More than just a flat world.
I don't generally count myself as a serious Terry Pratchett fan. That's not to say I don't enjoy his work, I've read almost everything he's written including all 39 Discworld books, however he's not someone I find myself following obsessively or rereading time after time. This is largely because for all the random humour, for all the undoubtedly clever observations and word play, I always felt there was something lacking in the vast majority of Pratchett's writing, a sense of plot and resolution, a depth, a level of epic quality.
For me, far too many Pratchett books featured characters who seemed to exist only to be mocked, such as the Cowardly Rincewind, worlds and places which existed just to provide weird jokes and puns on a given theme, and resolutions which more often than not took the form of "and here's the cosmic badger to make everything write again, ---- what didn't spot it?"
A friend of mine once stated that Pratchett stuck in resolutions that nobody could ever spot then laughed at the reader for not guessing them.
That being said, when Terry Pratchett refrains from these sorts of things, he has indeed written books which I'd class as truly astounding. Small Gods, the first Johnny novel, not to mention the more recent Unseen Academicals to name but a few. The Carpet People is for me one of these, an example of Pratchett at his absolute best writing a unique, simple but powerful work with none of the flaws that seemed to mark many of his more famous later offerings.
Like the Gnomes Trilogy, The Carpet People takes the theme of seeing a civilization of small hidden creatures in an everyday setting, but where the gnomes world was a recognizable place, with foxes, department stores and most famously trucks the world of the Carpet People is mysterious and strange, a world where giant hairs of all colours make a forest of trees higher than the tallest redwoods, a world populated with a host of strange peoples with their own distinct history and cultures, yet at the same time a world which is quite literally under the readers' feet. References to the Caverns of Underlay or gathering varnish from achairleg mine exist to remind the reader just how close this world is, and yet they exist side by side with a rich history and many diverse cultures, creatures and places as colourful as anything you might find in a completely different fantasy world.
I especially enjoyed here Pratchett's idea of materials such as sugar, dust and varnish being used the way we would think of mineral ores, not to mention bronze mined from a single penny piece which to the people of the carpet appears as large as a small country. Yet for all this intimate connection to our own world, The Carpet People is far more than just a retelling of The Borrowers since despite being a book nominally aimed at children, the political and social aspects of the carpet and its peoples are well drawn and understood.
The society of the Carpet seems a little like pre-Roman Europe, there is a large and ordered empire, but many small tribes and peoples from the mystical wights to the anarchic defmenni, as well as innumerable creatures of all sorts.
One of the most admirable aspects of the world Pratchett creates, (and one particularly not able in a children's book), is it's balance of political and social thinking, and its ability to demonstrate the necessary virtues that balance creates when threatened with an enemy. No nation or people is represented as absolutely good or possessing a lifestyle that doesn't bare scrutiny, indeed the interplay of order and chaos and Pratchett's showing how extremes of either can be problematic is one of the greater moral aspects of the book. Though such blatant moralizing in a children's book is often clumsy at best (witness C. S. Lewis's often repeated "it is very silly to shut one's self in a wardrobe"), the delicacy with which Pratchett achieves his morals means that they are not so much preached as represented, indeed the only character who does speak openly of moral or political matters is a philosopher thus making such speeches an in-character affair.
Perhaps the best example of this morality is represented in The Mouls, a group of creatures who are seemingly standard fantasy orcs (they even ride upon what are virtually wolves), while it is clearly stated their leader is a sadist, at the same time ample attention is given to the fact that "moul" is the Moul word for "true human being" and that the Mouls are thus acting out of a certain belief system and a set of exclusively nationalistic motivations which sadistic leaders took advantage of. Pratchett thus achieves something quite notable in a book heavily concerned with conflict against an enemy race, he does not caricature that race, making them evil for their own sake, but neither does he flinch from the fact that unless they are stopped their motivations will produce misery and suffering for all concerned.
Turning away from moral aspects however, moderation is also seen in the characters. The initial description of Glurk as the muscle bound leader of the Munrung tribe and Snibril, as an intelligent but physically less able watcher seems to intimate a pretty standard setup of the clever character in the barbarian society, typified in the old TV series "Vicky the Viking". Yet, Glurk, while not exactly well endowed in the brain department is represented sympathetically, even heroically in places while Snibril's curiosity frequently gets him into trouble.
Moderation is also present in the final resolution of the plot which, though it does feature a few elements of precognition and Pratchett's "trousers of time" metaphor for multiple timelines (later expanded in the Johnny series), the basic action which results in the victory over the Mouls is neither complex nor unforeseen and simply involves the admission that there are sometimes circumstances which warrant fighting, indeed in this abandonment of an extreme, defeatist form of pacifism we can again see Pratchett's talent for respecting the moderate position as he does with social order and chaos, or the interplay of different nations.
