Chalking it up to experience

Detail from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855–64) in Tate Britain

Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men
Illustrated by Paul Kidby
Corgi 2012 (2003)

‘The thing about witchcraft,’ said Mistress Weatherwax, ‘is that it’s not like school at all. First you get the test, and then afterwards you spend years findin’ out how you passed it. It’s a bit like life in that respect.’

Terry Pratchett listed his recreation on Who’s Who as “Letting the mind wander” — which is as good a description of young witch Tiffany Aching’s hobby in The Wee Free Men as any. Better, in fact, since Tiffany’s thoughts and experiences are loosely based on Pratchett’s own early memories of growing up. Tiffany’s story is set on the Chalk, an allusion to Pratchett’s adopted county of Wiltshire — where he finally settled, near Salisbury and not far from Stonehenge. You won’t be surprised to know that trilithons like those of the monument feature in The Wee Free Men, nor that wandering shepherds and their sheep, once a common sight on the Wilshire downs, are also a prominent motif in the novel.

Stonehenge and shepherd’s flock, from an old print

Nine-year-old Tiffany is from a shepherding family on Discworld’s Chalk. Hardworking, conscientious and imaginative (an excellent combination) she is also aware that she isn’t perfect — for example, she resents her younger brother Wentworth, a permanently sticky toddler who can only be bribed with sweets. But when Wentworth goes missing she takes it on herself to find him, thereby setting in train a number of consequences — not least of these is the coming into her inheritance as a witch, her being the granddaughter of the recently deceased wise woman on the Chalk, Granny Aching. And she has the unexpected help of a number of little people, the Wee Free Men of the title.

The Nac Mac Feegle are a fine example of Pratchett’s starting off with a number of disparate ideas before combining them into an integrated whole. What if the Wee Frees (a nickname once given to Free Church members who refused to join the United Free Church of Scotland in 1900) were in fact tiny Scotsmen? What if they were called not pixies but pictsies, after the ancient precursors of the Scots, the Picts? What if they were a bit like bellicose Smurfs, their blueness due to a combination of woad dye and tattooing? And what if their hobbit-like homes were barrows like the Bronze Age burial mounds that dot the Stonehenge landscape? How would Pratchett make these pictsies sound? Perhaps I’m not alone in hearing the Glaswegian inflections of Billy Connolly in their speech.

The Discworld is known to be pretty much like Pratchett’s own world, but distorted as in a fairground mirror. For example, Granny Aching is associated with a particularly strong pipe tobacco called The Jolly Sailor, the branding showing a bearded fisherman in yellow sou’wester and waterproofs within a lifebelt, with a lighthouse in the background. No doubt Pratchett based this on the logo of John Player’s Navy Cut tobacco, popular for much of the 20th century, which featured a bearded sailor with examples of naval ships from the past and the present and, on the horizon, a lighthouse.

Classic design for Player’s Navy Cut tobacco, one inspiration for Discworld’s The Jolly Sailor tobacco

Another example of Pratchett’s magpie habits for Discworld is the famous Victorian painting by Richard Dadd called The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, a borrowing the author freely acknowledges in a final note. For, as is no real secret, the kidnapping of Tiffany’s brother is down to no other than the Fairy Queen herself, pictured between her consort and a figure in a pointy hat in a section of Dadd’s canvas. The heart of Tiffany’s quest is to tackle the Queen, for which she has to call on all her resources: her loyalty to family, her connection with the land, her quick thinking, her compassion and — since she is now a witch — her latent powers. Though it is summer on Discworld, the Queen wants it to be winter; Tiffany has to pass through the trilithon portal to battle with all her might, in a liminal place which is neither one season nor the other, to counter creatures that are neither real nor illusory. For a nine-year-old that is one big ask; will it prove to be beyond her capabilities?

This Tiffany Aching story, the first of five, has a different vibe to the other Discworld titles I’ve read so far. There is humour, but not in the walloping dollops I’ve got used to; there are the expected footnotes, but these are minimal (just three, if I’ve noted them right); there are distinctive characters (a handful from other adult Discworld novels) but most make their first appearance here in this YA book. And in Tiffany herself we have a protagonist who, a little unusually, is taken seriously, is self-deprecating without being made to appear ridiculous and whom it is easy to like unreservedly. This is comic fantasy, but the comic never overbalances the fantasy, nor does The Wee Free Men forget what it really means to be human.


I’ve no idea if Pratchett ever met those two other British stalwarts of children’s writing, Diana Wynne Jones and Joan Aiken, but I fancy I see some echoes of their presence in The Wee Free Men. DWJ included a contribution from Practchett in a 1989 collection she edited called Hidden Turnings, and he wrote a laudatory comment for The Tough Guide to Fantasyland which she brought out in 1996; also, I fancy Granny Aching’s fondness of Jolly Sailor tobacco may be an allusion to Diana’s own smoking habits. And what of Joan Aiken? Surely Aching is somewhat of a homage to her name, even though Pratchett dissembles in the early discussion of Tiffany’s family origins:

But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins, or Archens, and Akens, or Akenns — spelling had been optional) mentioned in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Every ‘optional spelling’ but the most obvious is paraded here, but the strong suspicion must be that the Aiken name was the inspiration. And I fancy that Joan Aiken (who herself had a lifelong association with the chalk downs of Sussex) will be most remembered for Dido Twite, the figure whose feistiness and strength of character most reminds me (and others) of Tiffany.

A witch, Titania and Oberon: detail from The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Last year (2016) it was announced that the Jim Henson Company would be developing a feature film based on The Wee Free Men. This was to be written by Terry’s daughter Rhianna Pratchett, an award-winning scriptwriter for videogames, comics, film and TV. She is also co-director of independent production company Narrativia which was co-founded by Terry Pratchett in 2012 to manage the Discworld phenomena.

A post for Halloween, the autumn boundary between summer and winter, scheduled to coincide with Witch Week, the annual Diana Wynne Jones celebration hosted by Lory of the Emerald City Book Review. The issue of sovereignty looms large in both the Discworld novel (the Queen of Elfland) and in this year’s Witch Week theme, ‘Dreams of Arthur’.

10 thoughts on “Chalking it up to experience

  1. It was the Tiffany Aching books that brought me to Pratchett eventually and allowed me to appreciate his disc world. I have enjoyed others since. It’s good to hear that his daughter is involved in the screen development of Wee Free Men.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dido Twite and Tiffany Aching are two of my favourite female children in fantasy fiction. Lyra Belacqua is another, although she is less likeable than the first two. I would like to recommend another admirable girl to you: Sunny from ‘Akata Witch’ by Nnedi Okorafor. I am looking forward to reading the next book: ‘Akata Warrior’. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti is also an interesting young woman (from the novellas ‘Binti’ and ‘Binti: Home’).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now Okorafor’s an author new to me — not seen any of her (?) books in shops here so I’ll have a search online. Dido, Tiffany and Lyra, what a trio of strong admirable females, all the better to know in a world otherwise stuffed with hateful misogynists and sneering chauvinists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    I’m only really appreciating the Tiffany part of Discworld now, during a re-read of the entire series (to be concluded mid-year 🙂 ) and you make me pay more attention to the background, and see some connections I totally missed previously. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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