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Literature / The Wee Free Men

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"That was how it worked. No magic at all. But that time it had been magic. And it didn't stop being magic just because you found out how it was done..."

The 30th book in the Discworld series, the second for young adults and first in the Tiffany Aching apprentice witch series.

The Chalk has a problem. It is an isolated agricultural community near the highly magical region of the Discworld known as the Ramtops. And it has no witches. Not even one.

That means it is about to have Elves.

But Miss Tick, professional witch finder (that is to say, a witch who finds witches and teaches them how they are witches, not the other kind), is on the case. The problem is that you can't be a witch on chalk. Witching needs good strong stone, but her elbow says there's one there already, and she would not be much of a witch if she ignored her own elbow.

Tiffany Aching is the witch. A 9-year-old girl and granddaughter of the late Granny Aching, the best shepherd the hills ever knew and quite possibly a witch herself, not that anyone, possibly even her, knew it. When a monster appears in the local river, she gets annoyed and, using her brother as bait, hits it in the face with a frying pan.

When she sets out to learn more about the monster, she meets Miss Tick, who tells her to wait while she goes to fetch help. She leaves her talking toad to serve as Tiffany's advisor and goes off to get Granny Weatherwax.

Then Tiffany's baby brother Wentworth goes missing, and The Queen of the Elves is to blame. It is at this point that certain people make themselves known.

Noteworthy for being the first Discworld book not to feature Death. As a character, anyway.

Also available in an illustrated edition (art by Stephen Player) that includes original Bonus Material, such as the transcript of the event that led to the Toad being turned into a toad.

A film adaptation was announced in 2016, which is to be produced by The Jim Henson Company, with scriptwriting handled by Terry Pratchett's daughter, Rhianna Pratchett.

Preceded by Night Watch, followed by Monstrous Regiment. The next book in the Tiffany Aching series is A Hat Full of Sky.

This book provides examples of:

