The Carpet People: Pratchett’s first novel celebrates 50th Anniversary

The Original

16 November 1971: The Carpet People hits the shelves. Written by shiny new author Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett was just 17 (or thereabouts) when he wrote the first draft, and 23 when the novel was published by Peter Bander and Colin Smythe. L-Space has a page showing photos from the launch party. My favourite is this one, of Terry and Colin. That’s an impressive beard for a man in his early 20s.

Terry illustrated the book, too. He drew the cover art and studded the pages with black-and-white illustrations. In a very few, he coloured them by hand, with watercolours. You can see those colour illustrations on L-Space. I particularly like the hyometers.

The book was given an initial print run of 3,000 – not bad for a first-time author in a niche genre, but not a sensation. Unsurprisingly, The Carpet People Mk I* didn’t have the satirical flair of Pratchett’s later works – but it sounds like it was a good story, well-written and broadly well-received. This line made me chuckle, though:

One need not worry too much about the allegory; which is about human rifts in the larger world: it rises up from time to time, but only when the action clears sufficiently. 

Times Literary Supplement, 28/4/1972 (found on Colin Smythe’s page)

Marc Burrows notes, in his excellent biography The Magic of Terry Pratchett, that Tolkien’s influence was particularly obvious in this first iteration:

The Carpet People was . . . written in the shadow of Tolkien by an unabashed fanboy and The Lord of the Rings is coded into its DNA.

– The Magic of Terry Pratchett

I’ve only read the later, heavily edited version, and even there Tolkien’s influence is obvious – but it clearly benefited from older Pratchett’s experienced editing, coming across more like winking references than accidental parallels.

The Reboot

30 June 1992: The Carpet People hits the shelves. Written by wildly popular author Terry Pratchett… and his teenage self.

Terry Pratchett revisited his first novel nearly 30 years after it was originally published. He seemed rather pleased with the concept of co-authoring The Carpet People with himself, writing about it in the author’s note and expanding on the topic elsewhere.

He talked about teenage Terry quite frankly, and without undue self-deprecation.

From a 2013 interview with BoingBoing:

CoryDo you feel like seventeen-year-old Terry had much to say?

Terry: . . . he had a go, and it wasn’t bad. And then he was clever enough to read a hell of a lot of books and every bound volume of Punch. But when I was younger, I didn’t have the anger. I think you have to have the anger. It gives an outlook. And a place from which to stand. When you get out of the teens, well out of the teens, you begin to have some kind of understanding, you’ve met so many people, heard so many things, all the bits that growing up means. And out of that lot comes wisdom—it might not be very good wisdom to start with, but it will be a certain kind of wisdom. It leads to better books.

Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing 

The Carpet People 2.0 benefited hugely from elder Pratchett’s affectionate-yet-extensive edits. Back to Marc Burrows, who reviews books rather more eloquently than I can:

He added an abstract inner world to the characters, and deepened the mysticism that underpins any fantasy story worth its salt . . . He skips through the book pruning excitable adjectives, unnecessary exclamation points and generic fantasy clichés from the dialogue.

– The Magic of Terry Pratchett

By 1992, of course, Pratchett had a fanbase ready to catch whatever he released. Small Gods had come out the previous month, and Reaper Man was not long out in paperback. These are big titles – we’re already through the Early Pratchett Era and into Discworld Mania.

The Carpet People had a 1992 hardback print run of 18,000, followed by 115,000 paperbacks. Obviously, these kinds of numbers are dwarfed by the success of the Discworld books, but it’s not bad going.

Pratchett commented on a fan forum the next month:

Officially, [The Carpet People is] No.6 in the bestsellers this week, but the Sunday Times are snotty about it and won’t acknowledge it because they say it’s really a children’s book even if adults are buying it.

– Terry Pratchett,, Jul 13 1992

As it happens, in June 1992 he had topped both the hardcover (Small Gods) and paperback (Reaper Man) fiction best-seller lists. He would go on to be the UK’s best-selling author of the whole decade.

A chunk of the critical sector kept loudly dismissing Pratchett – and speculative fiction as a whole – for years, but they were fighting a losing battle and they must have known it.

The re-worked novel isn’t just a novelty artifact for die-hard fans, by the way. It’s not merely ‘better than the original’ – it’s a good book. I’ve read it many times. It was one of the first Pratchett books I got my paws on, way back when I was 10 or 11, and I’ve just reread it yet again at 30. It’s funny, decently paced, and beautifully imaginative. As a child, I was delighted to close the pages and spend a while imagining tiny worlds in the carpet. To be honest, I still am.

More on The Carpet People

I co-host a Discworld recap podcast called The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret, and we’ve just finished a two-parter on The Carpet People (which is why I’ve got all this to hand!). You can find those episodes here and here, or wherever you normally find podcasts.


Extra, Extra – a fun side-note on another, very limited edition:

Some years back Transworld experimented with a carpet-bound edition for the 25th anniversary of The Carpet People. They couldn’t see how to make it a profitable project, so I have the original. Limited edition, 1 of 1, signed by the author… – Pratchett in 2001 on alt.books.pratchett

* It’s not exactly Mk I, actually… the very first incarnation of The Carpet People was a short story in the Bucks Free Press. You can read a version of that in Dragons of Crumbling Castle.

[Edit: This article originally said that The Carpet People was released on 15 November, which is incorrect ]

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