A Look at Andre Norton’s Witch World
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Born in 1912, Alice Mary Norton worked as a teacher, a librarian, and finally a reader for Gnome Press before becoming a full-time writer in 1958. By then she’d already had a dozen books published, including such classics as Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D. and Star Rangers. Based on their easy style and simpler characterizations, most of her early books would probably be classified as YA today. It was with 1963’s Witch World that Norton first wrote a full-fledged sword-and-sorcery book steeped in pulp gloriousness. Sadly, for one of the most successful and prolific women to write fantasy and science with a career that last over fifty years, her books seem sorely neglected today.
For far too many years, I avoided reading Andre Norton’s Witch World stories because the title made it seem too twee. When I finally read the novella “The Toads of Grimmerdale” in Lin Carter’s anthology, Flashing Swords! #2, I knew the series was anything but twee. Its protagonist, Hertha, appeals to dark powers to avenge her:
Within the walled area were five blocks of green stone. Those glistened in the weird light as if they were carved of polished gems. Their tops had been squared off to give seating for those who awaited her.
What she had expected Hertha was not sure. But what she saw was so alien to all she knew that she did not even feel fear, but rather wonder that such could exist in a world where men also walked. Now she could understand why these bore the name of toads, for that was the closest mankind could come in descriptive comparison.
I found the story creepy as Hell and potent enough to make me dig out the original novels in the series — and what I found there was just as wild.
If “Toads” is a perfect tale of dark sword-and-sorcery, the first two novels, Witch World (1963) and Web of the Witch World (1964) is pure pulp science fantasy with a dash of genocide on the side. The first book opens with Simon Tregarth, a disgraced ex-US Army Lieutenant Colonel and desperate black marketeer, on the run from his own associates. He’s just killed two of them, but he knows his days are numbered until he finds the mysterious Dr. Jorge Petronius. The doctor is known for helping wanted men escape permanently. How this is done is revealed to Tregarth; the Siege Perilous, a magical gate that transports people to another world attuned to the traveler’s nature. Doubtful but desperate, Tregarth ventures through and is projected to another world, one where magic is real. At the instant of his arrival he meets a woman, Jaelithe, being hunted by two riders and a pack of hounds. Tregarth saves Jaelith, and very quickly finds himself on the side of the witch-ruled realm of Estcarp against two enemy states; Alizon, and the alien, technology-equipped, Kolder. Witch World and Web of the Witch World are fast-paced blasts from the days before the borders between fantasy and sci-fi were clearly marked. Swords and axes — a big, bad magic one — beside dart guns and explosives, it’s all good. Flying machines and horses in the same book, that’s just fine. Magic and psi-powers, too. It’s all awesomely cool.
As the series progressed, Norton expanded the setting of Witch World, gave it a deep and complex history, and turned away from pulpier elements to straight fantasy. Several books are set in Escore, a heretofore unknown land beyond the mountains of Estcarp, hidden from peoples’ minds for centuries by magic. In Three Against Witch World (1965), Warlock of the Witch World (1967) and Sorceress of the Witch World (1968), to escape the control of the witches, Simon and Jaelithe’s three children escape to Escore following their parents’ disappearance. There’s an insane amount of creative power in Three Against the Witch World and its two sequels. Suddenly, there’s a vast new world, filled with magical races and ancient malevolent beings. Darkness permeates the atmosphere of these books. Escore is a land littered with ruins of dead civilizations and forgotten evil forces seeking to restore their power. There’s a real haunted quality to these stories that largely overcomes some stilted writing and deus ex machina moments.
The other part of the Witch World explored is High Hallack, a land similar to the Scottish Highlands, and one ravaged by a decade of war, its people killed and dispersed and its towns looted. Ancient, evil forces lie drowsing, working their own plans, much to the detriment of humanity. Many of the novels and stories set there explore the effects and aftermath of the great war. While many of these works are exceedingly grim, there’s also more of a Gothic and fairy tale feel to some of them. In the story “Amber Out of Quayth,” a spinster marries a stranger who lives in a dark, ruined castle; in Year of the Unicorn, women are married off as payment to a race of shape-changing men.
While many of the novels are good, it’s in the two short story collections, Spell of the Witch World (1972) and Lore of the Witch World (1980) that Norton really kills it. The stories range from straight sword-and-sorcery to horror to the aforementioned fairy tales. Her writing in these is tighter and often even darker than in the seven novels I’ve read. Several of them dig into a regular theme of the series; the place of women in a pre-industrial world. Where physical strength is the determinant of power, Norton makes it clear that women will often be at the mercy of men. It’s not easy and finding some sort of agency, whether with sword or spell, is an often brutal task. I cannot recommend these two collections enough.
The Witch World series has a sobriety I find reminiscent of Tolkien. It has an underlying feeling of a lost past and a lost glory. It also lacks the cynicism or “nuanced” approach to morality of much contemporary fantasy. For Norton, heroism and nobility remain valid and honest reactions to evil. In a day when so many books seem to shun these attributes or replace evil with shades of gray, I’ve found Witch World a place worth visiting.
For more from Fletcher on the subject of all things Witch World be sure to check out his appearance from a few years ago on the terrific APPENDIX N BOOK CLUB podcast.