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Book review: “Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales” by Terry Pratchett

Climbing a mountain in search of the abominable snowman, the group of adventures come across a tiny water wheel on which is attached a piece of parchment. It reads:

When is a door not a door?…
When it is a jar (ajar).


Yet, this is not your run-of-the-mill (ahem) pun. As one of the explorers explains, this is a joke wheel. It’s like the prayer wheels of Tibetan Buddhism except, instead of a prayer, there’s a joke that’s repeated with each revolution of the wheel. It’s put there by the Joke Monks.

You see, they think the world was created as a joke, so everyone should give thanks by having a good laugh. That’s why they tie jokes to the water wheels. Each time the wheel goes around, a joke goes up to heaven….

Do you know, they reckon that there are 7,777.777,777,777 jokes in the world, and when they’ve all been told, the world will come to an end, like switching off a light.”

One character spends the rest of the journey wondering how soon the 7,777,777,777,777th joke will be told.


Cub reporter

This scene with its pun, its wry humor and its fascination with religious faith is prime Terry Pratchett. It’s the sort of incident that you’re likely to find in any of Pratchett’s 41 mega-selling Discworld fantasy novels and numerous other books. When he died last March at the age of 66, Pratchett had sold more than 85 million books worldwide.

But the Terry Pratchett who wrote that scene wasn’t the literary lion who was knighted in 2009 by Queen Elizabeth II.

He was 21-year-old Terry Pratchett, a cub reporter at the Bucks Free Press, a weekly tabloid serving a suburban area west of London.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Tales, published in 2014, is made up of 14 stories that Pratchett wrote for the newspaper’s Children’s Circle section. They were originally published between 1965 and 1973, starting when Pratchett was in his mid-teens.


Two of the stories — “Tales of the Carpet People” (1965) and “Another Tale of the Carpet People” (1967) — led to Pratchett’s first novel called (surprise!) The Carpet People.


“To imagine”

Since these tales were originally written for the Children’s Circle, they are focused more for an audience of kids around 10- or 11-years-old. Yet, any fan of Pratchett’s work will find them fun.

After all, Pratchett’s books were always a bit child-like. He had a love of silliness and bad jokes. What these tales don’t have are very many references in plot and description to the events going on in the real world that were the infrastructure of his books. No grappling, however playfully, with such issues as bigotry, greed, corporate heartlessness and fanaticism.

And, it must be said, they aren’t perfect. Some fall a bit flat. Most are rough around the edges, as Pratchett acknowledges in a short introduction. He writes that he made a few tweaks in the stories as originally published, adding:

The younger me wasn’t as clever as he turned out to be.

But that naïve young lad on the motorbike and the grown-up me with my black hat and beard are the same person — and all we both ever wanted to do was write for people who are old enough to understand.

And to imagine.


The Sports Page

Just imagine, as Pratchett does in the first tale “Dragons at Crumbling Castle,” a land in which the news is spread by the town crier.

So, on a Sunday morning, as King Arthur sits in bed eating an egg, the Sunday town crier arrives.

Actually, there were several of them, including a man to draw the pictures, a jester for the jokes, and a small man in tights and soccer cleats who was called the Sports Page.


The news crier shouts, “DRAGONS INVADE CRUMBLING CASTLE.” (Pratchett helpfully adds a note that “this was the headline.”)

Then, in a softer voice, the crier says, “For full details hear page nine.”

The Ninth Page came panting up, coughed, and said: “Thousands flee for their lives as family of green dragons burns and rampages around Crumbling Castle…”

“What is King Arthur doing about this?” demanded the Editorial Crier pompously…


“To invent swimming”

Or imagine, as Pratchett does, Dok the Caveman whose many inventions usually crash and burn, sometimes literally.

He creates the wheel, and, as it rolls down the hill, he runs after it and ends up falling into the river where…

Dok was blowing bubbles and trying desperately to invent swimming. “Arms — out! Breathe — in!” he cried.

And sank like a stone.


“Three Cheers…”

Or imagine, as Pratchett does in two tales, the national anthems of two small nations with silly-acting leaders.

For one, the anthem is “Three Cheers for Us.”

For the other, it’s “God Save Us All.”

Here is a sly commentary on the pomposity of nationalism, one that, I’m sure, most 10- and 11-year-olds would understand. And it’s a tantalizing preview of the sort of social critique to be found in the many books the older Pratchett would write.

A critique gussied up with fantasy and wit and silliness and, well, fun. But a critique nonetheless.

Whether a teen or a writer in his 60s putting the finishing touches on his final novel, Pratchett was always someone who not only imagined but also saw.

He saw the world and human life in all its fragility and tragic arc. He made a joke of it all. In all seriousness, he laughed at the tragedy of life.

He was a Joke Monk.

Patrick T. Reardon

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