The Wee Free Men is a very important book in the Discworld saga. Despite being the thirtieth in chronological order, it starts a whole new cycle, although partially overlapping with that of the witches, as it introduces a new amazing protagonist: young Tiffany Aching.
In this first story, Tiffany is nine years old. She’s an exceptional child living in the rural area of the Chalk.1 One day, she finds herself by the river with her little brother Wentworth and she knocks out a monster that comes out of the water with a frying pan (and using her own brother as bait). This earns her the respect and fear of the Wee Free Men (official name: Nac Mac Feegles), crude little creatures who speak in an incomprehensible Glascow accent (clearly, Pratchett enjoyed a lot writing their dialogues2).
Except… Only Tiffany is capable of seeing these strange creatures! It’s no coincidence that she has already attracted the attention of a local witch, Miss Tick, who entrusts her with a talking toad to accompany her. When the Queen of the Fairies kidnaps Wentworth, it’s up to Tiffany to save him (and while she’s at it, she must also save little Roland, the son of the local Baron). And the proud Nac Mac Feegles are up for the ride! Clearly, since we’re talking about Pratchett, the Queen of the Fairies is evil and very different from any classic Disney fairy (just like the Discworld witches are very different from the evil witches imagined by Walt Disney).
But the best part of the book is the adventure in Fairyland, the Queen’s domain: Pratchett lets his imagination go wild and creates an entire kingdom where the rules of the normal world don’t apply (and not even those of the Discworld, which is not that normal). To make the story even more unique, we have the Nac Mac Feegles clan, with its habits and customs, and from which various individuals emerge, each with their own personality: Rob Anybody, the leader; the aviator Hamish; Daft Wullie and Big Yan, the bard William … Each with his own way of acting and more or less all united by the obsession for alcohol, abundant food, and fights.
Although the Wee Free Men are just supporting characters, not having any real evolution in the story, they are interesting characters and deserve to return in the rest of the Tiffany adventures which, little by little, will focus more and more on her and on the lessons she will learn in her life. This first book, in fact, already introduces two key concepts of Tiffany’s personal saga: First Sight and Second Thoughts.
These are gifts which, come to think of it, are nothing more than the typical characteristics of all of Pratchett’s (anti) heroes like Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax. First Sight allows you to see things as they really are, not as you expect to see them or how others see them. Second Thoughts, on the other hand, allow you to think about the way you’re thinking to understand if what you think makes sense or not (we could define it as the ability to question oneself). As always, therefore, Pratchett’s hero is wise in an apparently simple way, which in fact isn’t simple at all.3
Another great part of the book is the one in which Tiffany thinks about her grandmother Granny Aching who lived isolated and was a sort of classic witch of whom everyone was afraid of.4 Actually, all the people of the Chalk tried to ingratiate herself by giving her Jolly Sailor tobacco and food (but, when she died, they quickly burnt her house so to forget about her). The Wee Free Men knew Granny, she was their hag, and now they know that Tiffany took her place. Come to think of it, the elaboration of mourning is perhaps the main theme of the entire book.
To conclude, The Wee Free Men not only inaugurates a new cycle of the Discworld saga (the penultimate one, since Moist von Lipwig arrived soon afterwards), but it’s also one of the its best books overall, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to enter Pratchett’s universe starting from this book. Then, it would be easy to move towards the witches’ books, currently my favorite ones, and then read all the rest! Ciao!
1. She’s also extremely intelligent. For instance, take this dialogue started by a person treating her like a little girl: “Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.” Here’s Tiffany: “No, actually it isn’t. Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”
2. Here’s an example: Whut’s the plan, Rob?” said one of them.”Okay, lads, this is what we’ll do. As soon as we see somethin’, we’ll attack it. Right?”This caused a cheer.”Ach, ‘tis a good plan,” said Daft Wullie.
3. Tiffany also has Third Thoughts, but she’s special!
4. Granny Aching had never been at home with words. She collected silence like other people collected string. But she had a way of saying nothing that said it all.