burning coal - like cinders - so there is also a Cinderella link.
"'It is a shame to waste good food,' said Vimes, 'Think of those poor starving children in Muntab.'" The refrain, "think of the poor starving children in (fill in the blank - Biafra, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc) has been used to get children to finish the food on their plates for decades.
Badger and Normal are an Ankh-Morpork pyrotechnics company that makes the "Mortar Flare (Red), Light Fuse. Don not Place in Mouth". These instructions are so typical of the inane warnings required on packaging to avoid legal responsibility if someone who is intent on winning the Darwin Award does the moronic.
Nobby and his Watchmen present the stereotypical image of workers on strike - the long list of demands, the chant "What do we want, when do we want it, etc" the burning barrel to stand around keeping warm.
Vimes and his dwarf escort cross an underground lake lit with candles which is very reminiscent of the scene in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, The Phantom of the Opera.
Bloodaxe and Ironhammer is a dwarf opera about the love story of B'hrian Bloodaxe and Ironhammer, who forged the Scone of Stone. There have been two operas about the Roundworld source of B'hrian Bloodaxe which is the Celtic hero Brian Boru - Brian Boroihme (1810) by Johann Bernhard Logier (1777–1846) and Brian Boru (1896) by Julian Edwards (1855–1910).
"Where has all the Custard Gone (Jelly's just nut the same)" is a parody of the anti-war song "Where have all the Flowers Gone, " by American folk singer, Pete Seeger.
After the opera in the reception, the chandelier falls on the assembly, reminiscent of the fall of the chandelier in the Phantom of the Opera. In Pratchett's earlier work, Maskerade which uses the Phantom of the Opera theme, the chandelier doesn't fall - almost as if it has waited for this book to complete its function.
Vimes thinks, "It was amazing how the evidence could stack up against you when people wanted it to" a sentiment expressed by everyone wrongfully convicted of a crime.
The Marquis of Fantailler and his rules of pugilism is an obvious take off on the Marquis of Queensbury. Fant means Ghost in French and aille is garlic. Fant Ailler is also a form of fancy.
Wolf proposes a chase with Vimes the 'great game". The Great Game in the Round World was a political and diplomatic battle between the British and Russian Empires over the Central Asian territories north of India (specifically Afghanistan). There are also parallels to the obscene practice among Russian noblemen of hunting down serfs (peasants) for sport with their borzois (wolf hounds).
The scene with the three sisters is a take off on the Checkhov 1901 play 1901 Three Sisters, complete with the misunderstanding, pregnant pauses and typical Checkhov seeming inaction while much is actually happening. The line, "'If we moved to Bonk [...]'" is a play on the fact that the three provincial sisters in the Chekhov play are always remembering their past in Moscow, but only the younger sister is the one with the idea and desire to get out. Mother Uberwald is clearly Mother Russia. The line, "if we cut down the cherry orchard we could put in a roller-skating rink-" is a reference to another Checkhov play, The Cherry Orchard. Pratchett then has them say, 'We have the gloomy and purposeless trousers of Uncle Vanya,' which is a reference to yet of Checkhov's plays, Uncle Vanya which is "Gloomy and purposeless" like most of Chekhov. The Russian word is "toska" -- a sort of weary, faded ennui. Uncle Vanya's trousers, interestingly enough, are not actually featured in either of Chekhov's plays. As Pratchett pointed out on
"Well, yes. Vimes got them."
Death appears as Vimes is heading over the waterfall even though his death is not certain because he is conforming to the latest trend, the uncertainty principle. In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known. Introduced first in 1927, by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, it states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.
"He wanted to beat his chest and scream" - shades of Tarzan of the Apes.
The ancient animals preserved in fat is reminiscent of the la Brer tarp pits where animals were preserved in hot tar. Here they are "battered to death" a play on deep fried and beaten to death.
When they approach the gate, Angua says to the Colonesque watchman who hasn't seen her sneak up on him, "You didn't hear me arrive, did you: Just nod." Pink Floyd says in their song, Comfortably Numb "Just nod if you can hear me".
Captain Tantony's name comes from the term Tantony Pig - the smallest pig in the litter a corruption of St. Anthony the patron saint of swineherds.
Pratchett plays with the concept of troops/police/watchment "just following orders" which was the common refrain from the Nazi's in regard to their atrocities. In this case, Detritus refuse Vimes order to shoot Tantony in cold blood and says, "you can do wid dat order what Boulder der lintel did wid his bag of gravel, sir!' A lintel is a beam above a window or door frame - in castles and stone buildings it is made of stone, like trolls.
The Baroness says to Sybil, "If your husband is alive, we can soon do something about it", meaning kill him, not save hims as Sybil is led to believe.
Sybil doesn't like the way Serafina refers to the dwarfs as "subhuman". This is shades of the Nazi term 'Untermensch', used to describe all non-Aryan people. The word 'Untermensch' literally means 'under man' which a dwarf literally is.
Vimes says to Detritus - "Blow the bloody doors off!" which Detritus does with great gusto. This line is a play on the movie The Italian Job where, instead of just opening the safe they blow up the van, after which they say, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!".
The line 'Ah, yes... "joy through strength".' is similar in form to the slogans used by Nazi Germany, such as "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Brings Freedom"), infamously used above the entrances of various Nazi concentration camps. "Strength through Joy" ("Kraft durch Freude") was the name of a large German National Socialist labour organisation, which provided affordable leisure activities for its members such as concerts and cruises. Early prototypes of the Volkswagen Beetle were in fact known as KdF-Wagen.
The scene where Gaspode howls over Gavin's death is reminiscent of Jack London's novel Call of the Wild.
Throughout this and other novels, Pratchett plays with werewolves behaving like dogs even in human form; not liking baths, rolling in questionable substances, lying on the hearth rug, ripping their food apart, being unable to resist playing fetch (even if the thing they are fetching is a fireworks that will kill them). In the end, Vimes "puts him (Wolf) down" rather than kills him - a veterinarian term for euthanize.
When Vimes has his showdown with Wolf, Pratchett plays with the kind of well-known movie catchphrases which the hero always says when confronting the villain - of the "Make my day" variety. "Son of a Bitch" is a common one most famously used by John Wayne in True Grit. "Welcome to Civilization" is similar to the Mad Max quote, "Welcome to the Thunderdome". "Laugh this one off" has been used in various forms in many movies and TV shows. In this novel, one of the lines Vimes considers is "Fetch".
Pratchett uses the old saw about the original axe that has had 20 new handles and a dozen new blades as a foil for the Scone of Stone - the original long replaced. The king gives Vimes an axe for his child which he expects will also have many handles and many blades over the course of its lifetime.
Pratchett's uses the line "the world wasn't moved by heroes or villains or even by policemen. It might as well be moved by symbols....you couldn't hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just be able to achieve some tiny deed that'd make the world, in a small way a better place". This is a counter to the "big man theory" which Pratchett skewers by saying, "like shooting someone". Given all the references to the Nazis in the book, perhaps Pratchett is thinking about the world if someone had shot Hitler (or any of the other despots for that matter).
The newest Igor brings his experiments with him when he joins Vimes and Vimes says about one of them, "'Is that why he's got human ears all over his back?' 'Early experiment, thur.' replies Igor. This is a reference to a famous tissue engineering experiment done at MIT, in which a biodegradable, ear-shaped scaffold was impregnated with human cartilage cells, and then successfully grafted onto the back of a mouse. The resulting picture of the living mouse with the ear-like structure on his back became very well known, although the story is often misconstrued as involving genetic engineering or the transplantation of an actual human ear, neither of which was the case. The scene also has overtones to Nazi experiments during WWII.