By the western wall of Klavenport on the Sea of Autumn Mists — but you do not want a bard’s beginning to my tale, Goodmen? Well enough, I have no speak-harp to twang at all the proper times. And this is not altogether a tale for lords-in-their-halls. Though the beginning did lie in Klavenport right enough.
— from “Legacy from Sorn Fen”
I’ve written before that Andre Norton’s Witch World books is a series I avoided for way too long. There were two things that kept me away from them over the years. The first, when I was younger, was their name: Witch World. It seemed a little too twee. When I was older there were so many other things I wanted to read that it never crossed my mind to investigate Andre Norton’s catalogue. If she ever occurred to me at all, it was as the author of Starman’s Son and several other books shelved in the children’s section at my local library. Later, I found a few scattered Norton volumes in the boxes of paperbacks my dad kept in the attic but, again, nothing prompted me to read them. At the time, the cover of “Witch World” turned me off. (Today I love the goofy looking thing.)
Not until I started contemplating blogging about swords & sorcery did I actually read anything by Andre Norton. When I started expanding my library of S&S books, there were several anthologies I finally picked up, one being Flashing Swords #2, edited by Lin Carter. I had read some of its stories before, but not Norton’s Witch World story, “The Toads of Grimmerdale.”
I was surprised by the darkness of the story. Like I said, I had assumed the Witch World stuff was light and airy and my first encounter with it was a story of revenge for rape, set in a country savaged by years of war. Well I was hooked, and I scanned my shelves for any other Witch World stories. I found “Spider Silk” in Flashing Swords #3, and “Falcon Blood” in Amazons!, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. I rooted through boxes in the Vredenburgh attic and dug out my dad’s ancient copy of the first novel, Witch World, and devoured it. Its inventiveness, fast pacing, and the sheer fun of it made me an instant fan.
Since then I’ve read eight more Witch World books and written several reviews of Norton’s work at Black Gate. Not all her books are perfect — some are dated, others feel rushed — nonetheless this series features one of the most extravagantly inventive fictional universes, that can be exciting in one tale, then turn darker than a stack of grimdark novels. The best volume of, and the best introduction to, the series is the story collection Lore of the Witch World (1980).
The opening story, “Spider Silk,” is the tale of Dairine. a young girl rescued from a foundering slave ship and left with hysterical blindness from the horrors she saw. Several years later, after having been taught folk magic by the village Wise Woman, she inadvertently becomes the pawn of a dastardly sailor in his quest for quick riches. She soon finds herself alone on an island reputed to be home to vile, man-eating (and man-hating) monsters.
Few of the Witch World stories occur in a historical vacuum. The Witch World is an ancient place, where numerous races and powers rose and fell in ages long past. Wars may end, but their aftermaths darken the land and damage its people for years. While some evils were overthrown, others continue to lurk in hidden places of the world, waiting for opportunities to snare the unwary. In “Spider Silk” we learn that in the chaos and social unrest following the war told about in the novels Witch World and The Web of the Witch World, piracy and slave trading have flourished. Each story contains elements that let the reader know it is a thread in a greater tapestry, both telling the history of the world and giving Norton’s creation a growing sense of historical depth.
The Falconers are a paranoid and deeply misogynistic people living high in the mountains of Estcarp, the Witch World’s eastern continent. The men and their fierce, preternaturally intelligent falcons live in male-only barracks, visiting their women only twice a year. In “Falcon Blood,” a Falconer and a woman of the seafaring Sulcar are forced to work together when the ship they are sailing on is destroyed by a storm. The secret history of the Falconers is revealed when the unlikely pair come face to face with a dark and malignant magical being.
Presented as tale told by a bard, “Legacy from Sorn Fen” tells of a man left rootless and dangerous at the end of a war and the evils he creates:
It began with one Higbold. It was after the Invaders’ War and those were times when small men, if they had their wits sharpened, could rise in the world — swiftly, if fortune favored them. Which is a bard’s way of saying they knew when to use the knife point, when to swear falsely, when to put hands on what was not rightfully theirs.
