Wee Mad Arthur, terribly short and terribly powerful, is a funny character in Terry Pratchett’s fantasy Discworld which is a planet flat as a pancake and, so, pretty much by definition, a funny place.

Wee Mad, all of six inches tall, is an officer in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, and, for most of his life, he didn’t know that he was a member of the Nac Mac Feegles. This is a group of fairy folk, mostly men, with red hair and heavily tattooed skin who are comically rowdy and deeply sentimental and firmly devoted to their now-16-year-old witch Tiffany Aching, “the hag o’ the hills.” They drink, fight and steal for a living — well, really, for fun — and speak some kind of humorous gibberish that sounds a bit like Gaelic.

I Shall Wear Midnight, published in 2010, was Pratchett’s 38th Discworld book and the fourth to feature Tiffany and the Feegles. During the course of the novel, Wee Mad arrests a crowd of these Wee Free Men who are destroying a tavern in Ankh-Morpork.  It’s then that he realizes that he’s one of them.

Wee Mad tells them that his parents were gnomes and raised him as one although, it turned out, he wasn’t very good at gnomish activities.  Then, one day, the elders of the tribe sat him down:

[They] told me I was a lost foundling.  They was moving to a new camp, and they ha’ found me, a tiny wee bairn, sobbing by the road, right next to a sparrow hawk that I had strangled to death after it had snatched me from me cradle; they reckoned it was taking me home to feed me tae its chicks.

A baby strangling its kidnapper — yep, that’s Wee Mad Arthur.  And that’s the Nac Mac Feegles.


One of the best and darkest Discworld novels

After re-reading Terry Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight — I first read it in 2011 — I think it’s one of his best Discworld novels, which is saying a lot.

Pratchett wrote 41 Discworld novels before he died of early onset Alzheimer’s on March 12, 2015, at the age of 66, and the books are endlessly fascinating for their goofiness, wit, psychological insight, silliness, wit and serious social commentary.

Enjoyment of the late novels, such as I Shall Wear Midnight, was clouded by the reader’s knowledge that Pratchett was, as he announced in December, 2007, suffering from this brutal form of dementia.

Perhaps, that explains why I Shall Wear Midnight — for all it’s puns and comedy and slapstick and giddiness — is among the darkest of Pratchett’s books.


“In a matter-of-fact voice”

In a book aimed at the Young Adult market, plot elements include the beating of a pregnant 13-year-old by her father, leading to the death of her fetus; extramarital sex among minors; a witch-looking woman hounded to death by a mob; references to euthanasia; references to sex; references to erotic toys; and an evil embodiment of hate.

“My dad beat me up, didn’t he?” said Amber in a matter-of-fact voice as they walked toward the gray towers.  “Did my baby die?”

A plaintive question from a girl who has been helped to forget the details of the attack — the farthest thing from a laff riot.

But, then again, that funny story about Wee Mad Arthur, as a baby, strangling to death the hawk that stole him has a dark edge as well.


A powerful presence

However, Pratchett didn’t sell more than 80 million copies of his Discworld books by screeching at his readers.  He used his humorous fantasy characters and the convoluted situations into which they got themselves to comment on the convoluted — and often illogical — ways that real human characters act and think.

For instance, Tiffany Aching is “the hag o’ the hills” of the Nac Mac Feegles because she’s the witch of the Chalk, a region that was once under water — indeed, in the Feegle language her name is Tir-far-thóinn (Land Under Wave).  As the witch of the Chalk, she’s also responsible for the people who live on the Chalk where she was born and where her parents live.

As their witch, she takes care of many of their medical needs, often with folkish remedies, and keeps her eye out for people, particularly old ones, who get forgotten and isolated.  She also delivers babies and helps ease the pain of those aged ones who are leaving life.

A powerful presence, in other words, among her people, and, as such, one who is often sought after but also often feared.  Well, “feared” may be too strong a word.  She’s often misunderstood, such as why she can do some medicine and/or magic to heal a wound but can’t do anything about some things, such as, stopping Death from showing up.

And it confuses people that she has powers that other people don’t have, such as broomstick flying and making magic, and this makes them a bit nervous at times which, well, yes, actually, makes them more than a bit afraid of her.


Forget-me-lots and a question

So, Tiffany is both part of her people and also set apart, as an early scene in I Shall Wear Midnight indicates.

It’s the annual scouring fair for the people of several towns on the Chalk, and two little girls, Becky Pardon and Nancy Upright, come up to Tiffany to hand her a bouquet of flowers, including sweet mumbles, ladies’ pillows, seven-leaf clover, a sprig of old man’s trousers, jack-in-the-wall, love-lies-bleeding and little white-and-red flowers called forget-me-lots.

There is an asterisk on that last word, pointing the reader to a footnote:

* The forget-me-lots is a pretty red-and-white flower usually given by young ladies to signal to their young men that they never want to see them again ever, or at least until they’ve learned to wash properly and gotten a job.

At one time in the past, Tiffany was sweet on the Baron’s son Roland (although one of the Nac Mac Feegles describe him as a “useless streak of rubbish”), but now the young man is engaged to marry someone else.

So, the little girls may have been making a commentary on that situation when they included the flower in their bouquet.  But they had a more important item on their agenda.

“You can’t get into trouble for asking a question, can you, miss?  I mean, just asking a question.”

“Not from me, at least.  Do ask your question.”

Becky Pardon looked down at her boots.  “Do you have any passionate parts, miss?”


The last book

By the end of I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany does have a beau, and, no, it’s not Roland.

And she is ever more deeply established as the witch of the Chalk, both for the Wee Free Men and the humans.

And, like many a character in the Discworld, she’s looking forward to more adventures and more life with each new coming day.

And, five years later, another Discworld novel appeared, Pratchett’s 41st, featuring Tiffany, The Shepherd’s Crown.

It was written in mid-2014 and published in summer of 2015, six months after Pratchett’s death.

And it was the last Discworld novel.


Patrick T. Reardon



You might also want to see my 2011 review of this book.















Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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