Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Saturday 9 April 2011

Tiffany Aching- an appreciation

I have long been a fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. I think that as a fully realised alternate universe, it works brilliantly. Fantasy novels, particularly comic ones, must have their own internal logic, and the rules can be broken, but not so much that it breaks the reader's belief in it. Pratchett does this with incredible skill.

Longterm fans of Discworld will remember that in Discworld, according to Equal Rites, girls are witches and boys are wizards, and there are no exceptions. Boy wizards go to Ankh Morph to the Unseen University, and girl witches are apprenticed to another witch. Witch magic (despite the best efforts of Mrs Letice Earwig to "professionalise" it) is practical, focussing on healing, animal husbandry and looking after the sick, poor, elderly and unfortunate.

Tiffany Aching, in The Wee Free Men, first of her series, is nine years old. She lives on The Chalk, her family are sheep farmers and she is still mourning the death of Granny Aching, a formidable woman and well-respected shepherd. Tiffany is a very intelligent girl, largely ignored in her numerous family since she is capable and trustworthy. She is a very good dairymaid. She has read all the books her family have (a yearly almanac, a book of fairy tales, The Flowers of the Chalk, Diseases of Sheep and a dictionary which she has read from beginning to end since nobody told that this is not how a dictionary is used. Hence she has an excellent vocabulary but often pronounces words wrongly.)

The book of fairy tales came in handy, as she recognises Jenny Green Teeth and defeats her at the beginning of The Wee Free Men in a particularly ruthless way. This attracts the attention of both the Nac Mac Feegles, a gang of disreputable, vaguely Scottish "Pictsies" (thrown out of Fairyland for drunkenness, thieving and fighting), and Miss Perspicacia Tick, an itinerant witch finder (to recruit young witches) and teacher. Teachers in Discworld are like travelling showpeople- they turn up in a village, set up a showground and teach in return for food. However they are regularly chased from villages at dusk, for fear of chicken-stealing. Tiffany is too young at 9 to be apprenticed, but she travels to Fairyland to rescue her little brother Wentworth and on the way, also the Baron's son Roland, thereby also attracting the attention of Granny Weatherwax.

The four novels following Tiffany's adventures ( The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full Of Sky, Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight) revisit her every two years: she is 11 in A Hat Full Of Sky, apprenticed to Miss Level and encountering some delightful other young witches, 13 in Wintersmith and 15 in I Shall Wear Midnight. One of the joys of Pratchett's novels are the names- to my mind he is on a par with Dickens in that respect. Annagramma Hawkin, Petulia Gristle, Dimity Hubbub and Gertruder Tiring are fabulous names. Another is the re-encountering of characters from other Discworld novels: Granny Weatherwax, Mrs Earwig, the Nac Mac Feegles and the Wintersmith are recurring characters. I would argue that rather than "adult" and "juvenile" novels, all Pratchett's novels can be enjoyed by all ages; readers who are more sophisticated and widely-read in the fantasy genre can enjoy the parody aspects, while less experienced readers enjoy the humour, characters and absurdities of Discworld.

Pratchett has a great deal of respect for his female characters, both young and old; Tiffany is a great female hero (not just an honorary boy as many female heroes in children's fiction tend to be), her thought processes are particularly interesting. What might be termed her "metacognition" (reflecting upon her thoughts, then reflecting upon her reflection) is particularly interesting and would be a fascinating basis for thinking skills lessons with 10-14 year olds. I find his commentary on fairy tales in The Wee Free Men interesting as well- the treatment of women considered witches in fairy tales, on The Chalk and in 17th century Europe and North America is a theme of the novels.

Finally, Pratchett brings aspects of both "high" and "low" culture  into the novels: part of Fairyland is a representation of Richard Dadd's The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke (minus a Nac Mac Feegle making an obscene gesture, of course!) which can be seen at Tate Britain. While searching for the Tate link, I came across this Queen song that I had never heard. One of my favourite exchanges in the novel, perhaps a comment on our present popular culture, is this one between Tiffany and Miss Tick:

"...Are you listening?"
"Yes," said Tiffany.
"Good. Now... if you trust in yourself..."
"... and you believe in your dreams..."
"... and follow your star..." Miss Tick went on.
"'ll still get beaten by people who spend their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy. Goodbye."

There is now an illustrated version of The Wee Free Men, which I will be looking out for (my copy is a very bashed Random House copy). I'm a little concerned, as I have my own idea of Tiffany's (very ordinary) appearance, but the jacket looks great:

Terry Pratchett won the Carnegie Medal for The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A full list of his children's fiction can be found here. His novels have frequently been dramatised on BBC Radio 4, and available as audiobooks (Mort is particularly good). One of the great things about these novels is that, in an era with increasing polarisation of the genders in publishers' marketing (I've written more about this here) is that they are enjoyed by both boys and girls; any upper Primary teacher will tell you how hard it is to interest boys in reading novels with a girl protagonist, but Pratchett can do it. I take my pointy hat off to him for that alone.


  1. I'm torn about the Tiffany Aching books. I've only read Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight - I just couldn't get into A Hat Full of Sky and I don't really like the Nac Mac Feegle (I've no idea why not, they crossed some weird barrier between 'OK I'll buy it' and 'Just... no' in my mind!) so I avoided The Wee Free Men - though I may pick it up now, to see what it says about fairy tales.

    I *loved* Wintersmith, which is one of my all-time favourite Discworld books (along with Night Watch, Man at Arms, Jingo and Reaper Man. And Mort. And Pyramids. And Moving Pictures...). The atmosphere, the snow everywhere, the classic story... loved it. I was more conflicted about I Shall Wear Midnight which was... dark. In a not nice way. But good, too.

    I loved Only You Can Save Mankind, which I heard on the radio, and especially Jonny and the Dead, cause I've always loved ghost stories. I adore Discworld, but it's fun seeing Pratchett play with real things as well (love 'Yo-less'!).

  2. I know what you mean- there are some aspects of Pratchett that I can buy into and some I can't. I'm so enchanted by the internal logic of Discworld that I'm willing to buy into it in a way I'm not with the Johnny and the Bomb books or the Bromeliad, for some reason.

  3. Ok, having read this I'm thinking I should give him a go. I see his books quite regularly in charity shops so next time there's one on the shelf I'll pick it up and give it a go - and then report back!

  4. Let me know what you think! One of the books I sent to the family in Christchurch was The Wee Free Men- I figured it was something all of them could enjoy.

  5. Good piece- Must confess to never having read a TP book - but loved the Queen link. I have the entire catalogue of Queen stuff and adore that song. Based on your blogpost I shall now gently add a Pratchett or two to my list of 'books to take to Malta'...and shall let you know what I think once I have read said tome. Nicely written post. I was captivated..once again X

  6. Oh thank you, Tracy, that's lovely! I'll be looking forward to catching up with your Malta adventures x