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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett: The Carpet People

By Thomas Anderson

Terry Pratchett at New York Comic Con, 2012.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This is the first article of a series in which I’ll be exploring the use of Alternate History (AH) themes in the works of Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors. Now sadly no longer with us after departing this world eight years ago, there has never been another author quite like Mr Pratchett, who could combine the off-the-wall ideas and intelligent humour of a Douglas Adams with a warmth and wholesomeness all of his own. AH was never the primary focus of any of his books (Johnny and the Bomb is probably the closest) but he frequently used the quantum idea of multiple timelines arising from a single decision. In his early career, he was a journalist covering scientific matters and had a scientific literacy rare among fantasy authors; his works contain many intelligent references (especially to nuclear physics) put into a magical analogy, and this also applies to quantum physics. Pratchett coined the phrase ‘the Trousers of Time’ to describe a timeline diverging in two from a decision, referring not only to literary speculation but the rigorous particle physics foundation from which the ‘many worlds hypothesis’ originally emerged.

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series, which I will get to soon, but I thought I would start with what is technically his first published book, The Carpet People. Why ‘technically’? Because, in a very Pratchett touch, the edition currently available “had two authors, and they were both the same person.” The original version of The Carpet People was written when Pratchett was just 17 and published in 1971. When he later achieved more success after the publication of the first Discworld novel in 1983, he decided to rewrite the story in 1992 at the age of 43. In the introduction, he explains this process and refuses to share half the royalties with his 17-year-old self, because he’d only waste them. I should say at this point that I am really only familiar with this second edition, and I know from seeing brief extracts of the original that it is quite different. I believe the AH elements I am going to discuss mostly only appear in the second edition. The first edition was, as one would expect from a 17-year-old fantasy fan, more of a fanfic-y pastiche of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Snibril as Frodo, Pismire as Gandalf, and Bane as Aragorn (and so on). However, I should emphasise that even at 17, Pratchett was considerably more original and less derivative with his Tolkien influences than many so-called big-name fantasy authors at their peak.

Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People.

I am not going to get too in-depth in descriptions of the characters, setting, or story, because the focus of these articles is going to be on the AH. However, in order to appreciate the AH, one must first know the context. As I said above, even in its original form, The Carpet People was far more original in its concept than many fantasy works that take inspiration from Tolkien; as the name implies, it is set among the tiny inhabitants of a carpet. The Carpet is largely occupied by the Roman-like Dumii Empire from the city of Ware, with our main protagonists coming from one of their subject tribes, the Munrungs.

They called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings. It’s what most people call themselves, to begin with. And then one day the tribe meets some other people and gives them a name like The Other People or, if it’s not been a good day, The Enemy. If only they’d think up a name like Some More True Human Beings, it’d save a lot of trouble later on.

Those opening words sum up a major theme of the book in a typically comic way.

Besides the Dumii, there are also independent foe nations such as the Deftmenes of Jeopard and the Vortgorns from the High Gate Land, and living among them are the wights. The term ‘wight’ is usually associated with negativity in fantasy (eg, Tolkien’s barrow-wights, Brent Weeks’ colour wights from Lightbringer and George RR Martin’s wights from A Song of Ice and Fire – whose introductory scene is extremely derivative of Tolkien, on the hand, but is craftily lifted from a chapter in Lord of the Rings that isn’t usually adapted, “Fog on the Barrow Downs”. In The Carpet People, however, wights more resemble elves in other fantasy works (very broadly). They are associated with hidden knowledge and operate travelling caravans in groups of seven, trading manufactured goods, wearing belts with the different materials available in the Carpet such as wood, bone, varnish, stone or grit, and bronze.

