The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

Let me introduce the nine-year-old heroine, Tiffany Aching, of The Wee Free Men in her own words:

I don’t know a single spell. I don’t even have a pointy hat. My talents are an instinct for making cheese and not running around panicking when things go wrong. Oh, and I’ve got a toad.

Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she DECIDES to be a witch. Partly it’s because she doesn’t understand why witches in all the fairy tales are called wicked: “where’s the evidence?” as she puts it. And partly it’s because all the stories that she’s read only happen to “blond people with blue eyes and the redheads with green eyes,” with “no adventures for people who had brown eyes and brown hair” like Tiffany. And then there’s what happens to a woman who people thought was a witch (she was an old woman who was thrown out of her house at the peak of winter which she did not survive).

Terry Pratchett has created a remarkable little girl, one who I suspect may well become one of my all time favorite heroines.

Tiffany is a little girl who THINKS. She sees the logical inconsistency in someone who could “magic away a boy and a whole horse” being unable to “magic away the men who came for her.” She has a sense of quietness about her which is a thing of ferocity. And she engages with the world, and thinks about it in ways that most people usually don’t. And through it all she sounds and feels like a nine-year old, though a highly unusual nine-year-old.

the wee free men terry pratchettI’m in love with the way Pratchett weaves little bits of philosophy and life-thoughts through the length and breadth of his story (the whole “Second Thoughts” bit reminded me of how watching your thoughts is an actual method taught in some of the meditation practices). Here’s one conclusion that Tiffany keeps circling back to that I think is true for life in general:

That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.

Oh, and I definitely love this definition of magic that is offered in the story:

“Ah weel,” said Rob Anybody. “What’s magic, eh? Just wavin’ a stick an’ sayin’ a few wee magical words. An’ what’s so clever aboot that, eh? But lookin’ at things, really lookin’ at ‘em, and then workin’ ‘em oout, now, that’s a real skill.”

“Aye, it is,” said William the gonnagle, to Tiffany’s surprise. “Ye used yer eyes and used yer heid. That’s what a real hag does. The magicking is just there for advertisin’.”

Then there’s the way silence, and listening is brought up over and again. Oh, I love the way silence is celebrated in this story, and the way its depths are plumbed, and the way it’s shown to be a thing of such SOLIDITY and STRENGTH in this book. From one of my many favorite parts of this book (I could probably quote the whole of it):

She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards and listen to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up onto the downs somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t enough time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

There is such humor in this book, a lot of it of the laugh-out-loud variety, especially when the Nac Mac Feegle aka the “Wee Free Men” who are incidentally about six inches high, call humans “bigjobs,” and Tiffany their “hag,” come into the picture. There’s also a gentle subversion of what is accepted as the normal—be it in the real world or in the fictional world—that goes on in the story. And so here is a bit that had me chuckling:

“Anyway, you don’t have to have a witch ancestor to be a witch. It helps, of course, because of heredity.”

“You mean like having talents?” said Tiffany, wrinkling her brow.

“Partly, I suppose,” said Miss Tick. “But I was thinking of pointy hats, for example. If you had a godmother who can pass on her pointy hat to you, that saves a great deal of expense. They are incredibly hard to come by, especially ones strong enough to withstand falling farmhouses.”

The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. He likes scrambling things up, and putting them together in ways that they are generally not. He plays ever so slightly with the way the “ordinary” works to stretch it into the extra-ordinary.

Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.

I am so, so glad that Ana’s review made me seek these books out.

13 thoughts on “The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

  1. I love love love this book! (well actually – I love everything of Pratchett’s worlds), but you have encapsulated all the things I adore about this story – soo great!

    I was reading the other day about child protagonists in adult novels (not that Pratchett’s novels are necessarily adult novels…) and the paradigm that heroes in stories, to be heroes, are unable to be passive, they have to take action; whilst child protagonists are usually unable to effect change themselves, but rather are trapped as observers, unguarded participants in their environment. The tension between the two is supposedly what makes a novel interesting – but Tiffany totally blows that theory out of the water – she is the coolest, smartest 9 yr old. ever.

    I would have totally have shared my peanut butter sandwiches with her at break when I was 9. (Who am I kidding – I would totally share my peanut butter sandwiches with her now!) lol.
    🙂

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    • Hahaha! I know! I would have totally been friends with her too! Maybe been in a bit of awe of her too? 😛

      And that “tension” bit sounds a bit problematic to me. First, the assumption that child protagonists are passive, with no agency–erm, they are also people? Granted, little people, who might not have the same range of agency as the big people do but I don’t think it makes sense to club them all into one monolithic category. Second, the assumption that heroes are only folks who take “actions”–I’d have to ask for the definition of action in that case!

      Anyway, so good to know that you love these books as well! This was definitely one of my favorite “finds” of 2015!

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      • lol – I so agree – I am always in awe of these people who spout theories like they are the be-all & end-all…especially ones that sound as…out of touch as this one…I mean sure, there may be a few child protagonists like that …but vast assumptions on a collective base???
        I feel like asking them if they have ever met a child – cos no child I’ve ever met has been inactive or passive – when they want something they just go for it!

        I think though, action in a hero/heroine is important – in the sense that action means to DO something (whether to achieve an end or not). Forward motion and a resolution is needed to reach a HEA, (if its romance we’re talking about) and I have never really associated passivity with forward motion…

        But like all good theories – there are so many exceptions, and loads of plots and books where very little happens and nobody does anything…

        Nothing can be defined definitively (that would so make an excellent cross-stitched sampler I think!)
        🙂

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        • Well I’m not sure what you mean by “doing” but for me it encompasses more than taking a physical action. It also includes the internal landscape of a character. So what may appear as passivity may actually be masking a lot of upheavals in a character’s emotional state of being, some of which may get translated into physical actions, and some of which may not, with all of it being equally important.

          So yes, a forward motion matters but that motion need not be restricted to just the visible realm, is what I’m thinking!

          And I love this—Nothing can be defined definitively! Haha! Agree!

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