First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men
For Christmas I amassed a respectably high pile of real books(as opposed to digital; if the books on my Kindle awaiting reading were physical, my bed would be encased by stacks of books) as gifts from kind friends and family. I’ve been working my way through them rather slowly; my concentration at present is rubbish so something has to really grab me to keep me going for more than ten minutes at a stretch.
I’ve also found that however much I value my Kindle, I still definitely prefer the feel, look, smell sound and did I mention FEEL of a real book. Anyway, the last few nights have been spent reading to help me unwind to try to get to sleep, and I’ve just finished The Wee Free men by much-loved author Terry Pratchett. Let me emphasise though: this is not a book review. I will say that virtually everything this man writes is wonderful and this book is not exception. I do wonder at the wisdom (ha! Or lack thereof) of calling this series children’s books, because, like all superb children’s books this can be read by adults with as much pleasure as any of his others.
The plot of the tale is a simple one, and one drawn surely from some of the very oldest of fairy tales, but with any of Sir Terry’s works, do not let the apparent simplicity of plot fool you into expecting a simple book. Or simple characters for that matter because every being in this book has a complexity that bewilders.
There are several things I’d like to share with you from the book. The first of these is perhaps one of the most closely guarded secrets to magic. This is first sight. Not second sight. First sight is seeing what others do not, and that is seeing how things really are. Not how we wish them to be, or how they ought to be. But how they are. This is not easy. For some it’s virtually impossible from years of choosing illusions over reality. For others, it’s what they’ve always done. It tends to make you unpopular.
“‘Aye, you’re a born hag, right enough,’ said the kelda, holding her gaze.
‘Ye’ve got that little bitty bit inside o’ you that holds on, right? The
bitty bit that watches the rest o’ 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 in the corner who
cannae join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow.
‘Ye have the First
Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.’
‘Don’t you mean second sight?’ Tiffany queried. ‘Like people who can see
ghosts and stuff?’
‘Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see
what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there. Ye
saw Jenny, ye saw the horseman, ye saw them as real thingies. Second
sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.”
The next thing worth hearing about are Second Thoughts. These are the thoughts that are about observing and analysing what you have seen and making good sense of them. There are Third Thoughts too, a voice in your head that does the thinking when you’re too tired or scared or ill to do it. It’s that voice that tells you that even if you don’t think you’re hungry, it was ten hours ago that you last ate and you need to eat NOW. You might call Second thoughts logic and third thoughts the survival instinct.
Books like this have characters who never appear except as memories or dreams but who are vital to the story because they are vital to the main character. The heroine of this tale is nine year old Tiffany Aching, but her grandmother, dead for two years, is here so powerfully she feels alive.
“Who was Granny Aching? People would start asking that now. And the answer was: what Granny Aching was, was there. She was always there. It seemed that the lives of all the Achings revolved around Granny Aching. Down in the village decisions were made, things were done, life went on in the knowledge that in her old wheeled shepherding hut on the hills Granny Aching was there, watching.
And she was the silence of the hills. Perhaps that’s why she liked
Tiffany, in her awkward, hesitant way. Her older sisters chattered, and
Granny didn’t like noise. Tiffany didn’t make noise when she was up at
the hut. She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards, and listen
to the noise of the silence.
It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up
onto the downs, somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.
When you are a small child, when people ask what do you want to be when you grow up, often what you want to be is a certain person, and those role models are usually initially the people we see on a daily basis: family, teachers, tradesmen. It’s important that we have role models that are the right ones. Growing up is actually more about growing to fit ourselves and a mould that is roughly the right shape is a big help. So many of us grow up trying to fit ourselves into shapes we can never fit into, and emulate people with whom we have no single point that might fit. Granny Aching is a powerful role model for a child like Tiffany; she’s a witch who never wore The Hat or claimed the name and so too is her twentieth grandchild, who has inherited that uncomfortable ability to see what’s really there and examine it with care and some detachment. These abilities stand her in great stead in her adventure but in real life, they are demanding and often isolating qualities. In my post Disneyland and let’s pretend, I explored this a little. But having that strong, solid role model is of such importance that I am considering time travel to try somehow nurture my child-self!
Another aspect of the book that I found extremely interesting was the sense of how much a place was in your bones. The Achings live on a vast area of land known as The Chalk, and have done so for so long no-one remembered a time when they didn’t:
“It was actually called the Home Farm. Her father rented it from the
Baron, who owned the land, but there had been Achings farming it for
hundreds of years and so, her father said (quietly, sometimes, after he’d
had a beer in the evenings), as far as the land knew, it was owned by the
Achings. Tiffany’s mother used to tell him not to speak like that,
although the Baron was always very respectful to Mr Aching since Granny
had died two years ago, calling him the finest shepherd in these hills,
and was generally held by the people in the village to be not too bad
these days. It paid to be respectful, said Tiffany’s mother, and the poor
man had sorrows of his own.
But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins,
or Archens, or Akens, or Akenns – spelling had been optional) mentioned
in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years. They
had these hills in their bones, he said, and they’d always been
To have been a part of a land means that the land is also a part of you, and while this has become diluted in our world, it’s probably at the root of a lot of discontent and tribalism. Too many have become detached from their lands. I have lived in a fairly wide range of counties of England in my time, all distinct with their customs and traditions and their bones.
“….and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt
the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the
distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells.
She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk
again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time
and stars, were turning slowly around her.
She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.
She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She
could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents
on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night. . .
The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She
knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.
‘I never cried for Granny because there was no need to,’ she said. ‘She
has never left me!’”
To feel so much a part of a land is something is so little understood and undervalued, but it explains a little of how I feel about my country. It may not be the best country in the world, but it is mine and that of my ancestors for as far back as anyone can reasonably be expected to go. I’m beginning to get an understanding of both Motherland, and Gaia our Mother.
To find a set of such important ideas in what is deemed a children’s book gives me great hope. The fact that it’s also a rattling good adventure tale is even more exciting; reading a story is always more interesting than learning a lesson……