Higbold had his rats running to his whistle, and then his hounds to his horn. Finally no one spoke (save behind a shielding hand, glancing now and then over his shoulder) about his beginnings. He settled in the Gate Keep of Klavenport, took command there, married a wife who was hall-born. (There were such to be given to landless and shieldless men then, their kin so harried by war, or dead in it, that they went gladly to any one who offered a roof over their heads, meat in the dish and mead in the cup before them). Higbold’s lady was no more nor less than her sisters in following expediency.
Through all of the Witch World stories, and especially those set in the western continent, High Hallack, Norton always makes clear the precarious and dangerous position of women. Only a few, gifted with magical abilities, are really able to forge their own paths, and even those individuals face a constant degree of social ostracism. High-born women are even less free, serving as pawns in their fathers’ and brothers’ dynastic dreams and schemes. While Higbold’s wife, Isbel, is not the focus of “Legacy from Sorn Fen,” his crimes against her trigger the punishment he finally suffers for a multitude of sins.
“Sword of Unbelief” is a sequel to “Dragon Scale Silver” (which I reviewed here), and continues the tale of the magic-wielding Elys and her husband, the ex-soldier, Jervon. The story begins in the midst of Elys’ hunt for Jervon, who has been captured by some Wolfheads, bandits plaguing High Hallack after the Invaders’ War. This is the purest S&S story in the collection, featuring a dangerous quest through a bleak, magic-infested landscape and battle with ancient evils. The couple feature greatly in one of the novels I haven’t read yet, Gryphon in Glory.
The last two stories in Lore of the Witch World, “The Toads of Grimmerdale” and “Changeling” form a diptych, and tell of the terrible events as Hertha seeks supernatural revenge against the nameless soldier who raped her. First, she looks to Gunnora, the goddess of fertility and women. The goddess answers part of her prayer — that her child will carry no elements nor have any ties to its father — but rejects her prayer for vengeance. Undeterred, Hertha turns to the beings of the title, the Toads, one of the old, and mostly forgotten, evils that seem to litter the less-visited regions of the Witch World. In past comments on Black Gate, I and several others mentioned how creepy the first story is, and I was pleased to find it remains so. The story’s unsettling atmosphere begins with descriptions of the terrible state High Hallack has settled into, following years of devastation suffered during the Invaders’ War, before moving to describing Hertha’s assault, and, only then, the evil Toads themselves:
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 here.
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 walked. Now she could understand why these bore the name of toads, for that was the closest mankind could come in descriptive comparison.
Whether they went on two limbs or four, she could not be sure the way they hunched upon their blocks. But they were no toads in spite of their resemblance. Their bodies were bloated of paunch, the four limbs seemingly too slender beside their heaviness. Their heads sat upon narrow shoulders with no division of neck. And those heads were massive, with large golden eyes high on their hairless skulls, noses which were slits only, and wide mouths stretching above only a vestige of chin.
“Changeling” explores the cost to Hertha and her child for having turned to the Toads in the previous story. Despite having ultimately rejected their aid, Hertha faces the price to be paid to the Toads.
Witch World is one of my favorite series. Not every book is perfect, but together they present one of the most detailed and complex fantasy settings I’m familiar with, that does not bog down in thousand-page books. Without ever succumbing to the violence and sadism too frequently trafficked in as “realism” by some contemporary authors, Norton also created a world that, while never losing its aura of the fantastical, reflects the realities of war, misplaced heroism, and the place of women and the weak in a pre-industrial world. Don’t read that as these books are any sort of sociological or political preaching, but instead, a serious, and mostly successful, attempt to merge fantasy and realism. This book, The Lore of Witch World, is the very best introduction to the series, and you cannot go wrong in purchasing a copy.
Follow the links to read my earlier reviews of some of Andre Norton’s Witch World books:
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now.