Manuscript vs Myth: Feet of Clay
Updated: Sep 19, 2022
In Terry Pratchett’s ‘Feet of Clay’ the nineteenth book in his Discworld series, we once again return to the Disc. Pratchett has a long history of deconstructing the typical narratives surrounding fairytale creatures – in ‘Lords and Ladies’ we meet a violent unicorn, in ‘Guards! Guards!’ we meet a tall dwarf and, in ‘Feet of Clay’, we meet a sentient golem – a humanoid construct made of clay.
As is typical with the Discworld books which centre around the City Watch, Pratchett challenges prejudice and discrimination through the medium of the Watch – Ankh Morpork’s dedicated police force. Led by Commander Samuel Vimes, the police are investigating a string of murders and the poisoning of the city’s own Patrician. But as the evidence piles up, it all seems to be pointing to the same impossible killer – a golem. But golems can’t kill…can they?
In mythology as in the novel, the question is a difficult one to answer. A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore, generally depicted as a man-like figure, crafted out of clay by a holy man and brought to a facsimile of life. The method of creating a golem is a difficult one, generally involving clay that has been purified in some way, and, significantly, a script of some kind to activate them. In some legends this script is the Hebrew word for truth, inscribed on the golem’s forehead, in others this script is a shem – one of the names of God written on a clay tablet and inserted into the golem’s mouth.
As only God can create true life, they are not really living, and instead are mute and mindless, following only the orders that they are given by their master. As the golem lacks autonomy, it is said that any crimes committed by a golem is the fault of their master – the golem is merely the tool that the master used.
Even so, there are stories of golems failing to work properly and causing problems. Many of these are merely instances of orders being carried out incorrectly because the master was unclear in their instructions – for example asking a golem to fetch water but not telling them to stop, resulting in the house being flooded. That said, one of the most famous examples of a golem going rogue involves the creature going on a dangerous rampage through the city of Prague.
According to the legend, in the 16th century a Rabbi named Judah Loew created a golem to protect the Jewish community against anti-Semitic attacks. For a long time, the golem worked. The Rabbi had created a massive hulking figure out of clay with the strength of many men, which was successful in protecting the community. There was however one caveat –as the Sabbath was a holy day, the Rabbi would remove the shem from the golem’s head, allowing the creature to rest. One week he forgot to do so, and the golem went on a rampage, destroying everything in its path. In order to stop his creation, Rabbi Loew confronted the golem and managed to remove its shem, whereupon the golem deactivated and broke into pieces.
For a man who took great pleasure in deconstructing the traditional depiction of witches, vampires and dwarves, Pratchett’s depiction of the golems of the Discworld are remarkably faithful to the Jewish legends. They are mute, made from clay, and entirely subservient, obeying their master and working tirelessly at unpleasant or menial work. Pratchett is largely unconcerned with how precisely golems are made, aside from to say that they were made by holy men long ago, and that the art of their creation was lost. What keeps the golems running is, as in the legends, the words in their head, here named their ‘chem’ in an unsubtle nod to the Jewish shem. Pratchett’s novels are characterised by his unique takes on existing tropes, fairy-tales and folklore and, in the case of his golems, he challenges not the characteristics of the golem itself but instead how people perceive them – posing the question of whether they are truly unalive.
In the laws of the Discworld, golems are merely objects. They can be bought and sold like any other tool, put to work in the most horrific conditions, and destroyed when they are no longer needed. Even protagonist Vimes does not think of them as living. The only person who does not share this belief is Corporal Carrot, a lost heir who has no intention of reclaiming an ancient throne, instead finding his calling as a police officer. Carrot is unfailingly polite to the golems, seeing them as people and characterising their moments of misinterpreting orders as cases of malicious compliance.
Malicious compliance is a form of rebellion in which someone deliberately follows an instruction to the letter despite knowing that doing so would cause damage. For example, the golem mentioned earlier who flooded a house would have known that their master only intended them to fetch one bucket of water but continued anyway because their instructions had been unclear. As a species literally bound to follow the orders of their master, this would be the only form of disobedience that a golem has.
