The Man in the Golden Hat

While my favorite Terry Pratchett stories are those following the Night Watch and Sir Samuel Vimes in particular (because of the themes they explore and the cast of characters in each of them), my favorite Pratchett character is Moist Von Lipwig. This unfortunately named man is introduced in his first story, Going Postal, as he sits on death row. The narrator reveals that he was a swindler and crook who defrauded banks, cheated people, and convinced himself that he wasn’t doing anything wrong because everyone chose to be swindled (for common street swindles like the shell game) or because they tried to cheat him (by buying a ring supposedly worth a lot of money for a tiny amount and then selling it to a jeweler only to find out it wasn’t even worth what they paid for it).

Eventually, of course, he was caught and sentenced to die for all of the money he stole and hid. Of course, nothing is that simple in Ankh-Morpork, the city most of Pratchett’s stories revolve around. Lord Vetenari, the current tyrant, decides to spare Moist on the condition that he take a job as the postmaster of the city’s failing post office. As is his modus operandi, Lord Vetenari leaves out just enough information to make Moist Von Lipwig’s life interesting.

Moist wisely takes the job and the arc of each of his three books is set. Vetenari gives him a difficult, nigh-impossible task and he rises to the task, not only figuring out how to restore public faith in his assigned institution, but often taking care of several other problems for Vetenari. The plot of Going Postal isn’t just about restoring the postal service, but about fighting against the corruption plaguing the rapid-communication towers. These semaphore towers were bought out by a group of greedy men who wanted to milk them for all the money they’re worth, regardless of what it costs in people and reputation to do so.

Moist, of course, rises to the occasion, taking on the administrative challenge of the post office and the inter-personal challenge of facing down the head of the company that owns the semaphore towers. He puts his silver-tongue to good use, selling the entire city on the idea of a functioning post office and his new invention, stamps. The people of Ankh-Morpork are easily entertained, as Pratchett likes to point out, and Moist is a master showman. He gets a golden suit (with matching hat) in order to stand out, he constantly makes bigger and bigger claims, and he constantly steps up every challenge he’s given. When he manages to somehow squeak through as a result of sheer luck or some audacious plan, the people reward him with their belief in the dreams he weaves.

That is why he is my favorite. He talks big and never feels more alive than when he is taking some insane risk. He wants to be challenged and to risk everything on the power of his tongue and the ideas he can sell people. He talks his way out of almost every corner he’s in and then somehow manages to deliver on everything he promised. He feels like a fraud and knows that he’s selling an impossible dream to people all too willing to believe him because he makes them want his dream. All while wearing a flashy golden suit.

In his subsequent books, Making Money and Raising Steam, he finds himself in a few more tight corners and needs to put in a bit more effort to get himself out, but he always manages it somehow. Despite the fact that he was a con artist for most of his life, he has become one of the most beloved people in all of Ankh-Morpork. He gets his kicks taking insane risks for the good of the public and constantly helps pull society forward by, as he likes to say, “selling them the sizzle” because a sausage always smells better than it tastes.

He’s one of the few heroes in Discworld whose power lies in his words. Some of Pratchett’s protagonists have magic. Some have luck. Some have a keen detective instinct or impeachable ethics. Some are strong. But only two rule through the power of their words and only Moist Von Lipwig has more than one book. William De Worde, the editor and first reporter for the Ankh-Morpork Times, does similar things in a different way, but his power lies more in his access to printing things in a paper than the words themselves, so I prefer Moist Von Lipwig.

I don’t really identify with him or anything like that, I just like the idea of a hero who abhors violence and wins using the strength of his words. The ability to spin a tale so well that you can talk yourself into or out of anything is a power I’d love to have. More than any other power, honestly.

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