Witch World by Andre Norton
In a recent article, I observed that, although there isn’t complete gender equality in fantasy today, female fantasy authors are too usual to need any comment. Similarly, it’s hardly unusual now to read a fantasy epic that focuses on character and relationships as much as action, or where power lies in the hands of women.
None of this was true when, in 1963, Andre Norton published her seminal fantasy novel, Witch World. Although other authors (most notably LeGuin) made vital contributions, it was this book, and the series it spawned, which was perhaps most responsible for the change of direction in epic fantasy.
Alice Mary Norton was born in 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio, and began writing seriously while still at school. She used several male pen-names, to counter the prejudice against female authors, but settled early on the one she’s now known by. In 1934, she legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton.
She worked as a librarian, a bookshop owner and a publisher’s reader, before finally becoming a full-time writer in 1958. During this time, she wrote historical and adventure stories for juveniles, as well as numerous SF and fantasy novels and short stories, both YA and for adults, many of them forming series.
Witch World, published in 1963, begins in our own world, where Simon Tregarth, a former colonel who has not quite lost his honesty and ideals in spite of being part of the criminal world, is hunted by ruthless hit-men. A mysterious doctor, claiming to own the siege perilous of Celtic legend, offers him an escape route. Much to Simon’s surprise, the escape is genuine and complete – because the siege perilous transports whoever sits on it to the world in which he truly belongs, and he finds himself in Estcarp, a land ruled by the benevolent magic of matriarchal Witches, but under threat:
The age-old land of Estcarp was menaced from the north and from the south, and also from the sea to the west. Only because they were heirs of an age-old knowledge were the dark people of her field, her towns and cities, able to hold back the press.
Estcarp is threatened by its neighbours – Karsten and Alizon – but most of all by the mysterious Kolder, a people from far across the sea whose advanced technology is more than a match for the Witches. With his military experience, as well as his greater understanding of the Kolder threat, Simon is invaluable in Estcarp’s service. In Witch World and the second book, Web of the Witch World, Simon and his companions – the Witch Jaelithe, the exiled, misshapen Koris and the Lady Loyse of Verlaine – fight the Kolder, culminating in the discovery of this strange people’s origins.
This appeared to conclude the tale, but Norton wasn’t content just to tell one story in her new world. In a virtually unprecedented move in epic fantasy, she set the next book in the series, Year of the Unicorn, on a different continent of the same world. This book takes place in the land of High Hallack, devastated from invasion from the men of Alizon who come over the sea – the only actual point of contact between the two parts of the series – and tells the story of a girl called Gillan, chosen to be given as a bride to the mysterious Were Riders of the Waste in return for their help against Alizon.
This was followed by a trilogy – Three Against the Witch World, Warlock of the Witch World and Sorceress of the Witch World – which returns to Estcarp, but moves on a generation. Kyllan, Kemoc and Kaththea, the triplet children of Simon and Jaelithe, flee the Witches who wish to take Kaththea from her brothers, and find the ancient land of Escore, from which the people of Estcarp had fled long ago. In a country ravaged by ancient wars of sorcery too powerful to contemplate, the siblings join forces with the few pockets of sanity in Escore’s chaos in the fight to make it once more a place of peace and beauty.
This was the original series, published 1963-1968, but during the 70s, Norton came back to High Hallack several times, in books like The Crystal Gryphon and Spell of the Witch World, and to Escore in Trey of Swords. I read these in the 70s and early 80s; but it was only in researching this article I discovered that Andre Norton continued to produce Witch World books right up to her death in 2005. There’s a couple of dozen more books – some written by Norton, some in collaboration with others authors, and some that are officially sanctioned fanfiction. Andre Norton edited several collections of these stories.
My wish-list just got considerably longer.
The Witch World series is widely considered to be the foundation of romantic fantasy. This certainly doesn’t mean it’s at all analogous to genre romance, but it has relationships at its heart, rather than purely action. All the books focus on characters who fall in love and form life-partnerships.
It would be an exaggeration, though, to call this specifically women’s fantasy. The main characters are as likely to be men as women, and the romance comes in the midst of adventure and warfare. It would, perhaps, be more true to view it as fantasy of gender equality. We certainly don’t see helpless heroines swooning into the arms of alpha males, but nor are the male characters undeveloped tokens. To have Gillan, a young woman, as the central character of Year of the Unicorn in 1965 was revolutionary, but Norton’s male leads – Simon, Koris, Kyllan and Kemoc – have their own stories just as much as Jaelithe, Loyse, Gillan and Kaththea.
In the same way, the Witches of Estcarp – targets of hatred and suspicion for the patriarchal societies around them – are essentially the “good” side, but not uncritically so. They are shown as hidebound by traditional prejudices, believing that magic is impossible either for men or for women who aren’t virgins – prejudices that are clearly disproved by Simon, Jaelithe and their children.
The Witches can be cunning and devious, and they don’t always take account of the rights and wishes of individuals, as when they try to take Kaththea, against her will, from her brothers. Nevertheless, despite their human weaknesses, they struggle to protect their people against conquest and oppression.
This is essentially a mediaeval-style world, with castles, swords and bows, but with differences, as Simon discovers on his first day when he’s introduced to their piped water supply:
Medieval the hold of Estcarp might be superficially, Simon discovered, but the dwellers therein had some modern views on sanitation.
Well, it is supposed to be his ideal world.
More significantly, magic fills much of the role of technology, both in Estcarp and Escore, but the two come together most in the sinister Kolder. Many of their abilities appear supernatural, such as the way they can twist people into soulless puppets, but Simon – if no-one else – recognises their resources as technological:
A little apart was a second table, or outsized desk, with three more of the Kolder. The centre one of this trio wore a metal cap on his head from which wires and spider-thread cables ran to a board behind him. His face was without expression, his eyes were closed. However, he was not asleep for, from time to time, his fingers moved with swift flicks of the tips across a panel of buttons and levers set in the surface before him.
Nevertheless, it’s magic that defines this series, in whichever of the locations it belongs, and the Witches of Estcarp are the first of a long line of magical Sisterhoods that have become so recognisable in modern fantasy, perhaps most famously as Jordan’s Aes Sedai.
Andre Norton died in 2005, leaving a considerable body of Witch World books, but that may not be all. Considering her openness to allowing other authors to contribute to the series, it’s entirely possible that there are more tales of Estcarp, Escore and High Hallack to come.