February 05, 2015
(++++) SMALL THINGS
The Carpet People. By Terry Pratchett. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
A tale writ large of people writ small, The Carpet People is Terry Pratchett’s first book, written by a 17-year-old in 1971. Reconsidered and somewhat reworked by Pratchett when he was 43 – so he says – it is now offered at a time when Pratchett has become Sir Terry and is 66 years old. And if it is probably impossible to disentangle all the 17-year-old’s material from all the 43-year-old’s, it is also unnecessary, because this little epic, or epic of the little, has enough of the 66-year-old Pratchett about it to show that some things never change; or if they do, it is arguable to what extent the change is for the better.
The scale of Pratchett’s story here stands in wonderful and ongoing contrast to the scale of the characters. The huge-in-this-book city of Ware, based on Rome in its days of glorious empire, is the size of a period at the end of a sentence in our world, so you can only imagine how unimaginably tiny the characters in the teeming streets must be. And some of them are even smaller than that. This really is an epic set within the strands of a carpet (and sometimes in the mysterious “underlay”), where a burnt matchstick fallen from somewhere unimaginably high up is a significant landmark and a lost penny (presumably one of the old pre-decimalization British pennies) is mined by an entire tribe for many generations with its surface barely being scraped.
Courage, goodness and evil come in all sizes, of course, and the size here is small. But the characters loom large in their adventures, which involve the usual good-vs.-evil overlay upon a foundational quest, as well as a number of notions that Pratchett was to explore in much greater detail in his Discworld novels in later decades (the fact that some of these may be elements added by Pratchett at age 43 to the concept of Pratchett at age 17 is largely irrelevant). There is, for example, the comment by one of the good guys as he heroically holds up a collapsing roof so others can escape and is asked what he is doing, staying where everything is not only tumbling down but also on fire: “‘Goin’ to be in a story,’” he says, in one of those “meta” moments when characters almost realize they are in search of an author and have, indeed, been found by one. Or there is the discussion by some of the good guys of the overdone pronouncements of one of the chief bad guys, with resident and sometimes tiresome philosopher Pismire (yes, Pratchett had an early talent for names) saying, “‘Melodrama. I’m amazed he doesn’t go “Harharhar,”’” And sure enough, a few lines later, the bad guy, Gormaleesh, “stepped back, and then said, ‘Your threats I treat with scorn. Harharhar!’ Pismire nodded happily. Knew he would, sooner or later, he said to himself.”
The usual characters of grand heroic fantasy are all here, but they are all really tiny. There is the tribe of sort-of prophets, who know the future but must not speak it, except that one of them does, which causes complications and sort of nudges things in one direction among the innumerable possibilities that the future holds. Questioned about this one remarkable Wight, who turns out to be a sort of dea ex machine without portfolio known as a thunorg, the good guy who has been the first to meet her says, ‘Don’t look at me like that. You think I could make this sort of thing up?’” Well, no, he couldn’t, but Pratchett could, and did, and we are all the better for it, given where this sort of making-it-up took the author in later years.
Some comments in The Carpet People sound like much later Pratchett, and maybe they are, but they fit well here anyway. For example, good guy Snibril observes two groups of warriors, sworn enemies, who have come together under his leadership, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, including Snibril himself: “The Deftmenes are mad and the Dumii are sane, thought Snibril, and that’s just the same as being mad except that it’s quieter.” That is an observation worthy of an Unseen University scholar, or perhaps even Granny Weatherwax, in a Discworld novel.
So The Carpet People has glimmers of later Pratchett in it, some perhaps shoehorned in by Pratchett 43 to keep the work of Pratchett 17 more in line with the thinking of the later author. Whatever sort of hybrid it is, though, this book is filled with delights of its own, such as the very large (by this book’s standards) and surprisingly intelligent pones (basically elephants that look like dinosaurs crossed with dragons and have their own language), and the inclusion of one single strange bit of spelling throughout the book, with “eh” replaced by a sideways caret, so, for example, the word “behind” is always written “b>ind.” The book also contains some utter delights in the form of illustrations, in both color and black and white, by Pratchett himself – pictures that show that while Pratchett’s calling is certainly words rather than art, he’s no slouch at the representational stuff either. The Carpet People is a rousing adventure whose small scale readers will quickly forget as they become lost in the twists, turns and tangles of a tale that charms not only on its own but also in light of the far grander (but ultimately not all that different) sorts of stories its creator was later to tell.