The Banality of Evil: A Thought by Terry Pratchett

“The Banality of Evil” is a phrase by Hannah Arendt in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. The idea emerged out of the aftermath of WWII, as the public slowly came to consciousness about the Holocaust. There were Nazi hunters in the news, and the Nuremberg trials were giving testimony to horrors that most in the world could scarcely find words for, even in the darkness of imagination. Still today, perpetrators of the holocaust are being pulled from senior citizen homes and being charged with the atrocities of their youth.

What is particularly striking about the holocaust, however, is not merely the evil that great evil men perpetrated. It is the base reality that much of the death and torture of millions of civilians came at the hands of relatively normal people. Why did millions of Jews, Poles, communists, homosexuals, disabled people, and political nonconfomists die in WWII concentration camps? Because everyday people showed up for work, punched their time card, and did their job.

While Hannah Arendt’s argument is a little more complex than that, this basic idea is the banality of evil.Captain Sam Vimes is one of my favourite Discworld characters. He is the most begrudgingly redeemed characters I know, slowly brought out of an alcoholic stupour and career aimlessness into a sense of personal worth and vocational renewal. Indeed, where we pick up the story, he has just become a hero, in that he defended the city of Ankh-Morpock against certain destruction and saved the Patrician, Lord Vertinari, from an assassin’s blade. The Patrician, a cruelly officious bureaucrat who seeks to mitigate evil rather than engender good, share’s his personal worldview with Captain Vimes in the denouement of Gaurds! Guards! (1989). Vimes was waiting for condemnation, but receives cautious praise instead. Lupine was both the attempted assassin/usurper and Vertinari’s right-hand man. The Librarian is an ape, an orangutan to be specific, who has been deputized by Captain Vimes’ Sergeant. You’ll need to know that to see the implicit question that Pratchett leaves open at the end: What does it mean to be human?

“You saved my life.” [the Patrician said].

“Sir?” [Captain Vimes responded].

“Come with me.”

He stalked away through the ruined palace, Vimes trailing behind, until he reached the Oblong Office. It was quite tidy. It had escaped most of the devastation with nothing more than a layer of dust. The Patrician sat down, and suddenly it was as if he’d never left. Vimes wondered if he ever had.

He picked up a sheaf of papers and brushed the plaster off them.

“Sad,” he said. “Lupine was such a tidy-minded man.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Patrician steepled his hands and looked at Vimes over the top of them.

“Let me give you some advice, Captain,” he said.

“Yes, sir?”

“It may help you make some sense of the world.”


“I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people,” said the man. “You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”

He waved his thin hand toward the city and walked over to the window.

“A great rolling sea of evil,” he said, almost proprietorially. “Shallower in some places, of course, but deeper, oh, so much deeper in others. But people like you put together little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say, this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end. Amazing!” He slapped Vimes good-naturedly on the back.

“Down there,” he said, “are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathesomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no. I’m sorry if this offends you,” he added, patting the captain’s shoulder, “but you fellows really need us.”

“Yes, sir?” said Vimes quietly.

“Oh, yes. We’re the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”

“Maybe. But you’re wrong about the rest!” said Vimes. “It’s just because people are afraid, and alone—” He paused. It sounded pretty hollow, even to him.

He shrugged. “They’re just people,” he said. “They’re just doing what people do. Sir.”

Lord Vetinari gave him a friendly smile.

“Of course, of course,” he said. “You have to believe that, I appreciate. Otherwise you’d go quite mad. Otherwise you’d think you’re standing on a feather-thin bridge over the vaults of Hell. Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death. I quite understand.” He looked at his desk, and sighed. “And now,” he said, “there is such a lot to do. I’m afraid poor [Lupine] was a good servant but an inefficient master. So you may go. Have a good night’s sleep. Oh, and do bring your men in tomorrow. The city must show its gratitude.”

“It must what?” said Vimes.

The Patrician looked at a scroll. Already his voice was back to the distant tones of one who organizes and plans and controls.