And this brings us back to two questions posed within the novel – can a golem kill? And are golems alive?
The two questions are intrinsically linked in a way that Corporal Carrot summarises best when interrupts an angry mob attempting to destroy a golem named Dorfl:
“If it’s just a thing, how can it commit murder? A sword is a thing […] and of course you couldn’t possibly blame a sword if someone thrust it at you.”
The reason behind the mob attacking Dorfl is because, as with the golem of Prague, a golem has been rampaging through the streets of Ankh Morpork, killing two men. As the City Watch investigate, they discover a golem unlike any that they have ever seen. The golem is made from a white clay and wears a broken crown.
During their investigations, the Watch learn that this king golem was made by the other golems of the city. It was intended to serve as a saviour for them, but something in the creation progress went wrong. The murders were premeditated by the king golem, and the victims were all humans involved in assisting the other golems in its creation – one man for example owned the oven that the golem was baked in, another was a holy man who helped write the words that the golems put inside their king’s head.
If a golem can commit murder, then a golem has to be alive, but it is more complicated than that. The original golems of Ankh Morpork did not kill, but they did bring a new golem into the world. Procreation is one of the greatest drives of living creatures, and the golems – albeit rather uniquely – felt the same drive to create a new member of their species. Not only that, they, created a ‘king’ who they hope will free them and grant them respite from their endless work – desire that is certainly far beyond the wants of an inanimate object.
While the king golem was not made correctly the investigation does have one positive side effect. The golem Dorfl is purchased from its owner by Carrot, and given its receipt of purchase, which is placed in its head, along side its chem. With the knowledge that it owns itself, Dorlf stops obeying the orders of its previous master and begins to act autonomously. It frees the animals of the slaughterhouse it used to work at, destroys a factory where some of its fellow golems are working, and protects the Watch from the rampaging king golem – and is destroyed in the process.
With this evidence, Commander Vimes moves past his old prejudices and comes to see golems as living creatures. He orders Dorfl to be remade and requests that when the golem is fixed, it be given a tongue.
Though Vimes and the City Watch may have changed their attitude about golems, they are the only ones. When faced with a speaking golem, the people of Ankh Morpork react in outrage to the blasphemy. Now capable of speech, Dorfl is able to come to his own defence:
“We’re not listening to you! You’re not even really alive!” said a priest. Dorfl nodded. “This Is Fundamentally True,” he said. “See? He admits it!” “I Suggest You Take Me And Smash Me And Grind The Bits Into Fragments And Pound The Fragments Into Powder And Mill Them Again To The Finest Dust There Can Be, And I Believe You Will Not Find A Single Atom Of Life–” “True! Let’s do it!” “However, In Order To Test This Fully, One Of You Must Volunteer To Undergo The Same Process.” There was silence. “That’s not fair,” said a priest, after a while. “All anyone has to do is bake up your dust again and you’ll be alive…” There was some more silence. Ridcully said, “Is it only me, or are we on tricky theological ground here?”
Dorfl’s argument that it is fundamentally impossible to argue that a golem does not have ‘life’ because the essence of life in intangible and unquantifiable. It is a common theme in science fiction, where the personhood of AIs, robots and clones is fiercely debated. It is also relevant in theology. In some schools of through, Adam – the first man – is thought to be a golem. Like a golem he was crafter out of clay before life was breathed into him by a creator.
Though not everyone in the books agrees, the narrative of ‘Feet of Clay’ makes it clear that, regardless of their origins, golems are people and so entitled to the same rights and respect. Dorfl goes on to become a member of the City Watch, intending to save enough money to buy and free others of his kind and, perhaps, even give them voices of their own. Through the novel, Pratchett is able to use the traditional folklore of the golem to explore themes of personhood and exploitation. As ever, in addition to paying tribute to these legends, he challenges them and in telling Dorfl’s tale he manages to – quite literally – give a voice to a creature that, for much of its own history, has remained voiceless.