Another entry in my on-going complete Discworld re-read… although actually this one I was reading for the first time.
Well, I’m in two minds about this one – perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing it.
As you may have noticed from the last few Pratchett reviews I’ve done, we’re now firmly in Pratchett’s “brave new world” phase, in which the author was experimenting, renovating, striking out in new directions, but at the same time also recapitulating. It may or may not be a coincidence that The Wee Free Men has the nice round series number of ‘30’ – well OK, it’s a coincidence, particularly since it wasn’t originally listed in the main sequence ordering of the cycle, shunted aside instead into a “for younger readers” branch. Which is also why I haven’t read it before, because I was a teenager when this came out and found labels like “for younger readers” horribly toxic to my ego…
But where was I? It’s a coincidence that this is big round Number Thirty, but it’s a fitting one. More than any of his books so far, The Wee Free Men feels like Pratchett has picked up everything he’s done, tidied it away into a box, gotten out some more pieces, and done something new. Now note: I said ‘new’; not ‘fresh’. When we tidy our toys away and start from scratch again, the result is often not fresh in the slightest, and that’s both the charm and the cardinal sin of The Wee Free Men.
This feels like an author who is taken everything they’ve done, everything they’ve learnt, and doing things again, doing them right this time, from the beginning. Specifically, this is a return to the… well, not themes exactly, but to the function of his third Discworld novel – his first non-Rincewind Discworld novel – Equal Rites. A precocious young woman in fantasy rural England with magical ability learns from some witches. Only this time, there’s not a speck of rawness or uncertainty or confusion about it. This one is polished until you could eat your face off it.
That’s why it didn’t enthral me. It felt too safe, too tidy, too manipulative, and much too familiar. Tropes, jokes and mannerisms from his previous books recur in force and plenty – I suspect Pratchett felt liberated by writing a book explicitly for readers who hadn’t read the other 29 novels, and to be fair there is a little of that sense of freedom here. But what there isn’t is the chaos and the unpredictableness of his earlier work. What there is… I think maybe my issue here is that this feels like a story Pratchett is telling to children.
That might confuse you. After all, Pratchett is obviously a brilliant writer for children.
But the thing is… Pratchett is best at writing for children when he writes for the adults they know that they can be (just as he writes well for adults in part because he acknowledges that in part they aren’t). Pratchett writes well for children because he doesn’t speak down to them. Only this time… he kind of does. Not just in the over-avuncular tone, but in the, frankly, shallowness of it all. It feels like he’s covering old ground in a less interesting way.
Then again, maybe that wouldn’t matter if he’d convinced me with his ending, and with his pacing. Instead, his conclusion is not only – as it often is – muddled and rickety, but more unusually it seems to me that it lacks thematic clarity, and that lack of clarity is reflecting in a pace and structure that to me fails to build satisfyingly to a climax, but just rumbles on through a series of incidents.
That sounds harsh, I know; but I have to be harsh, to try to tease out what left me unsatisfied about this book, because it’s so hard to pinpoint any actual overt flaw. Like I say, this one has been polished.
And if there were the slightest doubt that the Pratchett of The Wee Free Men was at the height of his powers, there are the flashbacks to the life of Granny Aching to disabuse us of that idea. These are, frankly, utterly brilliant, powerful and deeply moving (I think I may have cried, or at least been moist-eyed), and… strangely out of place. Thematically they are central, and narratively I can understand their significance to her precocious granddaughter Tiffany… they are rather mythologised, hagiographised even, creating an interesting contrast with the much more realist approach to the similar character of Granny Weatherwax back in the original Equal Rites, but then this is explicitly a book for younger readers, and in the context of the story we are seeing these things only through a child’s memory, so that’s not really a problem. It’s just that stylistically the elegaic poetry of the flashback sections only amplifies the stiltedness of the somewhat affected jolly talking-to-children tone of the rest of it.
I should probably call attention to the content, too. Pratchett has always been a strange sort of feminist, drawing from quite different and more traditional gender roles than usually thought of by either conservatives or progressives, and in The Wee Free Men that concept of femininity is elevated to the level of an ideology… and in the process I get a bit uncomfortable, as I tend to do around such overtly didactic tracts. It’s a conception of femininity I’m personally very familiar with – and that not only adds to the discomfort, but also adds considerably to the emotional impact of the book for me. I think I’ve commented before that Granny Weatherwax, and the less bawdy side of Nanny Ogg, feel intensely familiar, real people to me, because they remind me so much of my family – I come from a long line of strong-willed, but rather passive-aggressive, Irish matriarchs – the sort who can spend a good hour or more reciting the exact deeds, genealogy, history, shames and failures of our so-and-so’s son’s wife’s brother-in-law’s bishop’s father’s sister and so on unto the seventh generation, but who would never say a word to anyone’s face because they ought to know what they’ve done, and if you don’t know what you’ve done then the weight and chill of a thousand yards of ice landing on your back when they look at you will make you grovel in apology nonetheless. I had a strong but thankfully controllable urge to burst into laughter recently, when an elderly relative of mine was talking about her former career, in which she had been in charge of a gaggle of women whom she, going by her own account of it, terrorised almost exactly as Pratchett describes Nanny terrorising the young wives and daughters of her extended clan.
