DISCWORLD DISCUSSIONS: The Wee Free Men (2003)
Hello, hello, hello. I’m back, I’m hanging onto my sanity by a thread until I finish work in a couple of days and this is going to be a nausea and paracetamol fuelled edition of Discworld Discussions! OK? Everybody happy? Good. Let’s go.
‘The Wee Free Men’ isn’t the first Discworld novel for younger readers; the deeply disturbing ‘Amazing Maurice‘ has that honour. ‘Wee Free’ is, however, the first Tiffany Aching novel, the first in an arc that would become one of Sir Terry’s best loved, adored by young and old readers alike. In this early story, it isn’t difficult to see why it would go on to do so well. You might remember that one of my main problems with ‘Amazing Maurice’ is that it is dark, way too dark for kids and kind of scary even as an adult. ‘Wee Free’ doesn’t suffer from any such issue; Tiffany is a highly precocious, hyper intelligent, entirely engaging character. She’s the youngest daughter in a large family, raised on a farm on the Chalk and hard working with it. In the very first pages, she beats up a river monster with a frying pan. That’s the kind of girl Tiffany is. She goes on to meet a clan of Nac Mac Feegles – my favourite race on Discworld – and sorts out an evil queen at the same time. Tiffany is a baby witch, and when she meets Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg at the time, you know she is going to go on to do great things.
My favourite thing about Tiffany is that she is, in many ways, a very simple character. Imagine all of the earthy brilliance and no nonsense attitude of Granny Weatherwax distilled into the straightforward thinking of a child. Tiffany works hard on the farm, makes cheese and looks after her little brother, the brilliantly named Wentworth. She has read every book that her family owns – all four of them, including the dictionary that she didn’t know you weren’t supposed to read the whole way through– and is interested in learning more; whenever the travelling teachers come to town, she spends a carrot or an egg or two on a half hour lesson about something interesting. Most importantly, she was close to Granny Aching, the shepherdess who ruled the Chalk until she died. Tiffany learned a lot from Granny Aching, the most important lesson being ‘Someone has to speak up for them as has no voices’. It’s a philosophy direct from Sir Terry himself and it’s the rule that Tiffany lives her life by, unconsciously at first and then very much consciously. It’s simple and it’s complicated too, and kids love stuff like that. At no moment do you ever feel like Sir Terry is talking down to his readers and kids can tell things like that too. They won’t stand to be patronised.
I want to take some time to talk about the Nac Mac Feegles, my favourites and one of Sir Terry’s greatest creations. They’re a bunch of tiny blue pixies; fighting, drinking, hustling Scottish pixies, and I love them. Each clan has a Kelda, a female Feegle who is the leader and mother of most of the pixies in the clan. When a daughter becomes old enough, she takes some of her brothers and goes off to become the Kelda of her own clan. It seems right, somehow, that in a book about witches and female power, the clan should be a matriarchy. Indeed, the majority of the male characters in this book are Feegles, and they are highly respectful of their Kelda and of Tiffany. It’s refreshing to see, to be honest, and it makes the Feegles even more endearing than they already would be. I look forwards to re-reading more of their adventures as the series progresses.
The book ends, as I mentioned already, with Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg paying Tiffany a visit, setting into motion storylines that will become important further down the line. It has already become apparent that Granny Aching was a witch of kind, and Granny Weatherwax says that she would have liked to meet her. I adored the connotations of this, the coming together of Tiffany’s life before and her new life after, her old Granny and her new one. It’s a symbol that wouldn’t go over the heads of the child readers and it’s full of so much promise. Here’s to the next one!
‘It took them [the Feegles] a little while to realise that they’d run out of people to fight. They carried on fighting one another for a bit anyway, since they’d come all this way, and then settled down and began to go through the pockets of the fallen in case there was any loose change.’