Lit Knit 3: Jingo by Terry Pratchett

June 17, 2011

So, another post in our Lit Knit series and guess what, it’s Terry Pratchett again! Hm, I’m beginning to think we ought to rename the series Knitting with Terry or something like that ;-)

Anyway, this time the book in question is Jingo, the 21st Discworld novel first published in 1997. In Jingo, the mighty city state of Ankh-Morpork finds itself unexpectedly at war with the even mightier Empire of Klatch which occupies the Discworld equivalent of Northern Africa, including camels, Tuareg and a somewhat despotic political system. To sum up the plot in a single sentence, Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch joins his hometown’s invasion force, sets out for Klatch and saves the day. That’s basically all you need to know, to understand the knitting part, so I won’t go into more detail here.

When Vimes finally returns home, he finds his wife, Lady Sybil, in the Slightly Pink Drawing Room of their stately mansion. There, Pratchett goes on to say, “she was knitting inexpertly when Vimes came in, but rose and gave him a kiss” (p. 399).* As with other knitting references in Pratchett’s novels, this seemingly incospicuous phrase actually says a lot about the character of the knitter. In this case, the crucial point is that Lady Sybil is knitting inexpertly. Why so? First of all, Lady Sybil is described as a bit of an amazon or rather a Wagnerian Valkyrie, and her favourite pastime is breeding dragons. So she hardly conforms to the role expected of women in traditional societies, and it’s only natural that her skills at traditionally female occupations like needlework should be slightly underdeveloped – a characteristic she shares with Granny Weatherwax. But, in the case of Lady Sybil, matters are even more complex than that. There’s another reason why she’s not an expert knitter, namely her status as an aristocrat who was born into the wealthiest and noblest family in all Ankh-Morpork. Traditionally, women of such elevated social status didn’t waste their with something as coarse and lower class as knitting, but rather idled their time away with more refined needlework like embroidery. Pratchett, it needs to be said, is well aware of this distinction: For instance, when young witch Magrat Garlick becomes queen of Lancre in Lords and Ladies, she realises that she’s expected to give up the independent life of a witch and stay home in Lancre Castle embroidering tapestries instead.

So, why then is Lady Sybil knitting at all? Because, she informs her husband, notorious socialite Lady Selachii has “organized a committee to knit socks for our brave lads at the front” (p. 399).* Remember, Ankh-Morpork is at war with Klatch, and the custom of war-time knitting was once extremely widespread not only on the Discworld but also in our own, for want of a better word, real world. At least from the 18th century onwards, and all the way to World War II women of all nations were expected to provide hand knit clothes, especially socks, for their husbands, brothers and sons when they went to war. So, for a very long time, knitting socks was considered an essential contribution to the war effort at home.

Pilliga Red Cross members knitting socks for soldiers in World War I - Pilliga, New South Wales, Australia, 1915. Image ©

This probably reached its height during World War I when even school children were recruited for this task. A particularly moving account of this is given by one Hermine Gerstl who was born in Lower Austria in 1903. In an autobiographical sketch she speaks about her life during World War I:

“One day, all schools received order to knit warm things for the poor soldiers on the front. The local school boards sent us large bales of yarn so that we could make snow masks, socks and knee warmers. (…) Our teacher chose those girls of whom she knew that they could knit well and beautifully; I was among those chosen. My friends and I were handed strands of greyish green yarn, needles and patterns for all the different sizes; first we had to learn the ropes by knitting wristwarmers and socks, then we carried on with snow masks and knee warmers. Each was worked in a single piece, knit two, purl two. (…) Before Christmas, we were handed Field Postcards, and we were allowed to write Seasonal Greetings and our adress on them and add them to the parcels of woollens; every soldier received a snow mask, knee warmers, socks and wristwarmers; these parcels were well wrapt and sent to the Russian front. I was lucky, I received a reply to my Seasonal Greetings (…). This young men wrote to me quite often (…). He also told me that (…) the next day he was going to go to the farthermost front line with his entire Company. One day, I received a note from one of his comrades, saying his good friend, Karl Kapronak, had been sent to the eternal home leave for Emperor and Fatherland, many of their Company had bled to death on Russian soil.”**

In Pratcehtt’s Jingo, things don’t turn out quite so gruesome: A peace is negotiated before the war has even really started, and all the soldiers go home unscathed. Indeed, Commander Sam Vimes returns to his wife so quickly that she welcomes him almost reproachfully: “And I haven’t even worked out how to turn a heel yet” (p. 399).*


* All quotes from Jingo refer to the “old” Corgi paperback edition with the original cover illustrations by Josh Kirby.

** Gerstl’s account is quoted from: Christa Hämmerle (Ed.), Kindheit im Ersten Weltkrieg, Vienna 1993, p. 124-125. The English translation is mine.

3 Responses to “Lit Knit 3: Jingo by Terry Pratchett”

  1. Wonderful! Again.
    I like the idea of ‘Knitting with Terry’, and the concept of rereading all his books in the name of literary research – I think you’re onto a good thing!

    • [c] said

      Thanks! Again.
      Btw, as already mentioned before, I didn’t just (re-) read the one Discworld novel but a whole bunch of them (they’re really addictive!), so there’ll be more “Knitting with Terry” here in the near future…

  2. Yes, tell me about it – he’s just as addictive as knitting! I’m enjoying them all just as much the second time around too, listening this time. It’s nice to read them as sets by character, I think I might have taken my cue from you there?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: