Chris is reading Men at Arms
Except really, really really not. At all.
In fact, Sam Vimes would loathe Bruce Wayne/Batman. Some wealthy bastard experiences the nasty side of society and decides that means he gets to throw out all rules and accountability, unilaterally running around beating the crap out of people without any oversight? Bugger that. Sam Vimes would make hunting the bastard down and sticking him in jail his life’s work.
In fact, Sam Vimes, and the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, is an emphatic and direct rejection of the entire set of values of superheroes. It’s outright and explicit: there’s even a discussion about it in The Last Hero between Vetinari and the leader of the Historian’s Guild, about how heroes are in fact the antithesis of everything that society stands for and everything it means – including the rule of law, real law, law that applies to everyone, including the rich, powerful and psychologically wounded.
Bruce Wayne is an incredibly privileged, wealthy, powerful man who, in response to personal tragedy decided that the law didn’t work, that civil society was broken, and the only thing to do about it was lurk around in the shadows assaulting people, breaking and entering, enacting illegal surveillance, etc, etc, etc.
Sam Vimes grew up “too poor to waste dirt” (Feet of Clay), got the shit kicked out of him by life, joined the Watch, got the shit kicked out of him by life again, was forced to watch bad things happen over and over again and be powerless to stop them because the rich and powerful decided that they didn’t have to follow the law (that they could remake it and ignore it as they pleased, order justice “like coal” when they wanted it and send the Watch to the servants’ entrance), to the point where the depression drove him to severe alcoholism and despair.
And then, when it really looked like any semblance of civil order and society was being thrown out, because now the city was under the heel of a dragon and there wasn’t any law, “except ‘you’ll get burned alive if you don’t’” (Guards! Guards!) he snapped. And kept snapping: when Carrot arrested the dragon it wouldn’t’ve meant much except that Vimes backed him up. Vimes took it further and arrested Wonce, trampling over the Patrician’s attempts to intervene.
And he drilled an idea right into Carrot’s head: nobody gets to act like a quote-unquote-hero. You don’t get to tell everyone what to do just because of who you are. That’s why kings are bad. Because of the idea of “kings” is above the law, the idea that “kings” are somehow a special type of person, not subject to all the same things as all other people. That somehow when a king is a murdering abusive bastard you can’t walk into the palace and arrest him. And he drilled that into Carrot’s head so well that when Carrot realizes he could be that kind of king, he’s distressed, and disturbed, and makes damn sure nobody can ever prove it by burying all the evidence, and refusing the command of the Watch.
Sam Vimes’ moments of victory are all about the validation, the victory of civil and common law. Over privilege, over warfare, over bigotry, over vengeance, even over violence and absolute lawlessness. He is a servant of the City and a servant of the Law, and the Law arises from the City, from the society and civilization that creates it, and it applies to everyone, from Patrician to slum-dweller, human, dwarf, troll, golem, undead and goblin alike. The point of every single Watch book is the increase of the jurisdiction and protection of that law: over the dragon and its master, over the Assassin’s Guild and stupid politics and over Carrot, over the secret backbiting political landscape of power (see: Dragon King at Arms) and over the golems, over kings and leaders of army (one of the greatest triumphs of Sam Vimes’ life being arresting two armies under the charge of “conspiracy to make an affray” – also “loitering with intent” and “loitering within tent”*), to the ruler of the city (for treason), to a crazed werewolf and its related nobility, all the way to the top and all the way to the bottom of Ankh-Morpork, and even over the goblins, after centuries of being considered vermin.
Now note that this is a very high ideal of law, and real life fails it a lot (so much), and so does Discworld, but the entire point of Sam Vimes is that the answer to that is not to pull a Batman and throw out the idea of law and society, because that just makes everything worse, that just guarantees that all you’ve got is a bunch of gangs looking after their own via violent retribution; that what needs to be done is fix the system, fix it so that the law is there, and real, and there’s no private version of it, and it shields and holds accountable everyone.
Now, Vimes does this while being aware of how much people suck, which is a pretty amazing trick, really. What it tells you about him is that he’s actually a deeply, ridiculously loving and devoted human being, because he’s doing it without a single damn illusion. In Feet of Clay he says, “The common people? They’re nothing special. They’re no different from the rich and powerful except they’ve got no money or power. But the law should be there to even things up, so I guess I’ve got to be on their side.” [Emphasis mine.] In Night Watch, which is entirely from top to bottom a meditation on the place of law enforcement in civil society (spoilers: it is NOT on the side of the rich and powerful and NOT shielding cops just because they’re cops), Vimes notes to himself that the problem with revolutionaries like Reg Shoe is that they don’t realize that “the people” are actually petty, small-minded, conservative, untrusting, ungrateful, and not very bright and you have to deal with them from that place, while knowing what your duty is. Which is to be there to even things up.
There’s a reason that Night Watch ends, not with Carcer’s death, but with his arrest. “The machine ain’t broken, Carcer,” is what Vimes says, and he means society, law, civilization: that this isn’t a private grudgematch between him and Carcer, it’s society rejecting Carcer and all of his works, and Vimes is acting as a watchman, as an officer of the law, as part of the machine.
Not from the darkness. Not because he’s decided it’s time to dress up in a bat-mask and beat up criminals. Not because he’s Especially Smart and Righteous and Strong: but because he’s an officer of the law, and that’s his job, right out where people can see him, and answering for all of it.**
When he fights the Summoning Dark, what he fights it with are the rules of being a copper. Arrest, not kill; justice, not vengeance. Actual justice, out in the light, where justice has to be. He’s not a hero, he’s a servant, and that’s the shield he’s kept in front of him all his life.
*look sorry that’s just one of my favourite puns.
**for those who may be looking at Snuff and going “err, he kind of does a lot of law argy-bargy in this one … ”: so Snuff is actually a lengthy philosophical argument about natural versus positive law, and if those terms don’t ring a bell, I’ll let you hit’em up on wiki and learn exciting new things. Vimes is emphatically for natural law: murder is a crime, and the unjust killing of a person is murder and the story is over. Vetinari, having to run civilization, has to deal more carefully with issues of positive law, where the problem becomes “well yes but we didn’t legally DEFINE them as people at the time.” Vimes gives no fucks: they were people, it was murder, he acted on the law. That’s why Vetinari sent him. Vetinari is a sneaky fucker like that.
This is the best thing I’ve read in at least a month, probably more. FUCK YES.
I love Vimes, for his blunt, unapologetic moral stances even in the face of political expedience, personal prejudices, and the preferences of the powerful.
Ladies and Gentlemen and Others, Sam Vimes.
(and also Vetinari, who singled out Vimes way back when they were both fifteen, Vetinari who waited patiently for Vimes to grow into his skin and who probably forgot about him by the time he did, Vetinari who deliberately pushed Vimes to disobey him in favor of what’s right but underestimated his Lawfulness, Vetinari who did not let Vimes leave when the going was getting good, Vetinari who pushed and pushed Vimes to be braver and bolder, Vetinari who pretty much forced Vimes to arrest him in Jingo despite Vimes clinging to the tradition of him being above the law instead, Vetinari who knew exactly what he was doing and whom he was nurturing, Vetinari who is just as cynical as Vimes, Vetinari who didn’t want to be above the law at the end of the day either)