“It’s gratitude,” he said. “After every triumphant victory there must be heroes. It is essential. Then everyone will know that everything has been done properly.”

He glanced at Vimes over the top of the scroll.

“It’s all part of the natural order of things,” he said.

After a while he made a few pencil annotations to the paper in front of him and looked up.

“I said,” he said, “that you may go.”

Vimes paused at the door.

“Do you believe all that, sir?” he said. “About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

“Indeed, indeed,” said the Patrician, turning over the page. “It is the only logical conclusion.”

“But you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

“Hmm? Yes? What is your point?”

“I’d just like to know why, sir.”

“Oh, do go away, Vimes. There’s a good fellow.”

In the dark and drafty cave hacked from the heart of the palace the Librarian knuckled across the floor. He clambered over the remains of the sad hoard and looked down at the splayed body of [Lupine].

Then he reached down, very gently, and prised [the book] The Summoning of Dragons from the stiffening fingers. He blew the dust off it. He brushed it tenderly, as if it was a frightened child.

He turned to climb down the heap, and stopped. He bent down again, and carefully pulled another book from among the glittering rubble [a book of Law]. It wasn’t one of his, except in the wide sense that all books came under his domain. He turned a few pages carefully.

“Keep it,” said Vimes behind him. “Take it away. Put it somewhere.”

The orangutan nodded at the captain, and rattled down the heap. He tapped Vimes gently on the kneecap, opened The Summoning of Dragons, leafed through its ravaged pages until he found the one he’d been looking for, and silently passed the book up.

Vimes squinted at the crabbed writing.

Yet draggons are notte liken unicornes, I willen. They dwellyth in some Realm definèd bye thee Fancie of the Wille and, thus, it myte bee thate whomsoever calleth upon them, and giveth them theyre patheway unto thys worlde, calleth theyre Owne dragon of the Mind

Yette, I trow, the Pure in Harte maye stille call a Draggon of Power as a Forse for Goode in thee worlde, and this ane nighte the Grate Worke will commense. All bathe been prepared. I hath labored most mytily to be a Worthie Vessle…

A realm of fancy, Vimes thought. That’s where they went, then. Into our imaginations. And when we call them back we shape them, like squeezing dough into pastry shapes. Only you don’t get gingerbread men, you get what you are. Your own darkness, given shape…

Vimes read it through again, and then looked at the following pages.

There weren’t many. The rest of the book was a charred mass.

Vimes handed it back to the ape.

“What kind of a man was [the author]?” he said.

The Librarian gave this the consideration…. Then he shrugged.

“Particularly holy?” said Vimes.

The ape shook his head.

“Well, noticeably evil, then?”

The ape shrugged, and shook his head again.

“If I were you,” said Vimes, “I’d put that book somewhere very safe. And the book of the Law with it. They’re too bloody dangerous.”


Vimes stretched. “And now,” he said, “let’s go and have a drink.”


“But just a small one.”


“And you’re paying.”


Vimes stopped and stared down at the big, mild face.

“Tell me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know…is it better, being an ape?”

The Librarian thought about it. “Oook,” he said.

“Oh. Really?” said Vimes.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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24 Responses to The Banality of Evil: A Thought by Terry Pratchett

  1. jubilare says:

    One can’t help but love Sam Vimes. *sigh*


    • What book was it where he uses wizards to bend time so he can read “Where’s my Cow” to his son?


      • jubilare says:

        It’s been too long for me to remember exactly. This gives me a great excuse to read them all again, of course. I know he time-travels in Nightwatch…


      • Robert Carnegie says:

        It’s late to answer, but I believe that’s _Thud!_, but not quite what happens. What does happen is that he needs to get across country very fast on police business, so he goes to visit wizard college with a big pumpkin and some mice… ah, not quite that either. Nearly that.

        Early in the story, he uses most of his police force to get across town from work in time for the story, which, it is made pretty clear, is not literary… or is it that they work around him without being asked? Being asked would be cheating, and improper. Anyway, it’s very important… and later in the story, it’s very, very important.


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