Manuscript vs Myth: The Wee Free Men
Tiffany Aching wants to be a witch, an unusual dream for a nine-year-old girl, and a dangerous desire on the Chalk, where witches are dealt with in the traditional manner… death. But Tiffany may not have a choice. Her younger brother is missing and, as the wall between worlds grows thin, she finds herself facing down a plethora of fairytale creatures, each more dangerous than the last, until she reaches the greatest threat of all – their Queen.
In his 30th Discworld novel, 'The Wee Free Men', Terry Pratchett once again delves into the world of fairies and witchcraft. Taking inspiration from the folklore and superstitions of Europe and Britain, this time he focuses in particular on fairy kidnappings and, in a surprisingly dark choice for a children’s novel, the innocents lost to the witch trials.
Tiffany’s desire to be a witch comes from one such tragedy that she witnessed. After the Baron’s only son, Roland goes missing, whispers turn to witchcraft. A convenient target for their rage is Mrs Snapperly, an elderly woman living alone with her cat, and her books with ‘pictures of stars’ in them. Though they could not find the boy and had no evidence of her guilt, Mrs Snapperly was turned out of her home, her cat killed and her books burned. Mrs Snapperly herself was left on the streets, ignored and abused by the other townsfolk until she passed away come winter.
Sadly, Mrs Snapperly’s fate is not one confined to the realms of fiction, and instead takes direct inspiration from the famous historical witch trials. In Britain, these took place between the 15th and 18th century, and may have seen over 1000 people executed for the crime of witchcraft – the vast majority of these people being women. A driving force behind the onset of the witch trials in the early 1600s was the monarch, James I, who believed that a terrible storm which almost sank the ship that he and his wife were travelling on had been sent by witches. A conspiracy of witches was later discovered who confessed to having created the storm – although these confessions were given under torture.
With the king’s obsession with routing out witchcraft, witch trials began to spread across the country, often spearheaded by the nobility who wished to appear devout in the eyes of the king and church. This attitude then spread amongst the commoners, who also turned against any suspected local ‘witches.’ This pattern holds true within the novel. It is the Baron and his men to initially suspect Mrs Snapperly – ransacking her home and destroying her books – but later it is the other villagers who refused her aid, whether because they genuinely suspected that she was a witch, or because they feared repercussions from the Baron if they did help her.
Tiffany – who does not believe that Mrs Snapperly is a witch, nor that she stole the baron’s son – is horrified by Mrs Snapperly’s fate and conversely, decides that one day she will become a real witch, in order to prevent the same fate befalling anyone else. But, at nine years old, Tiffany has a long way to go, and faces a more immediate threat. The queen of fairies has stolen her younger brother and is attempting to break through into the Chalk, and bringing with her a whole host of miscellaneous magical beings.
The first such creature that Tiffany encounters is Jenny Greenteeth – who, it must be said, is as surprised to find herself suddenly in Tiffany’s local stream as Tiffany is. Though not surprised enough that her first action isn’t to immediately attack Tiffany and her younger brother. In the novel, she is described as having long skinny arms, a pointed face, sharp teeth and long green hair. There is also some emphasis placed on her large eyes. The description matches tales of the same creature from stories and legends of Northern England – Lancaster in particular.
In myth, Jenny Greenteeth is said to lurk amongst dark and murky water (and the water in Tiffany’s stream does grow darker when the creature appears within it) In particular, she is associated with duckweed which can form a thick carpet over a pond, lake or river, sometimes thick enough to even disguise where the land ends and the water begins. It is said that Jenny Greenteeth hides in these waterways, kidnapping and drowning any child who comes to close. Like many such stories around the world, she likely originated as a cautionary tale to keep children away from the water and out of danger – her origins are said to be the same in the Discworld, though such tales are dangerous in a world proliferate with stray magic, just waiting to turn a strong enough belief into reality. Though the Jenny Greenteeth of myth is an ominous threat, the Jenny Greenteeth of the Discworld is easily dispatched – Tiffany returns to the stream with an iron frying pan and (using her own brother as bait) manages to hit the monster straight in the face, sending her back to fairyland.
The next two fairy tale creatures that Tiffany encounters are not so easily dispatched – a headless horseman, and a group of grimhounds.
Now a popular figure in ghost stories and folklore, the headless horseman pops up in stories around Europe before appearing in America in 1820 in author Washington Irving’s short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.