Yet the book isn't just a lesson in politics. Natural disasters, and a natural disaster intimately connected with the Carpet's closeness to our own world play a major roll, as do ideas of a quest or journey ending in a huge battle for the fate of the world. The formula of a small group discovering a threat then having to wander the world and convince disparate others to band together against that threat facing dangers along the way is likely the classic of many fantasy series such as The Wheel of Time or the works of David Eddings.
Pratchett also makes some very amusing nods to mythology, both in incidents throughout the plot and in the descriptions of the Legends of the Carpet (what few we do get), such as the idea of the wights being the first group to cross the tiles and bring back fire. I also enjoyed a few sly little jokes at literary expense, such as the "Snarks", referencing Lewis Carroll's poem.
Stylistically the book is straight forward, with none of the more complex allusions or random digressions that characterise some of Pratchett's other work, indeed though often humorous, the humour here comes mostly from situation, word play and comical characterisation rather than zany comparisons to our own world. Perhaps my only problem with much of Pratchett's description is that with such an intriguing and alien setting as the Carpet, I would've liked more details than he actually gives to aide imagination, ---- for instance though you are told Snark's are predatory creatures and though their behaviour would imply that they're wolves, they are never described in more detail than noting the colour of their coats, likewise though characters speak of day and night, the sky is never mentioned and while the oblique references to "above" are intriguing, with such a basic aspect of the world explanation rather than mystery would've been far more satisfying.
I also felt that though the plot takes in many locations, the book is over all rather too short in its progression, even given the intended child audience. The fact that the heroes only turn up at a situation for it to be resolved robbed the conflicts of any kind of force, especially when the conflict was something which the enemy faction had plainly spent a long time setting up such as the subverting of a royal court or an alliance with an unfriendly people.
In The Hobbit, Tolkien clearly shows the dwarves and Bilbo come off worst in a number of confrontations, thus we are given a very clear sense that these heroes are not invincible and are open to fallibility. This makes the deaths of major characters a natural fact (after all battles are dangerous things). In The Carpet People however, Pratchett's heroes never seem to lose, indeed on the one occasion when the Moul's capture them, they spend their time laughing things off, mocking the bad guy and are rescued almost instantly (disrupting the Moul's plans in the process). Though the rather amusing conversation about the villains melodrama is undoubtedly funny, it completely removes tension from the situation even though at that point the characters are looking at a life time of slavery, and given a few somewhat over oblique references to the condition of the other slaves it seems those lives may not be long.
This over all invincibility also undermines Pratchett's climax somewhat, since with the final battle against the Mouls being rather one-sided (as well as incredibly short), it doesn't actually seem that there is as much of a chance that the Mouls will win as Pratchett’s resolution implies, and with descriptions of the actual fighting that are far from hands on the whole thing appears more like a sporting event with a foregone conclusion than a battle for the fate of the entire world.
A longer book would also have let Pratchett explore more of the Carpet's landscape, since many locations and peoples are very much only skimmed on the surface, and while Pratchett is too clever and human a writer to let that skim be a one note affair, there is still much about all the creatures and people's of the carpet that is left unexplained even when those people are major characters throughout the rest of the novel.
Overall The Carpet People showcases all that is best in Pratchett's writing, unique ideas of a world and people, a wonderfully brought out set of morals, and writing with a humorous tinge of characterization but still serious enough not to appear a parody. This all makes it a perfect book for either kids or adults (heck, I was twenty two when I first read it myself), it's just a shame that there is so little of it.
If any book begs for a sequel, it is this one, and I do sometimes find myself wondering if perhaps there is another leg of the Trousers of Time where Pratchett wrote 39 Carpet People novels instead of Discworld ones. Perhaps in that world Pratchett would be an even more notable author than he already is, certainly in that world, I would count myself as a major Pratchett fan, rather than a more casual admirer.
Review by Dark
1 positive reader review(s) for The Carpet People
Paul from UK
As a reader, I find myself somewhat a creature of habit. I very much enjoy Terry Pratchett and the incredible Discworld series. Having lost count of the amount of times I've read the City Watch books, I genuinely found it difficult getting into The Carpet People. However, I found it an absolute joy. The world in which the Munrungs, Dumii and the like inhabit could have been every bit as exciting as the Discworld (had there been more these!) The only criticism I have is that the ending was perhaps a little predictable. However this doesn't rob the story of it's fun in any way. For me, it's belly laughs from start to finish. It's also left wishing I could strut around, atop a white snarg. Nobody would mess!
7.5/10 from 2 reviews