Wee Free Men

By Terry Pratchett

Still catching up on the reading from before the holidays… I had bought this book to take to Greece, but both Irina and I had finished it before we departed. Wee Free Men is the second (if you don’t count Eric) children’s novel Terry Pratchett has set in the Discworld. It tells the tale of how young Tiffany Aching becomes a witch, the successor of ther grandmother in the fight against the queen of elfland, with a little advice from a more experienced witch and the very useful help of a clan of small, blue persons.

  • Author: Terry Pratchett
  • Title: The Wee Free Men
  • Pages: 318 (but it’s a very big font)
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN: 0-385-60533-1

Any Discworld novel is by now a feast of recognition. It must be terribly hard to get into the series nowdays for those poor people who haven’t followed it from, say, Mort. Pre-Mort, the books were written in quite a different style, even though it is undeniable that Terry Pratchett’s output has kept developing both in style and substance ever since. (Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t weak entries in the list.)

So, even though this is ostensibly a children’s book, and only the second or third children’s book in the Discworld series (depending upon whether you count Eric, as I said above), it is full of internal allusions and references. Add to that Terry Pratchett’s tendency to forego the joys of subcreation, electing to nick from the rich store of the folklore of the British Isles, and you have a book that is not quite as literal and simple-minded as the average Blyton.

Terry Pratchett also rather sneakily uses his humoristic podium to teach his readers about life, the universe and the rest; indeed, books like Small Gods seem to me more an exercise in school-marming by a humanistic preacher than novels. This tendency, so pronounced in his novels for adults, is never very subdued in his children’s books. But that’s all right, because most children like moralizing, even to a fault. I would like it too, if Terry Pratchett’s morals were more like mine. (See: my apologia.) In this tendency, Terry Pratchett falls firmly in the Great British Tradtion of Enid Blyton or Lewis Hough.

However, Wee Free Men contains more action and fun than preaching, and quite a few interesting characters. Tiffany Aching is an interesting young girl with an opinion. One would imagine she would have become an engineer had she been born in 1978 in Liverpool or thereabouts. The baron’s son, in contrast, is a weak character, both in the book, and in writing. Not interesting at all. The Wee Free Men from the title, strong, boisterous, blue, wild, thieving pictsies are a great invention. Many readers, including me, were glad to see them back, and playing a bigger role. One does wonder what the showcasing of their matriarchal society is supposed to mean. It is just mentioned, not really worked out — even if it does play a role in the plot.

I won’t say anything about the story: I never seem to do, partly because I really dislike summarizing, and partly because anyone who wants to know what happens should read the book for themselves. It is fairly coherent, rather nightmarish (or dream-like) for the greater part, and in the creation of fairyland, Terry Pratchett shows his ability very well. It’s on a par with the Dreamlands of Unknown Kadath, if that rings a bell to you.

Anyway, to sum up: the writing is as fluid as ever (even though I remember the days of Pyramids, when Terry Pratchett could be relied upon to put any number of completely ungrammatical sentences on
paper, not in dialogue where they might be excused, but in his expository prose. Terry Pratchett is a very intrusive author, very authorial, or is that auctorial — always giving his own view of things, and often quite preachy), there is a fine story present, and an interesting protagonist.