Terry Pratchett's novels have been turning up in bookstores for nearly 45 years now, which is more than enough time for fans to have become familiar with his style: a little absurdism, a little wordplay, a lot of inventive fantasy, a lot of heart, and a deep-seated fascination with the way technologies change societies.
He has also been a massive best-seller for many of those 45 years — his hugely popular Discworld series made him England's top-selling author, until J.K. Rowling hit the scene. But even the most successful author had to start somewhere, and the new midgrade anthology Dragons at Crumbling Castle shows exactly where that point was.
Pratchett was just a teenager when he wrote the little fantasy stories in this collection. He was working as a junior reporter at the Bucks Free Press, a weekly local paper in Buckinghamshire, England, when he started producing untitled vignettes for the Children's Circle section — snippets of fiction about people so tiny that the carpet they live in feels like a mighty jungle, or about a town that tries to drum up tourist business by faking the presence of a monster in a local pond called the Sluggard.
These stories, published from 1966 through 1973, were largely forgotten after their initial run — except for those carpet people, who became the subject of his first novel in 1971. But Crumbling Castle represents part of a new push to salvage Pratchett's uncollected ephemera: In September 2014, Doubleday published A Slip of the Keyboard, which gathered his previously published nonfiction essays and columns, and the publisher is putting out a companion volume of adult fiction shorts, A Blink of the Screen, in March 2015.
No one could really say there were noticeable gaps to fill in the Terry Pratchett bookshelves: With 40 Discworld novels, plus spinoff guides and diaries and a cookbook, plus his assorted other collaborative series, solo one-off novels and children's books, Pratchett can easily fill an entire bookcase by himself. But these anthologies do help complete his history as a writer, and Dragons at Crumbling Castle in particular, as a collection of works that largely predated 1971's The Carpet People, is an enjoyable look at an early talent. Even if Pratchett himself seems cheerfully chagrined: The book's dedication reads, in part, "to my younger self, who thought these stories were pretty good ... Oh, I could teach that lad a thing or two!"
Certainly Pratchett has learned a lot about writing in 45 years, but the Crumbling Castle stories are still antic and entertaining, with a sense they were written in stream-of-consciousness bursts, as unfettered exercises in imagination and positivity.
They're airy, energetic and goofy, starting with the title story, which has King Arthur getting the news of the day from a series of town criers who collectively serve as a newspaper, right down to a sports-page crier, a pompous editorial crier, and a comics-page crier who draws pictures and travels with a jester. When the news crier informs Arthur about dragons invading a local castle, he sends the only available knight, a small boy who accumulates a group of similar misfits on his travels, then learns dragons aren't so bad. These kinds of wandering, unpredictable journeys that end in amiable places are common in Crumbling Castle, whether it's the infinitesimal dueling rulers on a well-populated Horton Hears a Who-style dust speck exploring a neighbor speck, or a pet tortoise taking a slow stroll out of his comfortable garden and down to the local pond.
Dragons at Crumbling Castle includes pictures drawn in the style of celebrated children's book artist Quentin Blake, and evoking Blake's many illustrations for another celebrated British author: Roald Dahl. There's a suggestion here that publisher Clarion Books is trying to associate Crumbling Castle with Dahl books like Matilda and The Witches. Pratchett's early stories lack Dahl's gleeful sense of the macabre, but the comparison otherwise isn't far off. Both authors are fantasists with a wry British sense of humor and a talent for taking stories in unexpected directions. Both are humanists, with a dim eye toward people's most selfish and self-gratifying natures but confidence in the power of good will and determination. And both approach young readers without sentiment or condescension.
Pratchett became a much more sophisticated and serious author than the teenage weekly-paper scribe who wrote the stories in Crumbling Castle. But he has kept the piquant sense of someone playing with language, with new worlds, and with the familiar old tropes that he enjoys upending. At 66, he still isn't too old for make-believe. Dragons at Crumbling Castle proves that at 17, he wasn't too young to know how to tell a surprising, winning story.