As his name suggests – a headless man atop a fierce black horse, depending on the legend he either carries his rotting head beneath his arm or has no head at all, and roams the countryside looking for it. The first legends of headless horsemen are though to originate from Irish mythology with the Dullahan. Though many depictions of the Dullahan match the classic image of the headless horseman, he may also be described as driving a black horse-drawn carriage. Much like the banshee, the Dullahan is a harbinger of death, when he calls a person’s name, that person is sure to shortly die.
The grimhounds have a slightly less obvious origin than Pratchett’s headless horseman, as there are any number of ‘black dog’ legends that may have inspired them. Big and black, the hounds are described as having fiery eyes, knives for teeth and, bizarrely enough, orange eyebrows. Common in Britain, there are many regional variations of similar spectral black dogs including the Shuck, Gytrash, Padfoot, and the Barghest. These tend to focus on stories of ominous and large black dogs which may follow, attack or haunt people. Many legends state that the dog is an omen of death, so even those who escape the encounter unscathed may soon find themselves passing away.
Interestingly, there are also a large number of legends about benevolent black dogs – guiding travellers and protecting them from malevolent forces. One such guardian dog actually gave Pratchett’s hounds their name – the Grim. Also called the Church Grim, the Grim originates from an old superstition that the first person buried in a church yard would become trapped there forever – their soul residing in the churchyard to protect the inhabitants from any who might do it harm, be they living, dead or spirit. To prevent a human from being trapped in this duty, it is believed that a dog would be buried first to serve as the church’s guardian.
The grimhounds of ‘Wee Free Men’, however aren’t so friendly, and they, along with the headless horseman, pose much more of a threat to Tiffany than Jenny Greenteeth did. In order to defeat them, Tiffany is going to need help, and she receives it in the form of the titular ‘Wee Free Men’ or, as they prefer to be known, the Nac Mac Feegle.
Wild-haired, tattooed and violent, the Nac Mac Feegle aren’t what most people would have in mind when trying to picture a ‘fairy’. According to the queen of fairyland she exiled them from her realm for being drunk and disorderly. According to the Feegle, they rebelled against the Queen’s heartless orders, objecting to stealing from the poor and fighting the weak – if not to stealing and fighting themselves. Rather than fairies, they refer to themselves as Pictsies – named for the Pictish people who once lived in Scotland, absolutely not to be mistaken for pixies, who they despise with a passion.
With their red hair, kilts, woad inspired body art and thick accents, Pratchett drew heavy inspiration from Scotland to create the Feegle. As well as Pictsies, taken from Picts, their name, the Nac Mac Feegle is taken from Fingal, another name for the Scottish and Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill. The wisest of all men after tasting the flesh of the salmon of knowledge, Fionn was also a mighty warrior, leading a band of warrior men called the Fianna. Though the Feegle may not have Fionn’s wisdom, they certainly have his strength, and join up with Tiffany to battle the queen of fairies and reclaim her brother. This is not the only time that the names of the characters (or species) will be important. Tiffany’s name, in the language of the Feegles, tir-far-thóinn means land under wave – connecting Tiffany both to the Feegle, as her allies, and to the land itself – the Chalk that wishes to become the witch and guardian of.
With her band of… arguably friendly Feegle, aspiring witch Tiffany makes the journey to the land of fairies and, as any good fairytale will tell you, through cunning and strength, rescues her brother from the wicked queen.
But, to her surprise, it is not only her brother that she finds there. Living in the world of fairies she also discovers Roland, the son of the Baron, whose disappearance caused the death of Mrs Snapperly and set Tiffany on the path of witchcraft. As another example of the importance of names, Roland’s name may be a reference to the ballad of Childe Rowland in which a young boy travels to the world of fairies to rescue his younger sister from the king of fairies.
Sadly that tale, or one very similar to it, is the one that everyone believes when Tiffany successfully brings the two boys home. Obviously, being younger and a girl, Tiffany could not have been the one to rescue the older boy and her brother. Though everyone agrees that she was very brave, the official story is that after being kidnapped by the queen, Roland eventually managed to escape and rescue the two younger children. A story made especially painful by the fact that Roland was almost entirely useless during the whole rescue.
As ever, Pratchett may take his inspiration from folklore and legend, but puts his own unique twist on the stories, using them as the building blocks to create a fascinating world of his own – one where little girls can grow up to be witches, save the prince (okay, noble) and defeat the evil queen all on their own.