Kicker of Elves – The Wee Free Men

Nac_Mac_FeegleNo human could live like this. You could spend a day looking at a flower to see how wonderful it is, and that wouldn’t get the milking done. No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake and see it all as it really is…no one could stand that for long.

I always found it odd that Eske, the heroine of Equal Rites, was left in the background of the Discworld after only one book. It was my favourite of the (very) early Pratchett books, full of charm and a sense that he was starting to get things right. But while Granny Weatherwax continued beyond it, Eske remained behind. A shame because her story, as a legendarily powerful wizard, was not finished.

One (almost certainly incorrect) speculation is that she was left behind because Pratchett hadn’t really nailed children’s voices in the Discworld at that point. Pyramids’ army of budding teenage assassins shouldn’t have sounded like the grown-ups that they did.

Discworld fans will know he has become a much better writer since that book. Enter Tiffany Aching, who feels to me like an updating of Eske’s story (and she will show up a few books down the line). These books are splendid. Like Amazing Maurice, there is a deceptive simplicity to them that hides a darkness.

Tiffany lives on the Chalk and sees things in a different way to others. When her little brother is snatched by the Queen of the Faeries, it’s down to Tiffany, her trusty saucepan and an army of the Nac Mac Feegle, who will take an entire paragraph to explain, to rescue him and stop the Queen from entering this world. As my girlfriend pointed out, it’s Labyrinth but with a Fairy Queen replacing the Goblin King.

Many of the early Discworld novels looked at death and our passage into what lies next. It still ranks among his best writing, with brilliant scenes in Maskerade between Death and Granny Weatherwax, and in Mort. Yet he never quite handled the aftermath of death. Soul Music purported to be about grief but got mislaid in a maze of whimsy and genuinely dreadful puns.

In The Wee Free Men, the most important character of the book is not actually in it. And that’s Granny Aching, Tiffany’s grandmother and legend of the Chalk. She died two years before the events of the book and her absence still haunts Tiffany, who discovered her dead body:

Granny Aching smelled of sheep, turpentine and Jolly Sailor tobacco. The three smells mixed together and became one smell, which was, to Tiffany, the smell of the Chalk. It followed Granny Aching like a cloud, and it meant warmth, and silence, and a space around which the whole world revolved…

Granny Aching ruled the Chalk, with shepherds seeking the respect of someone who was the region’s greatest shepherdess. She fits into the bracket of Pratchett characters who have a quiet pride about what they can do. But like Weatherwax, Granny Aching appeared to be a closed character, embracing silence and the peace of the Chalk. Tiffany, in her youthful immaturity, mistakes that for her grandmother dismissing her:

I don’t want to think she’s just…gone. Someone like Granny Aching can’t just…not be there any more. And I want her back so much, because she didn’t know how to talk to me and I was too scared to talk to her, and so we never talked and we turned silence into something to share.

I know nothing about her. Just some books, and some stories she tried to tell me, and things I didn’t understand, and I remember big soft hands and that smell. I never knew who she really was. I mean, she must have been nine too, once.

Tiffany’s shame is represented in a showy shepherdess figurine she bought Granny. Perhaps…the old lady has seen it as a sort of an insult. What she fails to see is how Granny loved it but couldn’t express it. When Granny ‘appears’ at the end of the novel to help Tiffany defeat the Queen, it’s in the form of the figurine.

The heart of the book is her dealing with her grief, and growing up. Because while Tiffany is the heroine, she is rather full of herself. The narrator pokes fun at her self-conscious verbosity and how she’s a bit too proud of using the word ‘gibbous’ to describe a moon. It’s possible that this tells you more about Tiffany than she would want you to know.

The book takes its foundations in old folktales, of children wishing their siblings went away and their parents loved only them. The Queen, who gives people want they want by keeping them forever young, is someone who is a dark mirror of Tiffany, a regent who never wants to grow up. You’re something that’s never learned anything. You don’t know anything about people. You’re just…a child that’s got old.