  • All Witches Have Cats: One of the pieces of "evidence" used against the old woman whose fate inspires Tiffany.
  • Army of Lawyers: The Elf Queen summons one; the one thing the Nac Mac Feegle are scared of.
  • Badass Bookworm: Tiffany in a nutshell. She read the dictionary cover to cover (although it was not a pronunciation dictionary) because "she didn't know you weren't supposed to."
  • Bad "Bad Acting": The Feegle who pretends to be an injured bird in order to teach Ratbag a lesson.
  • Bait-and-Switch: We are first introduced to Tiffany when she is lying by the river, tickling trout. This normally refers to a method of catching trout by hand, but no, it turns out she's literally tickling them.
    She liked to hear them laugh. It came up in bubbles.
  • Bewitched Amphibians:
    • The Toad, though it takes it a while to remember it was once a lawyer, for the most time it's not sure whether it was transformed or enchanted to believe it had been transformed.
    • Miss Tick attempts to use the classic turn-you-into-a-frog threat to intimidate someone, but since that someone is already a Toad, he'd have considered it an improvement.
  • Blatant Lies: The two egg-stealing Feegles claim that they thought the eggs were stones, so needed to be removed for the hen's comfort.
    • Rob Anybody unleashes a torrent of them when being accused of a multitude of crimes by the Queen's summoned lawyers. Luckily the toad comes to his (literal) defense.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Pretty much all the male Feegles.
  • Book Ends: The novel begins with Miss Tick scrying on Tiffany in a dish of inky water, and the image draws back to reveal the Chalk dotted with sheep and sheepdogs streaking across the grass like comets. An identical pull-back view of the Chalk occurs in the very last paragraph.
  • Brainy Brunette: Tiffany has hair as brown as earth. She is also so observant, that she ventured into a land where anything and everything in the real world could be replicated to decieve, and came out alive, healthy, and with two people successfully saved.
  • Brick Joke: Near the beginning of the book, Jenny Green-Teeth is described to Tiffany as having eyes the size of soup plates, and Tiffany goes to measure a soup plate to find out how large that is. Near the end of the book, a horse is described by the narrator as having hooves the size of soup plates, with a footnote saying that they were probably eleven inches across but Tiffany didn't measure them.
  • Brown Note: Gonnagles specialize in this, either through hypersonic noise that causes excruciating pain to anything that can hear it or intentionally and phenomenally bad poetry.
  • Bullying a Dragon: In a misguided attempt to pull rank on Tiffany, Roland reminds her that technically speaking, the Baron owns the Aching farm. To his credit, he realizes this was an incredibly bad idea pretty much the second the words finish coming out of his mouth, and immediately takes the chance to backpedal when Tiffany offers it.
  • Burn the Witch!: Tiffany is inspired to become a witch after what happened to a little old lady who was falsely suspected of being a witch. Tiffany's reason for becoming a witch? To make sure it doesn't happen again.
  • Canis Latinicus: Toad defeats a group of elf-made lawyers through this. Actually, it might be a subversion; it's actually very accurate Latin. It's the message that's doggerel. It's the precise Latin for Nac Mac Feegle battle cries.
  • The Cavalry Arrives Late: When she realizes there's an elvish incursion going on, Miss Tick goes off to fetch help, but in her absence Tiffany is driven to take immediate action, and ends up winning her showdown with the Queen minutes before Miss Tick arrives with the cavalry.
  • Closer to Earth: Feegle keldas are almost the only ones with even a drop of common sense.
  • Cool Old Guy: The only exception to the Closer to Earth rule is William the gonnagle, who is easily the oldest and the most sensible Feegle after the kelda dies.
  • Delicious Distraction: This is how the dromes catch their prey, and also how to keep Wentworth, Tiffany's young, annoying brother, quiet.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: What's the first thing you do when a humanoid monster made of weed with eyes the size of soup plates leaps out to grab your brother? Why, smack it with a skillet, obviously.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: When she first finds out that Wentworth has gone missing, Tiffany wonders how it could've happened while her older sisters were watching, then admits that they wouldn't be watching very well with all the shirtless young men around.
  • Dream Weaver: Dromes make a habit of manipulating people's dreams so they'll want to stay forever while the drome feeds off their body. The Queen is also quite adept at manipulating dreams and illusions.
  • The Fair Folk: As seen in Lords and Ladies... unfortunately.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Roland gets all the credit for the rescue. At least he tries to tell the truth.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The cover. Look at the toad and the swords of Feegles closest to him.
    • The toad's identity is also foreshadowed by several comments he makes throughout the book regarding litigation opportunities.
    • Toad tells Tiffany that he still has nightmares over what happened to the rest of his big human body when a fairy godmother turned him into the much-smaller toad. And in the very next book, A Hat Full of Sky, we find out exactly what happens to all the leftover human bits...
  • Frying Pan of Doom: Tiffany wields an iron skillet against Jenny Green-Teeth, instinctively aware that Jenny can only be seriously injured by Cold Iron.
