Known as “the Grande Dame of Science Fiction,” Andre Alice Norton wrote and co-authored about two hundred books. Focusing primarily on the young adult audience, she wrote fantasy and science fiction, preferring the former to the latter as time went on. By far, her most famous works are her Witch World novels.
Inspired by the knights who founded kingdoms in Outremer at the time of the Crusades, Witch World is set in a medieval realm where magic is real. The land of Estcarp, a country analogous to Europe, is tied to Earth and other worlds by a series of strange, inter-dimensional “Gates.” Home to the Old Race – a people who age slowly and whose women possess psychic abilities – Estcarp is the only country ruled by a matriarchy. Called Witches, these women reign supreme in Estcarp through their knowledge of magic. Men are second class citizens because they have not wielded the Power in centuries, meaning that their ability to use magic has been forgotten and is considered a sign of evil.
Thus, when the first novel begins, Estcarp is in its “twilight.” It is believed that for a Witch to use her Power she must remain a virgin; since many women of the Old Race possess magic, this means they cannot marry after they complete their training. With fewer and fewer women willing to marry, bear children, and raise families, the population of Estcarp declined sharply over time. Add to this the constant raids from their northern and southern enemies, as well as the looming threat from a hostile alien force, and it seems their nation is doomed to die.
From this one can see that Andre Norton did not agree with what, in the present day, passes for feminism. Though the land is controlled by a matriarchy, this has not led to peace or even stability. Foes push at their weakened defenses and Estcarp is in the final stages of a prolonged demographic winter. It appears that they can do little but hope to make their end a brave one.
This certainty of defeat changes with the arrival of a newcomer through one of the Gates. However, it is not a woman who reinvigorates Estcarp’s dying star. Nor is the country saved by the discovery of an inner power the Witches have had all along. No, salvation comes to the dying land in the form of an American soldier named Simon Tregarth. On the run from enemies of his own, he gambles desperately that the Gate he enters will provide him with escape.
Where modern feminists decry marriage and the family, Ms. Norton recognized the corresponding nature of men and women in her Witch World saga. Simon Tregarth’s entrance into the conflict challenges the ruling power of the Witches as he comes to play a significant role in the defeat of the alien invaders. Through him and other male characters Ms. Norton demonstrates that, though women may be competent in the field of conflict, they are not superior to men in that endeavor – nor should we require them to fight in the same manner.
Women Are Better than Men
One of the most insidious claims of third wave feminism is that women are not only interchangeable with men, they are also his superiors. This is a view that Ms. Norton’s Witches also hold, based in part on Estcarpian men’s lack of Power. So when Simon Tregarth and, later, his two sons prove to have magic, the Witches are stunned and angry. They are also infuriated by Jaelithe Tregarth, Simon’s wife. A Witch with incredible talent, Jaelithe leaves the sisterhood to wed the Earthman after falling in love with him in the first novel.
Since they hold the Power to be more import than marriage or family life, the Council comes to hate Jaelithe for her decision to leave their ranks. A Witch who has relations with a man commonly loses her magic, a weakness their enemies are happy to exploit. However, despite marrying Simon and giving birth to triplets, Jaelithe retains her Power. In point of fact, she gains more magic than she had as a virgin Witch. Due to their shared psychic talents, she and her husband form a strong mind-bond which grants them more power than any Witch or group of Witches has ever possessed.
Realizing that this could be the key to saving her race, Lady Tregarth immediately goes to the Witches’ Council with her discovery, certain that they will hear her out and re-accept her into their ranks. Instead, they reject her and refuse to listen to her story. Although they can sense that she still has her magic, the fact that she set aside her career to be a wife and mother leads them to consider her a traitor to their beliefs. Thus they repudiate both her and her discovery that witches can keep their power when they marry.
Considering the state of Estcarp, one must wonder why the matriarchy would rebuff their sister-in-Power. If a Witch can marry, become a mother, and in the process not only retain but enhance her magic, then shouldn’t they be happy to follow her lead? One would think so. But as Ms. Norton says through Simon in Gate of the Cat, “They have ruled too long, those of Estcarp, to take easily being thwarted, even in small things.” If a Witch can keep her magic even as a wife and mother, then the command over Estcarp that the Council has enjoyed for centuries is no longer secure.