(I’ve touched on Pratchett’s occasional and effective darkness before. I saw somewhere online someone crediting it to Neil Gaiman, who Pratchett collaborated with on Good Omens. The timing seems to follow, with the likes of Moving Pictures and Lords and Ladies in particular coming in the years after Good Omens was first published. Wee Free Men reminds me a lot of Lords and Ladies, with its interdimensional threats and dark heart. It was nice to see this coldness back.)

Tiffany’s acceptance of who she should be, the big sister, the mature person, at the end of the book gives it a neat morality play. “Yes! I’m me! I’m careful and logical and I look up things I don’t understand! When I hear people use the wrong words I get edgy. I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string. That’s the kind of person I am!”

I LOVE the line “I am good with cheese”. It is just quite quite brilliant.

Tiffany is another great Pratchett character. While she is rather stuck-up on occasion, I like her no-nonsense bookish ways, her rather mardy grumpiness, her big boots and saucepan and pedantry. It’s Eske all over again. Pratchett uses some splendid imagery with her as well. As Miss Tick, the witch who identifies her eldritch potential at the beginning of the novel, notes, doing magic on the Chalk is difficult. Chalk is hungry:

“It’s the shells of billions and billions of tiny, helpless little sea creatures that died millions of years ago,” said Miss Tick. “It’s…tiny, tiny bones. Soft. Soggy. Damp. Even limestone is better than that. But…she’s grown up on chalk and she is hard, and sharp, too. She’s a born witch. On chalk! Which is impossible!”

I love this. Underneath Tiffany’s feet are the bones of her ancestors and what made the chalk what it is. Everything that is in the ground, including Granny Aching, is what she stands upon. Her ancestors, where she came from, is what gives her power. It’s wonderful – it reminds me of the brilliant bit in Wyrd Sisters where the entire kingdom, from animals to geology, rebels against the fraudulent rule of Duke Felmet.

Right, time to explain the Nac Mac Feegle then. These tiny blue men first appeared in Carpe Jugulum, albeit somewhat incongruously. They didn’t add a lot to the story and their Broons-esque dialogue set my teeth on edge a bit. They are brilliant here though, after Pratchett dialed down the dialogue slightly but still managed to keep the nod to ABC Warriors in their description of humans as “bigjobs”.

Pratchett does a mad mass brilliantly (see the Unseen University’s Faculty) and the Nac Mac Feegle are a hilarious riot of booze, punching, petty crime and offensiveness. The rebels against Everyone. Anything leaven the novel’s themes of maturity and grief nicely. What else would you expect from midgets expelled from the queen’s realm for being drunk and stealing and fighting all the time and believe the Discworld is the afterlife and they are truly dead?

They also recognise Tiffany as the true heir to Granny Aching:

You see and hear what others canna’, the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye’re always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who cannae join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow. Ye’re Sarah Aching’s line, right enough.

After Amazing Maurice, I was rather looking forward to this and was not disappointed. It is an excellently dark folk tale that harkens back to the Pratchett novels of the 1990s. I am excited about what lies ahead for Tiffany. But before we get to that, war has returned to the Discworld. We are embedded with the Monstrous Regiment and the battle for Borogravia. See you next week.

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3 Comments

  1. I think the Tiffany Aching books are close to becoming my favourite Discworld (or TP in general) books.
    Its interesting that these books which are ostensibly for children are in some ways more serious than most of the other Discworld books. The passages about Granny Aching brought me to tears, and I’m getting a bit emotional just thinking about them now (partly that’s sadness at TP’s death).

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  2. I like Equal Rites well enough, but I’ve always viewed the early books, prior to Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! and the arrival of Mustrum Ridcully as sketches of a Discworld that TP hadn’t quite nailed down yet. In particular, the depiction of Granny Weatherwax in that book doesn’t quite fit with what we see in later books. Until Eske did reappear, I’d always sort of assumed that story was sort of non-canon.

    Tiffany Aching is wonderful though. I really can’t wait until my daughters are old enough that we can read her stories together.

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  3. Oh man, those few quotes about Granny Aching brought tears to my eyes again. It’s such a brilliant look at loss and at the difficult and wonderful relationships in families. I have two more books to go in my reread pile before I get back to Tiffany and the Chalk but I am really looking forward to it.

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