One of my favorite characters in literature is the young witch, Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I rarely reread books, but I no sooner finished the last in the series, I Shall Wear Midnight, when I started rereading The Wee Free Men again. I think it was better the second time round.
Before you read any farther, let go your preconceptions of witchcraft. Tiffany Aching is most definitely not that sort of witch. Just to start, how many witches have you encountered who are encumbered with a clan of little people? The Nac Mac Feegles (also known as the Wee Free Men) are Pictsies, a kind of Gaelic fairy folk, (but don’t say the word fairy in front of them if you wish to keep your teeth.) They are a boisterous bunch of six inch, blue skinned, kilted little people who love to steal, drink, fight, and tell lies. They are exceptionally good at all of it. They make their home in a mound on the Chalk. Tiffany, being the witch of the Chalk, is their “big wee hag.” Much to Tiffany’s chagrin, the Nac Mac Feegles are near her all the time.
In The Wee Free Men, then eight years old, Tiffany’s fairy tale notions of witchcraft are dispelled when she meets the witch finder, Miss Tick. Miss Tick informs her, “Once you learn about magic, I mean really learn about magic, learn everything you can learn about magic, then you’ve still got the most important lesson still to learn... Not to use it. Witches don’t use magic unless they really have to. It’s hard work and difficult to control. We do other things. A witch pays attention to everything that’s going on. A witch uses her head. A witch is sure of herself. A witch always has a piece of string…. A witch delights in small details. A witch sees through things and round things. A witch sees further than most. A witch sees things from the other side. A witch knows where she is and when she is..”
For the main part, Tiffany doesn’t really even practice magic. Mostly being a witch is just being in the center of things, being aware of what is going on in her community and looking out for her people. In involves cutting old people’s toenails, mending cuts and broken bones, birthing babies, and tending to the dying.
When necessary, Tiffany can, of course, do all kinds of extraordinary things; things like taking pain away, transferring heat and cold, and seeing into the future (when she can get her jumble to work properly) But to Tiffany this isn’t magic, it is just something you learn to do, only you have to be a witch to learn to do it. She can step out of her body and travel away from it for a time, and has learned the trick of becoming invisible – but these skills are more connected to particle physics, than some kind of hocus pocus.
It isn’t easy being a witch. Tiffany must strive to act ethically at all times. It involves having to make decisions: sometimes between right and wrong, and sometimes between wrong and wrong. The thing is - being a witch means you must make them. In Tiffany’s case, this involves layers of thinking. She has her first, her second, her third and sometimes even her fourth thoughts before she is finished.
While the everyday life of a witch can be tediously humdrum, Tiffany manages to get herself into some very tricky situations. In spite of her age and lack of experience, in The Wee Free Men, she manages to rescue her little bother, Wentworth, and the Baron’s son, Roland, from the Queen of the Elves. It is a gripping adventure wherein a talking toad, the Nac Mac Feegles and a frying pan play important roles in the rescue.
A Hat Full Of Sky takes us into Tiffany’s life as she apprentices to become a witch. Apprenticing involves looking after an older, wiser witch, and learning from them. Occasionally she learns a trick or two, but it is pretty much constant drudgery. Young witches like Tiffany accompany their mentors as they go about their witch business – looking after the sick and elderly, and learning to be the caretaker of a community.
Unbeknownst to Tiffany, her secret trick of stepping out of her body has attracted the attention of a Hiver. It manages to take control of her body and abuses her power. With the help of the Nac Mac Feegles and Miss Level, they manage to drive the Hiver off. Eventually Tiffany and another older witch, Mistress Weatherwax, capture it. I guarantee the ending will not be what you might anticipate.
In Wintersmith, the third novel, Tiffany ignores her mentor, and ends up dancing with Winter. He unfortunately gets in a muddle and falls in love with her. In his wooing of her, he creates snowflakes and icebergs in her image. The balance between the seasons goes off kilter as Winter brings on a blizzard that buries the chalk and everything on it. Tiffany takes on the power of summer and strange things happen as plants sprout from her feet and the world turns green where she walks. Tiffany must fix the mess she has inadvertently created before everyone she knows and loves dies.
In the last book in the series, I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany is now the fully-fledged witch of the chalk. The baron dies and Roland, his son, takes over. Roland has gotten himself engaged to a weepy, but beautiful, princess with a tartar for a mother. Tiffany's conflicted feelings about his engagement are compounded by his no longer seeming to be her friend. On top of this, a powerful demonic spirit, the Cunning Man, is stalking her. The Cunning Man despises all witches and uses his powers to fill minds with suspicion and hate towards them. Tiffany must defeat him, because if she doesn’t, and he manages to take over her body, the other witches will have to destroy her. Thankfully Tiffany has many allies, including new witches, a promising young man, and the fearless Nac Mac Feegles to help her.
While these novels are part of a series, I found each one to be a satisfying read unto itself. Each is punctuated with deep philosophical musings, some serious dictum for how to live a rich meaningful life, and bouts of screaming hilarity (mostly, but not always, due to the Nac Mac Feegles.) The main characters feel like old friends who have invited me to hang out with them for a while. I hate it when the visit ends, and look forward to my next encounter.
Due to Terry Pratchett’s battle with Alzheimer’s, it is unlikely there will be more Tiffany Aching books.
I am heartbroken.