I just finished reading The Wee Free Men and, for once, I wanted to put down my thoughts with as much spontaneity and minimum mulling as possible. So here they are.
- Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men is, among other things, a brilliant commentary on Fairy Tales and the Fairy Tale Tradition. In his 30th, ostensibly young adult, Discworld novel, Pratchett turns his well-honed wit and formidable plotting and narrative skills to the Discworld country known as the Wold (or Chalk) which lies, at the moment this tale takes off, at the boundary between the real world and the world of dreams and nightmares (aka Fairyland).
- Enter Pratchett’s sprightly heroine, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching, an aspiring witch who, the first time we see her is
…lying on her stomach by the river, tickling trout. She liked to hear them laugh. It came up in bubbles.
But there’s trouble brewing; the shallow river turns green, and deep, and ominous, and a rather ridiculous looking monster known as “Jenny Green-Teeth” is found lurking in the waters. Tiffany goes home, fetches a large frying pan, returns to the river, coolly uses her annoying little brother as bait, lures out the monster, and bashes it with the pan.
- Tiffany, it turns out, is the granddaughter of Granny Aching, a wise and rather mysterious and powerful figure, who has been dead for two years as the tale opens. Soon it becomes apparent that Granny Aching had, for all her life, been guarding the Wold against all kinds of trouble, both real and dreamt and that Tiffany is her heir apparent.
- The titular “Wee Free Men” are a red-haired, blue-skinned, tattooed, kilt sporting, rather fierce and wild, and ultimately very helpful clan of fairy folk (pictsies) known as the Nac Mac Feegle. They are technically emigrants from fairyland living in the real world. (It’s the Feegles’ belief that they’re dead and the so-called real world is their heaven.) They seek Tiffany out because they sense the other world ominously encroaching on the real one.
- Pratchett’s characterization of witches in general and Tiffany in particular is pretty unique; and he manages to come up with an idiom that lends itself rather naturally to the description of their mindscapes. He achieves this by invoking an apt and surprisingly realistic metaphor for the “first sight” that Tiffany apparently possesses: Synesthesia. (Of course, he doesn’t do so explicitly.) “First sight” is described as the ability to see things for what they are rather than what one wants them to be; in other words, seeing things from multiple perspectives, dimensions, or worlds. And what is synesthesia but an innate ability to map an experience in one sensory world to another?
- Tiffany’s perception of the world around her, whether it be the realistic world of the Wold or the dreamy world of fairyland, is undeniably synesthetic. She hears light gleam, glisten, glint, and glitter. The words are virtually onomatopoeic to her,
If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go ‘glint!’ And the distant 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.
She can hear and taste the smell of visual imagery–snow for instance,
It sounded like the smell of snow, or the sparkle of frost. It was high and thin and drawn out.
It was ridiculous to talk about the smell of snow…But Tiffany always knew, when she woke up, if it had snowed in the night. Snow had a smell like the taste of tin. Tin did have a taste, although admittedly it tasted like the smell of snow.
It is this ability that helps her see the portal to fairyland and later allows her to move between multiple dream worlds within it.
- Pratchett also gives us a very original deconstructed fairyland, while, in his own way, remaining true to the fairy tale tradition. In it there are things that care to look real only when observed, creatures that lure you into your own dreams and then feed on those dreams, and things out of dreams and nightmares. And then there’s the painting (see P.S 1). And within it the Queen who steals dreams.
- None of this nosy deconstruction, however, takes away the magic of Pratchett’s writing. As Tiffany says “…it didn’t stop being magic just because you found out how it was done.”
- Pratchett is, and has always been, a warm and humane writer, even when, tongue firmly in cheek, he irreverently pokes fun at the familiar themes, motifs, and tropes of fantasy. (He is a satirist and perhaps a moralist too, but he is certainly not a parodist.) And, in my opinion, he’s at his warm and humane best here. We also come to realise that besides being a formidable confectioner of plot and narrative, Pratchett is a master storyteller too and The Wee Free Men is certainly one of his finest master-strokes.
P.S 1: A crucial segment, actually an inspired set piece, of the plot involves Tiffany finding herself in a dream, the dreamscape of which is a real unfinished, but amazingly detailed painting by Richard Dadd known as The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.
P.S 2: I tweeted quite a bit while reading. All of my tweets are here.