There’s a thing that really good authors do – and I don’t know what’s the word for it – they create something so clever, so unique, and so perfectly suited to the book in which they use it, that that little thing, that single element, becomes instantly memorable. It acts as a recurring theme as well as a distinct object with which the characters interact, and reminds you of an important event or idea in the story. Every time the author refers to it, you, the reader, will remember what it means.
Think of a “golden snitch”, and you know it’s “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling; a painting of a forbidding forest landscape, with a grouse on a tree stump – it’s “Wallander” by Henning Mankell; “Live long and prosper”, “mind melds”, and “Tribbles” – “Star Trek”, thought up by Gene Roddenberry; “Jedis”, “droids”, “The Force” and “Yoda” – “Star Wars” created by George Lucas; “Little grey cells” at work – Agatha Christie’s “Poirot”; “Melange Spice” – “Dune” by Frank Herbert; the “ruby slippers” – “The Wizard of Oz” (L. Frank Baum), and so on.
Every novel that has popular over the years, contains one memorable thing that immediately identifies it. These symbols are not only found in Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, they are important in any genre in Literature.
Don’t wanna read it
For the past few weeks, I was trying to get myself to read Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett. I have not wanted to read it, since, early on in the novel, things go badly for my favourite character, “Sam Vimes”.
Sam Vimes, head of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, falls into a gap between universes and ends up in a version of Ankh-Morpork where there is no night watch, no Sam Vimes (his Grace, his Excellency, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Ambassador for Ankh-Morpork, Blackboard Monitor Vimes). There is no “Lady Sybil”, wife of Sir Samuel, “Captain Carrot” or “Lord Vetinari”. Vimes is not even Vimes any more – he is in the body of a “John Keel”, and his much younger self, “Sam Vimes”, has just joined the night watch.
That put me off. It was the only Terry Pratchett Discworld novel that I had not read, and of which I did not own a copy. And then, when I got a copy, I did not want to read it. Eventually, I finished it last night. With a lump in my throat, a snivel in my nose, and disturbing dreams.
Why? Because Pratchett, whose Discworld books contain too many of these unforgettable devices to list here, created an extraordinary one in Night Watch, an unforgettable image which readers could not leave alone to merely exist in the pages of the book.
It is the marching song that the men sing as they go off to battle: “All the Little Angels (Rise Up)”. That song is like a dirge. It is meaningful on many different levels.
Something that sticks in your mind
Pratchett always said that his Constructed World is stand-alone, and, though he pokes fun at people and cultures, the novels are not satires or parodies. But it was Remembrance Day a fortnight ago, on November 11, and Night Watch contains a moving commentary about the night watch men who had died fighting. It could be true for soldiers in real life, if you think about it.
In the story, Vimes leads the policemen of the night watch in a battle to defend Ankh-Morpork, but eventually they are betrayed from inside the city, and seven men die in the “The People’s Revolution of the Glorious Twenty-Fifth of May” in “Treacle Mine Road”. The policemen have their last stand in an alleyway filled with lilac, and had pinned lilac to their helmets. After that, every year on the 25th of May, when the lilacs bloom, the Ankh-Morpork City Watch go to the cemetery to pay their respects to those who had died. Vimes and his men go there to remember the sacrifice they had made. But every year, fewer people remember what the lilacs and the 25th of May mean.
All the Little Angels Rise Up
I know, to you readers who do not know Pratchett’s books and aren’t interested in reading Fantasy novels, this is all pretty useless information.
But what is worth noting is what happened with that one thing in the novel: the marching song, “All the Little Angels”.
Throughout the book, Vimes remembers the lyrics – they run through his mind as he tries to both save the day and recreate his past, so that his present will be the way it has always been. (Time travel is complicated.)
The lyrics have been assembled by faithful readers, and when they are all put together, they go like this:
All the little angels rise up, rise up.
All the little angels rise up high!
How do they rise up, rise up, rise up?
How do they rise up, rise up high?
They rise heads up, heads up, heads up,
they rise heads up, heads up high!
(This is repeated with hands, arms, knees, and finally a*** up.)
(Source: Discworld Mediawiki)
There is no real song on which Pratchett based this. He made it up. And it’s not supposed to be humorous. No marching song that takes people into a battle is actually funny. Pratchett said: “Do not Google on ‘all the little angels’. Trust me.” But we, the fans, wished it were real. We googled it. I googled it, and I found out this morning that some fans did not let it remain as just words – they have set it to music.
I wonder what Sir Terry would’ve thought about that? Perhaps, because it comes from people’s genuine affection for his books, he would have approved.
Words in a novel become music
This is a thing that fans do: they want to make the things in their favourite books real. (Remember how one musician created a real composition and recording from a “missing” performance by jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, after Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”? Same here.)
There are different versions, but the one that gave me goosebumps is by musician DJ Boogie. It’s very well composed and performed, and I cannot imagine any other melody that would have suited the words as perfectly. It sounds robust, the electric and steel guitars definitely kick it up a notch, but it is still a little bit poignant.
Now listen to the song
Warning, it’s an ear-worm. Don’t blame me if you can’t stop humming it.
(Retrieved from YouTube Nov. 21, 2021)
The point is, that if the words and the context were not as unforgettable and moving as they are, no-one would’ve gone to the trouble to set it to music. But now, there is a song to sing to, and there is something to remember and think about, next year in May when the lilacs bloom – not only on Remembrance Day.