It’s a dying sort of image of a woman’s role in life, and one that I must confess I feel grateful to Pratchett for recording, not just for my own nostalgia but because without these accounts current and future generations might not believe that these women existed; if you don’t know the type, it may be hard to credit that Pratchett wasn’t exaggerating in the slightest. [OK, in real life they don’t have magic powers, per se… it just seems that way sometimes…] – in a way, it has to be dying, because the world it comes from is dying, has almost died away. It was a world of extended family clans, of tight-knit villages where the gossip flowed faster than the alcohol – who, gossip, me? Never! Who do you take me for, old what’s-her-name next door with the famous son who lived in a house I suppose you’d call it*, oh, she’s a terrible one for gossip, everybody says so – of strict religion, or at least of a religion of all-pervading strictness tangentially decorated with the iconography of a god, of strict gender roles, and stricter roles of class and occupation. Their whole language is becoming obsolete. How can a language of, for example, subtle condemnations, in which the slightest allusion could instantly serve to fully describe another person’s iniquities without forcing the speaker to ever be so coarse as to overtly criticise anybody, still retain its power when most of us cannot even identify the sins in question when stated explicitly, let alone deduce them from tangential references and fully itemise their sociological connotations?
*Not kidding, in the last month alone I’ve heard this sort of phrase applied to someone’s house, someone’s car, and to a room, in each case with the offending noun italicised so heavily it could almost cut your ears off, imbued with an unspeakable, affected impression of horror that such things as houses, cars or rooms could even exist. In the case of the house, I’m pretty sure the point was that the house was overly large and above the builder’s station, and probably that it was presumptuous for him to build his own house at all when there are so many perfectly good houses in the world already and what’s so special about him I wonder; likewise, I suspect the car was ostentatious, expensive, and possibly newfangled. But context failed to let me deduce what the sin of the room in question could possibly have been. It would have been no good asking. Because for one thing, the room ought to know what it had done wrong without needing to be told. And for another, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s a fine room to be sure, and I’m sure you’ve never heard me say a word against it, or anybody, it’s not my place to have an opinion on such matters.
…aaaanyway. I appreciate the realism of this archetype in Pratchett’s work, here displayed (in one of its more taciturn variants) in the form of sheep-herding old tyrant Granny Aching, and tantamount to deified in the process. I appreciate how he neither condemns these women as ridiculous busybodies and rural simpletons (the archetype being so strongly associated with rural societies and pre-academic forms of knowledge and authority) nor patronisingly dismisses them as the victims of patriarchy, despite their theoretically marginalised social statuses (which is to say, they are examples of how power and authority may frequently reside in places other than where a superficial study of laws and institutions may suggest). [The women of my family all did their bit progressing the cause of female emancipation, relative to their eras – one relative of mine, for example, was one of the first dozen or so female members of Seanad Éireann (the upper house of the Irish legislature), and had to be publically condemned by the Archbishop of Dublin (at the time probably the most powerful man in the country) for her dangerous views on women’s matters – but I suspect that most would have responded to the idea that they needed to be “freed” from “patriarchy” with scorn at best, and in the case of the older generations with outright hostility, much as I imagine would be the response of Granny Weatherwax…]
But it’s also troubling, because, let’s be honest, these were also the women who did a lot of the patriarchy, and a lot of the repression and a lot of the caste system. Priests may have lectured academically from pulpits, fathers may have lain down the law… but they would have accomplished very little in the way of controlling the lives of young women without the aid of the Reign of Terror of the mother-in-law, the Mother Superior at the school, the Matron at the hospital, the local Granny Weatherwaxes, the local Nanny Oggs. After all, it may have been the Archbishop who banished single mothers to the Magdalene Laundries… but it was the mothers and local matriarchs who often turned them in, and it was the nuns who actually carried out the abuse. Of course, Pratchett’s characters would never be involved in that; nor would my relatives. But I can’t help but feel that the same unshakeable righteousness, the same conviction, determination, and philosophy of power that Pratchett is praising for its ability to stand up to evil is exactly the same set of qualities that so often led to evil.