  • Gender Rarity Value: The 99% male Nac Mac Feegle follow the leadership of the Kelda, their one female. Of course, she is their mother.
  • Giant Wall of Watery Doom: When Tiffany and company escape from the Elf Queen into a dream of the sea, the Queen makes a last-ditch attempt to kill them with an enormous tidal wave. It looks like Tiffany and Ronald were the only survivors, but Wentworth and the Feegles show up alive after the Queen's failed attempt at a Breaking Speech.
  • Glamour Failure: Dromes can make very life-like dreams, but they can't make people that talk coherently.
  • Headless Horseman: One of the Queen of the Elves' minions.
  • Hero of Another Story: Miss Tick spends most of the novel off-page, seeking out Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and convincing them to follow her in order to begin Tiffany's training.
  • Hostage MacGuffin: Rare gender reversal where the Baron's son has been kidnapped. Though it's not clear the Queen of the Elves knew who he was, but his riding out on a horse—which only a Baron's son would do—is implied to have led to his capture. It is fairly clear that that was why the vigilantes who hounded Mrs. Snappery to her death were never held to account (though they would have been if the area had had a real witch).
  • I Am What I Am: At the climax of the book, the Queen attempts to use Tiffany's insecurities against her, but Tiffany turns them around and affirms that they are also her strengths.
  • I Know Your True Name: Parodied. The Feegles don't give their names to strangers, but what they're afraid of isn't so much someone gaining magical power over them as it is someone putting their names on court orders and wanted posters.
  • Impossible Theft: The Feegle can get into anywhere - other dimensions, peoples' dreams... They can also get out of almost anywhere, unless that 'anywhere' has lots of alcohol in it. Then there may be a considerable delay. They use this talent to burglarize/mug people. And drink.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Tiffany's younger brother wants candy. He's surrounded by piles of it. He's sitting in the middle of them all, crying, every piece untouched. Why? Because if he takes one then he's not taking all the others. To be fair, Wentworth is three. This is a Shout-Out to Buridan's Ass. It happens at home as well; the solution is to stick a pail over his head and take away all but one kind.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Tiffany is an intelligent girl gifted with First Sight, which means that she sees reality instead of seeing what she wants reality to be, has Second and Third Thoughts, which mean that she thinks about the way she thinks and cannot stop thinking, even if she wants to, respectively. These make her the only one in her homeland who can defeat the Queen of Fairies without being deluded into thinking that Fairyland is reality for eternity. It also means she is lonely. Crushingly lonely.
    Kelda: "'Tis the First Sight and Second Thoughts ye have, and 'tis a wee gift an' a big curse to ye. You see and hear what others canna', the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye're always like the person at the party with the wee drink who cannae join in."
  • It's All About Me: A rare heroic version. It doesn't matter to Tiffany if she loves her brother or not. The important thing is that he's hers. And look out when she expands her borders from "family" to "country".
  • It's Personal: When the Queen of Elves, who at that point had no idea Tiffany even existed, decides to kidnap her brother and invade the Chalk, Tiffany takes it as such a big insult that she marches straight into Fairyland and with the assistance of the Nac Mac Feegles, defeats her.
  • Liminal Being: The hag has to look after the edges and gateways.
  • Literal Metaphor: The boots of both Tiffany and her granny receive some attention. Tiffany's are old hand-me-down boots that are too big for her. As the successor of her grandma as protector of The Chalk, Tiffany has big shoes to fill.
  • Literalist Snarking: When one of the travelling teachers condescendingly compliments Tiffany on knowing a big word like "zoology", she replies that "zoology" is actually quite short compared to, say, "patronizing".
  • Little Miss Badass: Know anyone else who defeated the Queen of Fairies with no help but a toad, a frying pan, and some Scottish Smurfs? At the age of nine?
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The dromes' specialty.
  • Meaningful Name: In the Feegle language, Tiffany's name means "Land Under Wave" (and has a lot more vowels in it). And it's real Gaelic, or at least very similar to it. ("Tír-fa-Tonn" in Scots Gaelic; "Tír-fo-Thuinn" in Irish.)
  • Miscarriage of Justice:
    • Exactly what happened to the old, mentally ill woman who had the misfortune to look like a witch.
    • The Feegles claim to be constant victims of this...
  • "Miss X" Pun: "Miss Tick" is pointed out to be a homonym for "mystic".
    Tiffany: In that case it would be even better if you were Miss Teak, a hard foreign wood, because that would sound like "Mystique", or you could be Miss Take, which would-
    Miss Tick: I can see we're going to get a long like a house on fire. They may be no survivors.
  • Moby Schtick: The Jolly-Sailor-and-the-whale story is told by Granny Aching, and enforced upon the Queen when she takes on the form of the whale.
  • Overly Long Name: Not-As-Big-As-Medium-Sized-Jock-But-Bigger-Than-Wee-Jock Jock. Becomes an Overly-Long Gag when he and Tiffany begin discussing the name. That part is difficult to read aloud with a straight face.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: One of the stories about Granny Aching has it that she gave a man a disapproving look so forceful that all his hair instantly turned white.
