January 29, 2015
(++++) THE ONCE AND FUTURE PRATCHETT
Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales. By Terry Pratchett. Illustrations by Mark Beech. Clarion. $16.99.
Many years ago, when there were wolves in Wales – no, that’s not it. Once upon a time, or twice – no, not that either. Everyone comes from somewhere – that’s it. Everyone comes from somewhere, and where Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame comes from is Buckinghamshire, England, where once upon a time, or twice, back in the 1960s, a young Pratchett worked for the local newspaper, not only reporting on many and varied local events (none of them particularly significant) but also writing for the paper’s “Children’s Corner” under the pseudonym “Uncle Jim,” creating a wide variety of stories (some of them particularly significant, at least in retrospect).
Dragons at Crumbling Castle is, many years later, the result of Pratchett’s youthful indiscretions, so to speak. The 14 stories here were not intended for the ages (newspaper writing never is), but they were intended for those of a young age, and this book is therefore a marvelous introduction to the world (or worlds) of Terry, now Sir Terry and regaled with honors aplenty for his many and various works of more-recent times. There are a few direct tie-ins of these early stories to Pratchett’s books: “Tales of the Carpet People” and “Another Tale of the Carpet People” eventually led to Pratchett’s very first book, entitled, not surprisingly, The Carpet People. But most of the relationships between these short pieces and Pratchett’s later work are in the realm of sensibility rather than specific characters or themes. Just to stick with “Tales of the Carpet People” for a moment, for example, one character tells another, “Worthwhile things aren’t just there for the taking, you know,” and that sounds very much like later Pratchett (although in his later books, worthwhile things are sometimes just there for the taking). And in the same story, which is a journey-to-a-new-land sort of thing with echoes of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Pratchett writes, “Something large and black seemed to be dancing around the bottom of the hair, blowing its nose menacingly.” And that too sounds a bit, just a bit, like later Pratchett.
The thing is, Dragons at Crumbling Castle is fun both for people who know later Pratchett and for those who encounter him here for the first time. None of these stories is up to the level of his later work, but so what? The themes of unlikely heroes, somewhat dangerous danger that usually is not too dangerous, and all sorts of unexpected narrative nooks and crannies, are in their formative stages in these tales; they would emerge in their full splendor only later. Dragons at Crumbling Castle is juvenilia, but it is mighty entertaining juvenilia.
So here we have the title story, set in King Arthur’s time, featuring a reluctant boy sort-of knight, a not-very-effective opposing knight, and a decidedly inept wizard who is nothing at all like the later Rincewind but might be a very distant relation. We have a heroic tortoise who sets out to see the world and conquers an asp along the way – a tortoise named Hercules. We have a particularly short and particularly funny story called “Hunt the Snorry” in which a large band of adventurers searches for something known only by its name and does, alas, eventually find it. We meet “Edwo, the Boring Knight,” “The Abominable Snowman,” and “The Blackbury Monster.” We experience the nefarious machinations of Baron von Teu as he does dirty deeds to make sure his gas-powered automobile defeats the steam-powered one of Sir Henry Toggitt, which pulls a little coal tender behind it, as shown in one of more than 100 hilarious and perfectly appropriate drawings by Mark Beech. “The Big Race” includes not only gasoline and steam cars but also a “mechanical car, with its eight drivers still hauling on the big key,” and “an electric car, an elastic-driven car, a compressed-air truck, a hot air balloon-powered bus, and two sail-powered bicycles.”
What is abundantly clear in this collection of early Pratchett is that many years ago, when there may or may not have been wolves in Wales but there were surely newspapers in Buckinghamshire, there arose the initial stirrings of an imagination that grew in later decades to produce some of the most prodigiously entertaining books to be written in modern English. Whether Dragons at Crumbling Castle is a young reader’s first introduction to Pratchett or an older reader’s opportunity to examine the early work of a satirist who has been compared with the greats of centuries past, it is a book that gives great pleasure on its own while also whetting one’s appetite for examining or re-examining later, larger-scale Pratchett – writing that is surely more polished, finely wrought and weighty, but is scarcely more delightful.