We first meet nine-year-old Tiffany Aching during a confrontation between our heroine and a rather distressing river monster named Jenny Green-Teeth. She consults a book- something many librarian readers of this blog would likely approve of- and uses her younger brother as bait- something many would not approve of, but still ends up being clever nonetheless- and, armed with nothing more than this knowledge and a frying pan (cast iron, the kind anathema to most fairy folk) manages to wallop Jenny clear out of the neighborhood.
Thus is our introduction to Tiffany Aching, witch-in-training and star of a young adult Discworld series by the hilarious and heartbreaking writer Terry Pratchett, winner of the 2011 Margaret A. Edwards Award for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.
Today, I’m focusing on the first two books of this series, The Wee Free Men (a YALSA’s Ultimate Teen Bookshelf selection) and A Hat Full of Sky (a 2005 Best Books for Young Adults selection), during which Tiffany is nine and eleven years old, respectively. Tiffany is not your ordinary witch, nor your ordinary fantasy heroine; her family is a shepherd family on the Chalk, humble farmlands far from wizarding academies, courtly intrigue, or anything resembling a modern sewer system. She is not adept at flashy displays of magic (though she has quite a knack for churning butter and making cheese) and even notes that none of the girls in fairy tales, whether witch or princess, look very much like Tiffany at all.
The trick about being a witch in Discworld is knowing when not to use magic at all, especially if common sense and a little bit of elbow grease will solve your problem instead. Being a witch is unglamorous and under-appreciated work that more often than not gets you tossed into lakes or worse. What spurs Tiffany toward witchcraft is this very attitude of mob-and-pitchforking first, asking questions never, that turns the people of the Chalk against an innocent woman accused of kidnapping and killing a noble’s son. They kill her cat, burn her house down, and (it’s heavily implied) let her starve to death in the winter. When another character asks why Tiffany still wants to be a witch, given what happened to the poor old woman, she simply replies: â€œSo that sort of thing doesn’t happen again.â€
In this world, magic has a lot less to do with unimaginable power and social status than it does with taking responsibility for the lives around you. We meet Granny Aching, the late matriarch of Tiffany’s family and the last witch who lived on the Chalk, through flashbacks and musings in Tiffany’s mind. Granny Aching’s magic had everything to do with knowing how to find lambs lost in the snow and how to save sick ewes before they gave birth, and even as uneducated and poor as she had been (as most Achings were) she still belonged to the land and the land remembered her after death. This is what Tiffany aspires to; not power, not romance, not even adventure and daring-do. Those things are unimportant, even boring, in the face of everyday life and duty to the land.
Which is not to say Tiffany doesn’t go on exciting adventures and experience mortal peril every two years or so (which is the amount of time that elapses between each book). In the first book of the series, Tiffany finds herself with only her wits and a clan of tiny and disorderly Nac Mac Feegle- the eponymous Wee Free Men- against the Queen of Fairyland. (Fairyland, by the way, is a lot less Tinkerbell and a lot more horrific and nightmarish. You don’t really want to get involved with fairies if you can help it.)
In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany has begun proper witch training; that is, she’s indentured with several established witches who have her help out around the house when she’s not accompanying them on their rounds throughout the village. (It’s a very â€œwax on, wax offâ€ style of education, only Tiffany has to teach herself karate while Mr. Miyagi wears a pointy hat and is only tangentially important to the plot.) This time our villain is a rather terrifying non-corporeal monster who burns through human hosts, collects their souls, and, guess what, has its eyes on Tiffany.
Throughout these first two books, the greatest asset Tiffany has is, quite literally, herself. If she makes a mistake, it’s her responsibility to face the consequences. If the people and animals under her care are at risk, she has a duty to set things right. What makes Tiffany such a strong character- and, I believe, a powerful role model for girls and young women- is that her strength doesn’t come from a privileged birthright or from being an extra special snowflake upon which the very destiny of all the worlds sits. Tiffany is just a girl who tends sheep and likes to make cheese, and she doesn’t like it when people cause trouble for her family. She is a witch because someone has to be, and she has the power to face down dire threats because they need facing down. It’s not that she doesn’t experience setbacks, peer pressure, or- in later books- teenage romances; it’s that there is so much more at stake, and so much more to Tiffany, than any of these things.
Just by virtue of being herself, Tiffany is strong enough, brave enough, and good enough for the job at hand.
“Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “All the monsters are coming back.”
“Why?” said Tiffany.
“There’s no one to stop them.”
There was silence for a moment.
Then Tiffany said, “There’s me.”
-Ellen MacInnis, currently reading Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett