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How Terry Pratchett’s First Novel Went From Tolkien Homage To Parody

Pratchett spent several years developing the story, which originally appeared in the form of short stories in his local newspaper the Bucks Free Press. While working on it, he often wrote to his friend Edward James, who was studying History at Oxford at the time, and who later wrote an account of the genesis of The Carpet People for a book he co-edited in which he quoted some of these letters. James suggests that Pratchett was “deliberately suppressing” the humour that would later make him famous in that first edition, creating a story that was “a relatively straight-forward telling of epic events in the lives of these people who live in the Carpet”.

The Carpet People Mark 2 – More Jokes, Fewer Kings

Some of the changes between the two versions of The Carpet People are relatively superficial, but they shift the book from Tolkien-esque fantasy to comedic parody. The 1971 description of the chieftain Glurk, for example, said he was “a man of few words, but words worth waiting for”. By 1992, this had become “a man of few words, and he doesn’t know what either of them mean” – which is both funnier, but also undercuts the character, giving the reader a much less favourable impression of him. James also notes that young Pratchett had got the idea from Tolkien that characters ought to speak in archaic English, but turned away from this idea later, so that in the 1971 edition characters say “Greeting” where in 1992 they say “Hello”, or “Begone!” instead of “Be off!”.

Some of the changes were a little bit more substantial, though the basic outline of the story stayed the same. James describes the changes to the 1992 version of the book as “Pratchettisation”, making the book fit Pratchett’s “cynicism towards politics, history, and traditional ideas of heroism, as well as towards battles and kings”. Our heroes Snibril, Pismere, Bane, and Glurk live in the Dumii Empire (loosely inspired by the Roman Empire) and their attitudes towards the Empire change quite a bit between the two versions. By 1992, Snibril’s love for the Empire has been cut back and Bane has become critical of the power of the Emperor. Pismere the magician in 1971 also becomes the more rational proto-scientist Pismere the shaman in 1992, talking about “correct observation followed by meticulous deduction” rather than using magical gibberish.

De-Tolkienifying the Story

The de-Tolkienification of the story can be seen most clearly in the changes to Bane’s character and the removal of his love interest Shenda in the 1992 version. In the 1971 original, Bane and Shenda are clear parallels to Aragorn and Arwen. Shenda and her father Noral are wights, a group of Carpet-dwellers who are similar to Tolkien’s Elves, as they built the cities of the Carpet long ago but have now declined in numbers, and they have a mystical aspect to them. Noral, who offers advice and attends a peace council in the original story, is clearly drawn from Elrond and Shenda from his daughter Arwen. Bane has connections to the wights just as Aragorn had longstanding connections with the Elves, and he and Shenda get married at the end just as Aragorn and Arwen do. In the 1992 version, however, Shenda has been cut out altogether and Noral’s role substantially reduced, with him making only one very brief appearance in chapter four. Bane, meanwhile, becomes openly critical of the Empire rather than being a fairly neutral exiled soldier, which moves him quite a bit further away from the Destined King Aragorn.

Some of the differences in tone – and Tolkien-lite writing – can be seen if you read the very first short story about Snibril, Bane, and Pismere, ‘Tales of the Carpet People’. This was published in the 2014 collection Dragons at Crumbling Castle, an edited collection of short stories aimed at children which gathered together a number of Pratchett’s early tales, and once again Sir Pterry could not resist editing the stories as he went, just a little bit. The editing is a lot less substantial, though, and you can see more of the original Tolkien homage left in the text. For example, there’s a reference to Pismere’s grandfather Robinson the Wanderer having walked across the whole Carpet, “right across and back again”, and at the end of the story Snibril leaves in the middle of a party because he has wandering fever, and when he is called on to make a speech, no one can find him. These hints clearly echo Bilbo Baggins’ behaviour; his adventure “There and Back Again” (the subtitle of The Hobbit) to the Lonely Mountain, and his disappearance in the middle of giving a speech at his own birthday party at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.

We can also see the older editor-Pratchett adding the element of parody and gentle mocking in the 2014 version of this story. Pratchett’s introduction to the collection mentions that among the minor edits he made to the short stories included were things like “a little note at the bottom where needed”. Pratchett used humorous footnotes extensively in most of his works, but usually not so often in books for children, and not in a short story intended for a newspaper – so the footnotes in Dragons at Crumbling Castle are all most likely to be 2014 additions.

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