Beyond the Siege Perilous:

Andre Norton’s Witch World

In Witch World we have one of the great portal fantasies of our genre. Simon Tregarth, World War II vet fallen on hard times, finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong side of the law. The bad guys are coming for him, and the only escape is through death—or through a mysterious magical portal guarded by the equally mysterious Dr. Jorge Petronius. It’s none other than the Siege Perilous of the Arthurian canon, and for the small price of everything a man owns in this world, he can be transported to “that existence in which his spirit, his mind—his soul if you wish to call it that—is at home.” There is a catch: The door only opens one way. There’s no coming back.

Simon is desperate. The bad guys are coming. He takes Petronius’ offer.

At that point the Fifties-style Mob thriller ends, the Arthurian echoes die away, and the real genius begins.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The Siege deposits Simon in the Witch World, in the middle of a chase with hounds and deadly hunters, and throws him together almost immediately with a nameless woman whom he comes to know only as “the witch.” She is one of the witches of Estcarp, and she has been spying on her country’s enemies in Alizon; she has been caught, and is being pursued, until Simon helps her escape.

Estcarp is an ancient nation ruled by women. With its allies, the Viking-like Sulcarmen and the ferociously misogynistic Falconers, the witches have been fighting a losing battle to protect their lands and their people, who are called the Old Race. Simon signs on at once with the all-male military force under the command of the exiled half-human, half-troll, Koris of Gorm.

Simon’s first major battle as a soldier of Estcarp is a disaster: the worst and the most mysterious of Estcarp’s enemies, the Kolder, with a zombie-like or demonically possessed army and the use of air power in this low-tech world, conquer Sulcarkeep. But the Sulcarmen have booby-trapped the fortress. As soon as the men of Estcarp escape, the keep blows, taking out a significant number of the Kolder, and nearly taking Simon’s comrades in arms with it–including the witch.

Meanwhile, because this is a Norton book and Norton loves her interwoven viewpoints, we get to know a young woman named Loyse of Verlaine, an heiress without beauty or apparent charm, whose abusive father has married her by proxy to yet another of Estcarp’s enemies, the upstart Duke of Karsten. Loyse’s people are wreckers, and the latest, weirdest storm has delivered a witch, whom the lord’s men are looking forward to stripping of her power—all too easy to do, because a witch must be a virgin or she loses her powers.

The night of the wedding, Loyse and the witch make their escape, Loyse having disguised herself as a man. In the meantime, Simon and Koris and the male survivors have been learning more about the Kolder, hooking up with the Falconers, and somewhat incidentally, discovering the tomb of an ancient entity named Volt, whose ax Koris takes (or is given).

The adventure whirls onward from here, with the witch turning up on a spy mission in Karsten, accompanied by a young person named Briant, and Simon and Koris joining them just in time to be driven out by a purge of the Old Race. Eventually Simon is captured by Kolder and taken to the city of the dead and the undead that was once the capital of Gorm, but manages to escape with intelligence that allows Estcarp and its allies to stage an attack against the Kolder.

The attack succeeds, but the Kolder escape—evidently by portal. In the end, Estcarp is saved, Briant is revealed to be Loyse and finds love with Koris, Koris is put in charge of Gorm, and the witch reveals her name to Simon.

That last is her way of declaring love, because a witch’s name is her most prized possession, next to the virginity that contains her power. Simon is already head over heels, and is happy to accept her proposal. And so ends the first adventure of the Witch World.

It had been years and years and more years since I last reread this book. I’d forgotten how dense and chewy and complex it is, and how much it owes to the tropes of the thriller and detective noir. The beginning makes me think of the voiceover of a black-and-white film, that staccato male voice with its flat American accent. Even after we’ve shifted to Arthuriana, it’s still very much a guy’s adventure.

But then there’s the witch. And Loyse. These are not conventional babes and dames. They’re not gorgeous, for one thing. The one conventionally attractive female in the book, Duke Yvian’s mistress Aldis, is not a love interest, but neither is she completely evil. Everyone is using her, and she is using everyone else, in the way of political intrigue.

Loyse isn’t plucky or perky or cute. She looks wan and washed out, but she has a spine of steel. She discovers that it’s not looks or charm that gets the guy, it’s smarts and courage. The guy she gets has his own issues with looks and heredity, but she doesn’t care. They’re a match, and eventually they both realize it.

The witches are quite astonishing in the context of 1963 and men’s adventure. Certainly there’s been a long tradition of powerful sorceresses in exotic locales, but these are straight-out rulers. They’re strong, they’re confident, and they wield powers that no one questions. Even the Falconers, who actively hate women, have to accept their authority.

The distinct downside, the price of their magic, is their sexuality, but this isn’t played as a tragedy. It is a major problem for their subspecies, in that the inability of their strongest women to breed plus the inability of their men to wield magic has caused a dangerous decline in numbers over the years. But the witches themselves don’t appear to be discommoded. It’s a far worse tragedy when one of them is raped and therefore rendered powerless. Actual consensual marriage isn’t a thing, as far as Simon knows, until it happens to him.

Simon is a bit of a Gary Stu in that he’s of pure and ancient lineage himself, with distinct Arthurian overtones, and it turns out that he has at least some degree of witch-type power. He’s the classic steely-jawed adventure hero, who defeats the wicked enemy and scores the female prize—but the trope gets turned on its head. The conquest of the Kolder is very much a team effort, and in the end it’s the girl who snags him, rather than the reverse.

On top of all of this, what at first appears to be an Outlander-style excursion into a world of much lower tech, with swords and armor and warriors, quickly turns into something quite different. The swordsmen also carry dart guns, and the Big Bad, the Kolder, are an outright alien invasion. Their powers are machine-based, and their technology includes aircraft, robot birds, and a type of submarine.

It could be a complete mishmash, but it works. The world of Simon’s dreams is tough, beleaguered, and frequently violent; it’s clearly post-modern rather than pre-modern, and magic coexists with technology in a way that doesn’t turn tech into a bad thing; it can be used by bad people for bad things, but it’s not inherently evil. This is a world populated by people who care about each other, who value honor and loyalty, and who fight for what they believe in.

The story is not told through the male gaze, either, despite the predominance of male characters and viewpoints. That’s the convention of the time, but Norton subverts it beautifully with her matriarchal culture and her competent and confident female characters. Even Loyse the abused child has no qualms about standing up for herself.

It always bothered me that the only way a witch could keep her powers was by refraining from sex. There’s something ugly about that, especially in light of the fact that Estcarp’s enemies use rape as a weapon to destroy a witch. However, I do remember how the series evolved, and that does get addressed, and to some degree mitigated. So it’s maybe not as bad as I recalled.

This problematical aspect of the worldbuilding says something about female power in the context of the time the book was written—by a woman under a male pseudonym in a male-dominated genre. A woman can only be powerful if she remains single. Once she has sex, she’s sharply diminished—subsumed into the man. She can’t be both a sexual being and a powerful one. It’s either-or.

Then again, men in this world don’t have magical powers at all. They’re relegated to conventional weapons and warfare, and they play very much of a secondary role in their culture. They don’t appear to resent it, either. It’s the way things are. Witches rule, men obey.

What’s distinctly missing here is any sense of the non-magical women of Estcarp. It’s all virgin witches and male warriors. Very occasionally we see a female servant, but there’s little to no sense of who is in the background, washing the clothes and birthing the babies.

It’s not a good world for a woman unless she’s a witch. But then in adventure novels, it’s never a good world for a woman. Witch World in that respect is well ahead of the usual curve.

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