Wait, where are they getting those from? Welcome to how well this short, narratively-focused book does worldbuilding, as we hear about the wonders of the Carpet from the outpost of Varnisholme mining varnish from the mysterious Achairleg, the ‘Woodwall’ of a fallen matchstick, the great grain of grit atop which the city of Jeopard is built, and the bronze disc that is the High Gate Land of the Vortgorns. A few of the clever references are quite UK-specific and have not aged well, as houses have changed. For example: the hairs of the carpet change colour depending on what region our characters travel through (reflecting the patterned carpets popular at the time the book was originally written); the briefly-mentioned people of Rug who worship the fire in the sky (from a time when coal fires with rugs in front of them were common); and the Vortgorns’ land is called the High Gate Land because the one-penny coin at the time had a portcullis on it. The latter, at least, is still in circulation. Incidentally, the Vortgorns also have the battle cry: “On Epen Ny” after some giant letters they found engraved on their country...

People really did have patterned carpets in front of open fires.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The main antagonist force in the book are the mouls, who worship Fray, an undefined force which devastates cities. We never really find out what Fray is, which might be a vacuum cleaner or a human walking across the carpet. The mouls are able to sense when it hits and take advantage of it to attack unprepared opponents, and protagonist Snibril also discovers he has the same ability, letting them fight back. Our characters’ journey through multiple lands leads to the discovery that the mouls have infiltrated the leadership of essentially all nations to try to bring about a decisive battle, which happens at the end of the book. Even though I’m not that knowledgeable about the original text of The Carpet People, there are several phrase and choices in the second edition which reflect an older author with a different perspective. For example, that decisive battle is summed up in the second edition simply as: “They won.” We do get a bit more detail later, but it reflects Pratchett’s view from later life that the most interesting part of a fantasy story is not the glorious deeds of the war, but what happens to ordinary people the day afterwards.

Having given this brief sketch of the setting, let’s now turn to the AH elements. To do this, we have to go back to the wights. When Snibril and the Munrungs first encounter them, Pismire explains why wights are so disturbing to talk to: they remember everything. Not merely everything that has happened, but everything that will happen. The first wight Snibril meets cuts off everything he says with “yes” and explains he already knows, because he’s going to tell him it all after dinner. Snibril is fascinated by this idea from the start and asks the obvious question about what if a different decision was made and changed things, but the deterministic wights don’t believe this is possible. They think the course of history is mapped out and they already know it all, and are fatalistically marching towards its conclusion.

Later, we meet the contrasting character of Culaina. Culaina is a thunorg, an incredibly rare deviant form of wight who are born with a different ability. Instead of remembering everything that will happen, she remembers everything might happen. She sees possible futures, something which the regular wights find disturbing and shun her as a result. (In the first edition, there is a whole race of thunorgs led by a male character called Culain, and they do not have this ability). In a sequence near the climax of the book, we focus on Culaina experiencing thousands of possible timelines, and in all of them the mouls win. But there is one timeline as different from all the others ‘as a pearl on a beach of black sand’, and she turns to focus on it. “What you look at, you change.” This is another scientific reference, this time to the quantum physics concept of the observer effect. Of course, this is the one timeline where the mouls lose, and it is the one which proceeds to happen.

By this point, we have already seen that history can change. A little earlier, a wight caravan is attacked by the mouls. The wights don’t have weapons, but they do have tools like hammers, and fight back even though they know that their defeat is preordained. However, they are shocked when our heroes burst out of the thicket of carpet hairs to save them. The wights are distraught because this has destroyed their connection with the timeline. “I can’t remember what’s going to happen!” pleads their leader. Snibril gives him a new history: they joined the group and helped them. The leader is left conflicted because, though he is terrified of the new unknown, his daughter is alive when she ‘should’ have died.

Right at the end of the book, after victory is won over the mouls, wights visit Snibril and the others again and tell them in relief that they are starting to remember the future again, that history has been changed to a new track. While others might like the idea of being able to set their own destiny, the wights are only at peace when they know what’s going to happen. This is part and parcel of the wider theme of the story of different groups learning to live together despite different ways of looking at the world.

Culaina’s vision of many timelines arising from different choices is far from the only time this concept will appear in the works of Terry Pratchett. But his works sometimes also explore how multiple timelines might interact. Next time, I’ll be looking at a very interesting example of this in the early Discworld novel Mort.


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Tom Anderson is the author of numerous books from SLP, including: The Look to the West series of 5 books), the science fiction/alternate history book The Surly Bonds of Earth, and Editor of the Great War anthology N'oublions Jamais.


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