Ironically, the Witches must eventually surrender their political power when an invading army marches upon them from the south. Unable to match the assaulting force, the Council members combine their Power to physically twist and reshape the mountains along their southern border, wiping out the hostile army in the process. This awe-inspiring act comes at a price, as many Witches lose their lives when the magic they have called upon takes its toll. Reduced in number and ability, the Council must cede control of Estcarp to a new ruling body – one which includes Simon and Jaelithe Tregarth.
The Balance of the Sexes
Ms. Norton continues to point out how the male and female sexes balance and support one another in their struggle against evil in several Witch World tales. Working together as husband and wife, Simon and Jaelithe rid their world of the inhuman Kolder. In an attempt to escape the Witches’ wrath their three children – Kyllan, Kemoc, and Kaththea Tregarth – travel east to the forgotten land of Escore. There the two young men marry women who helped them in their adventures, while Kaththea is nearly lured to her destruction by an evil adept. Her efforts to heal from this experience, chronicled in Sorceress of the Witch World, see her wed a man who knows more of magic than even her talented mother.
Others who have no relation to the Tregarth family or even live in Estcarp discover this same equilibrium. In the short story “Dragon Scale Silver,” set in the Dales of High Hallack, the Witch girl Elys goes to rescue her twin brother from a trap of ancient evil. Accompanied on her journey by Jervon, a soldier she helped heal, she is surprised when he remains at her side despite repeated warnings that he cannot hope to face the threat she must dispatch. Only with his aid, however, is Elys able to rescue her brother.
Year of the Unicorn follows this pattern as well. Born in Estcarp but carried to the Dales by its enemies, Gillan grows to womanhood in an Abbey of the Flames. At the turning of the year, she hears that the Dalesmen are preparing to fulfill their pact with the Wereriders- men who can change shape and use strange magic. The Wereriders agreed to help the Dalesmen fight off an invading army in exchange for thirteen brides. Replacing one of these women, Gillan meets and marries the Wererider Herrel. Given her Witch heritage and his half-blood status, the two must contend with the other Riders as they try to separate the couple by any means necessary.
For Ware Hawk, Norton makes the complementarity of the sexes even plainer. Tirtha, the last surviving heir of Hawkholme, must go south to keep a promise her clan made in the distant past. But due to the Turning of the mountains and the lawlessness of the southern lands she cannot travel alone. Thus she hires a mercenary from the race of Falconers, a breed of men who despise all women and loathe witchery, but who are known to keep their oaths even if those are given to a female. In the course of their journey the two must face and overcome their prejudices to battle the Darkness and fulfill the pledge made by Tirtha’s house.
But it is in Gate of the Cat that the authoress truly emphasizes the harmony between men and women. Here two women – the Earthling Kelsie McBlair and the Witch called Wittle – set out to find the source of the Witches’ Power in order to reinvigorate the sisterhood’s magic. Drawn into the quest unwillingly, Kelsie has no respect or affection for Wittle, who browbeats and threatens her at every opportunity. Rather she forms a bond with the young warrior Yonan, whose knowledge of magic is more esoteric and who has shown her far more courtesy. Time and again Wittle insults Yonan and/or urges Kelsie to leave him behind. “He is a man!” she states repeatedly, implying that this fact makes him useless to their search.
Unconcerned with the Witches’ customs or modern third wave feminism, Kelsie repeatedly defends Yonan from Wittle’s belittling comments. She flatly refuses to leave him at any point in the journey, even forcing the Witch to help her use magic to summon him at one point. In the end, as the young Earthwoman realized from the beginning, his help is all that allows them to conquer the Darkness and rediscover the Power that the Witches seek.
As Ms. Norton demonstrated through her heroines, a woman’s greatest assets are her wit, her determination, and her will. By combining this power with the physical and mental gifts of a man, especially in marriage, she becomes stronger than any individual or group of women ever could be. In her Witch World novels the authoress demonstrates Creation’s balance, showing that the two sexes supplement, complete, and complement one another. Neither one is superior or inferior to the other.
Thus it is possible to see that a woman’s identity as a potential wife and mother gives her power. Women can and have always been capable as combatants, at the margins, but the field of battle is not where their main advantage lies. Their greatest influence rests in ensuring the continuation of their race, their culture, and their nation. And they can do that best by tending to hearth and home, man and children, than they ever could in the theater of war.