  • This Is Reality: Grimhounds are huge black dogs with eyes like fire and teeth like razor blades. Tiffany lures one out of the snow and into the real world. Turns out that outside of a dream, having a mouth full of razor blades doesn't tend to work very well.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Queen loves dishing these out at Tiffany. They all manage to work... until Tiffany's had enough, and shows why you do NOT mess with a witch on her home territory.
  • Schmuck Banquet: If you eat anything inside a drome's dream, you'll never want to wake up; you just carry on dreaming while your sleeping body starves to death... (Though it doesn't work on Feegles, who have no trouble getting in and out of anywhere; after entering one dream to warn Tiffany, they stay behind to polish off the lavish banquet that was provided.)
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: Discussed. The Toad tells Tiffany that he sometimes lies awake wondering what happened to the rest of his mass when he was transformed from a 160lb human into an 8oz toad.
  • Shown Their Work: The Feegles' speech is nearly all authentic Scottish English or Scots.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Tiffany to the Queen.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Justified Trope because the Wee Free Men parody The Smurfs. Really, really tough Smurfs. The one female in the clan is called Kelda and rules them as the one with the most intelligence.
  • Spoiler Cover: The cover by Paul Kidby shows Feegles armed with glowing swords around the Toad. Feegles' swords glow in the presence of a lawyer.
    • Covers Always Lie: This doesn't actually happen in the book, so as to not spoil the twist early.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Granny and Nanny, not to mention the Feegles - but Tiffany bears up pretty well, considering.
  • Stealth Pun: When Tiffany is given the Toad for a guide, she observes, "You're a bit yellow for a toad." The toad replies, "I've been ill." That's right, Tiffany: just follow the yellow sick toad.
  • Stealth Insult:
    Teacher: Zoology, eh? That's a big word, isn't it?
    Tiffany: No, actually it isn't. Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Sneebs, an old man living as a hanger-on in the Queen's court. Roland tells her that Sneebs was stolen away by the fairies, and when he got home everything had changed so much that he no longer fit in; he found it so painful that he went searching for a way back into fairyland.
  • Straying Baby: Wentworth gets into trouble this way.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Tiffany.
  • Trademark Favorite Food:
    • Tiffany likes cheese. Enough so to briefly hesitate when the dromes create some in her dream.
    • Wentworth is obsessed with candy, though given that he's a young child that's hardly surprising.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Tiffany is recognised as having the right stuff to become a witch, despite some assumptions about her home environment, and her training begins.
  • True Sight: Tiffany has First Sight: she can see what's really there instead of what she wants to see. Though it's a pain when she's trying to relate to people who don't have it, it's amazing when she has to journey through a land of nightmares to retrieve her brother.
    'Ye've got that little bitty bit inside o' you that holds on, right? The bitty bit that watches the rest of ye. 'Tis the First Sight and Second Thoughts ye have, and 'tis a wee gift an' a big curse to ye. You see and hear what others canna', the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye're always like the person at the party with the wee drink who cannae join in. There's a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow.
  • Twice-Told Tale: To Childe Rowland and Burde Helen, though in this case Roland is the one captured by the Elves, and it's the girl who has to rescue him. Word of God is that Sir Terry wasn't familiar with this story, and it's a coincidence "but it's eerie, innit? I think I might start pretending I had that in mind all along:-)". Strangly enough Tiffany seems to be aware of that story.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe. The Queen is said to look perfect. Too perfect, in a unnerving way that no human could.
  • The Unchosen One: When there's nobody to stop the elves' incursion on the Chalk, nine-year-old cheesemaker Tiffany screws everything and decides that the whole land is hers, she will protect it, and you better not step in front of her or your frying pan if you like your head.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Roland, the Baron's son.
  • Violent Glaswegian: Every last male Nac Mac Feegle.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: The people in Tiffany's neighbourhood include an old woman named Miss Female Infant Robinson (her mother apparently saw that the midwife had written "female infant" in the log book and assumed that was the child's name) and a small boy named Punctuality Riddle (his parents had heard about naming child after virtues and decided this was the virtue they most wanted their child to have).
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: The Feegles' only weak spot, apart from an inability to get out of pubs, is lawyers.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: The Feegles tell Tiffany that time moves slower the deeper you go into the Queen's land, so that even though the Queen will get bored of Wentworth and send him home after a few months, decades will have passed by the time he gets back. Roland has been there only a day or two, but has been missing nearly a year back home.