Pratchett’s underlying ideology has been a little disconcerting for a while. Characters like Vimes and Granny essentially succeed through power, violence and bullying, while his villains are noteable not so much for their sociopathy (a characteristic shared with both neutral and sympathetic characters in Discworld) as for their weakness and vacillation. In novels like Night Watch, or indeed in the rather less satisfying Carpe Jugulum, this ideology of force is ameliorated by nuance, complexity, and self-awareness. Not only are Granny and Vimes both aware of how close they are to being villains, but the author himself at times seems to show concern over their morality. But with the edges filed off for this children’s version of the tale, the message becomes stronger and much less ambiguous: might is right. It’s OK to doubt, but act with conviction and without compromise. Oh sure, Pratchett doesn’t want us to think that he thinks that might is right – he’s very good at having characters stand up to the most obvious and superficial forms of might. Any sort of feudal overlord is bound to be taken down a peg or two by rebels. But when Granny Aching stands up to The Baron, she doesn’t do it by appealing to reason or kindness, by finding compromise, or even by outwitting him. She does it by being more powerful than he is, albeit it in a less obvious way.
Of course, Pratchett has a point, and he makes it well. It is all very well doubting yourself, but in the end you have to judge things for yourself, and you have to act on those judgements, and to some extent that might mean treading on some toes. He has a point that, rhetoric aside, not all people are equally good judges, either in morality or in wisdom, and that sometimes people have to be confident in their own rightness, public opinion be damned. And of course Pratchett is also not without point in his familiar Chestertonian paeans to The Old Ways, to a pre-capitalistic feudalism in which lords as well as vassals knew their place, and customs and traditions provided more protection for the weak than many perfectly rational laws are able to. But put it all together, with such force and persuasive power, and it leaves an ideology with a decidedly, uncomfortably, rasping edge. I didn’t sit through the novel going “bah humbug!” all the time… but I suspect that feeling of being lectured at, and of being lectured in a somewhat reactionary, somewhat and I say this absolutely affectionately, proto-fascistic way, did perhaps make me somewhat less willing to suspend my criticisms of the novel’s flaws.
I am, of course, not the target audience. The target audience are impressionable young children, who are less likely to bridle at being subtly baptised in Pratchett’s chosen worldview. That… doesn’t reassure me entirely.
So I’m left finding the themes rather abrasive, and the execution rather trite. Then again, it’s certainly funny. And it’s clever in places. And it’s so polished.
And those flashbacks are so, so good, as good as anything he’s written.
So. Two minds.
Adrenaline: 3/5. A slight limpness in the pacing hurt, as did, to be honest, the flashbacks, and indeed the light, child-entertaining tone. I knew the scope for disaster was small even by Pratchett’s standards – in children’s mode, he wasn’t going to go as dark as he can. On the other hand, there are some good set pieces here and it was generally a quick read.
Emotion: 4/5. I was torn whether to mark it down for most of the book not being very emotional. And in the end I did. Because the flashbacks would be 5/5 heartwrenching quality. I kind of wish that at some point in his career Pratchett had just ditched the humour and the fantasy and just written a novel about some sheep farmers. It would have been incredible. Here it felt as though he’d write a brilliant piece about life and death, sigh, and then say “right, better get back to the amusing pixies and my ironically flippant commentary…”
Thought: 4/5. I might not always agree with its thoughts, but it was intentionally provocative, to be sure.
Beauty: 5/5. The best bits are sublime, and the worst bits are smooth and unobjectionable.
Craft: 5/5. Maybe I could mark it down because I felt the ending stuttered. Seems harsh. Or because I felt the flashbacks created tonal whiplash – but I think that may have been intentional. And everything else is so polished.
Endearingness: 3/5. I feel I should love it, but I don’t. That’s why I’ve written so many words trying to put my finger on things that spoil it for me. It’s been hard. But I don’t love this book. I do, of course, really quite like it. I mean, it’s Pratchett. And it’s polished and to-the-point, without the indulgent comic misfires of his worst novels.
Originality: 3/5. Within the oeuvre of Pratchett, it’s only a 2… but it’s harsh to judge him by his own successes, particularly in a book intentionally targeted at newcomers to his work. As often, he uses many familiar elements, but to be fair you won’t find them put together quite like this too often.
Overall: 5/7. GOOD. On the verge of being Very Good, and I could respect someone who felt greater personal attraction to the book – or perhaps a fresher reader who didn’t pick up on quite so much of the recycling – and who as a result knocked it up a bracket. For me, though, this was a consummately well-crafted but slightly unsharpened instalment in the cycle. I will say, however, that it in no way discourages me from reading the rest of the Tiffany books for the first time.