Freedom and Courage
in Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People
By C. Robert (Bob) Mesle
The Carpet People (New York & Boston: Clarion Books, 1971, 2013)
Terry Pratchett loves to explore fantastic flat worlds. Most of his books form The Discworld Series, set on a round but flat world, possibly riding on the back of a giant turtle. The Carpet People, his oldest and newest book, was first written when he was 17 and is now published as revised by his older self. As a process thinker I can hardly resist discussing the nature of the self over time, but I shall summon all my discipline and stick to the matter at hand: freedom and courage.
Pratchett imagines microscopic creatures living on a carpet, which to them is a vast world supported and surrounded by the apparently infinite flat “floor.” Among the creatures he imagines are “wights” who can remember the future. They always know what is going to happen. But after they remember what you are going to say it is necessary for you to actually say it since they remember that you will do so. But they cannot tell YOU what you are going to say, or about any other future event. This is against the order of things.
It is a comforting life for the wights—to know, to never face an uncertain future. Not so comfortable for others in the carpet world who live with continual uncertainty.
Culaina is rare wight who remembers everything. She doesn’t just remember what will happen; she remembers everything that could possibly happen.
If you know much about process theology, your ears should be perking up. (Though I suppose it seems an odd thing to perk up when you are reading.) Your ears—or mind, or whatever—should be perking up because this is so similar to Whitehead’s idea that God knows all of the possibilities for the future. Of course, Whitehead argued that since the future does not exist yet except as a range of possibilities, even God, who knows everything there is to know, does not know what will happen because there is nothing to know—or remember- -yet, except what is possible and probable.
Culaina explains how wights like her are different from other wights. “’They remember only all those things that happen. We remember things that might happen. I remember what will happen if you don’t win. I know all possibilities. For everything that happens, a million things don’t happen. I live all of them. I remember you winning, and I remember you losing. … Both are real, for me. For me, both of these have happened. My brother and sister wights remember the thread of history. But I remember all the threads that never get woven. For me, all possibilities are real. I live them all.’” (162)
In a time of great crisis for everyone in the Carpet world, Culaina decides that she must mess with the future. At this point, she becomes much more like Whitehead’s God. She lets go of the fixed future, and begins to invest in other possibilities. Always out of sight, always beckoning rather than controlling, which even she cannot do, she calls out for a new future.
Normally wights do not fight. They are above the fray. But in this great crisis a group of wights find themselves under attack. Unexpectedly--even for them!—with Culaina working in the background, help arrives in the form of the heroes of the story. The wights don’t know what to do. They remember having lost the fight, having all died. But they don’t.
“’How can this be! We were supposed to die!’ he said. ‘All of us!’
Eventually the wights join Snibril and his people in the great fight against evil. Afterward, however, they leave.
‘Why go away?’ …
She’s right. Living in freedom requires courage. She helps us understand why the idea of total predestination by an omnipotent God has been, and still is, so comforting to so many people over the centuries. The alternative is fearful. We face the unknown in every moment.
Yet, freedom lives in hope, as well. The future arises out of the past, which can be a very heavy weight—even to the point of despair. But the future does not exist—yet. We can, as Snibril admits, let things happen. We can decide that the weight of the past is too heavy to lift, that a different future than we expect is too uncertain to face.
Ironically, this can be true even when the other possible futures are clearly better. The battle to create them is just too much to face. We have to change our habits and ways of thinking. We may have to make sacrifices. We may have to give up cherished beliefs or comforts. We might, for example, have to accept that global warming is true, and that major changes are urgently needed in how we live! That is why courage is required, to summon the strength to lift the weight of the past and face an uncertain future in the hope of something better.
The future does not exist. We must create it--weave it together along with all the other people and creatures of the world. It takes courage to face our freedom, but it is a courage which creates hope. Such courage and hope are central messages of process relational thinking.
Additional articles by C. Robert (Bob) Mesle in JJB include:
Relational Power GO
What Really Matters? Metaphysics for the Welfare of Children GO
A Soul is Not a Thing: A Process-Relational Wedding GO
Creative Transformation: Three Reflections GO
The Tao of Grandparenting GO
What Really Matters GO
Sacred Fudge GO
Elliot is Brahman GO
Children in a Burning House GO
Suffering and Meaning: Reflections on a Death GO
Quantum Indeterminacy and the Case for Freedom in Nature GO