Andre Norton’s unmined potential

We have an interesting discussion going on at SF Fandom about Were-rider powers. If you have never read Andre Norton’s Witch World books, imagine a world whose native population became so powerful they could open gates to other worlds (possibly other universes) and bring through peoples and creatures as their servants and playthings. The most powerful of these “Adepts” went on to assume god-like status, evolving into beings so remote from their world and their origins they no longer shared the basic motivations and goals of their ancestors.

Somewhere along the way the lesser Adepts allowed their curiosities to lead them in dangerous directions. Some of the Adepts became evil, selfish, and ambitious. They set out to conquer each other, conquer other worlds, or just to destroy whatever they did not like. The Witch World was nearly destroyed by the wars of the Adepts. Some of them fled through their gates, never to return. Others simply destroyed themselves and their families rather than be enslaved or tortured by their enemies. A few became dormant, or were imprisoned by their enemies.

After a thousand years a man named Simon Tregarth from our Earth passed through a gate to find the Witch World in a strange, almost mystical struggle with another off-world race called the Kolder. In the first book, Witch World, Tregarth simply found a place for himself in the Witch World. The second book in the series, Web of the Witch World, resolved the conflict with the Kolder, but it left open the possibility for other stories because by now the reader knew there were many other lands than Estcarp (where Simon entered the world). So many lands, so many peoples, could only mean there must be many untold stories.

So in her third Witch World book Andre turned to a different continent and a nation of men called High Halleck. There she introduced readers to a different theater of the Kolder War, which had literally threatened the entire world. And in Year of the Unicorn Andre added the Were-riders, a strange group of warriors who could shape-shift into animals of different forms. The Were-riders had contracted with the Dales of High Halleck to help throw back an invasion by Alizon, a Witch World nation that had allied itself with the Kolder. The price the Dales had to pay the Were-riders was to provide them with 13 brides.

The Were-riders were themselves exiles from an ancient nation called Arvon, once home to many Adepts and wielders of great power. Arvon’s lords had ejected the Were-riders and other warrior groups to maintain peace within its borders, but the term of exile was not permanent. The Were-riders, having been created by an Adept, were themselves innocent of the cause of their own existence. They had fought on the losing side but they were rational creatures, capable of making their own choices for themselves. Arvon’s rulers recognized this aspect of their nature and gave them an opportunity to integrate into Arvonian society.

With their 13 brides, the Were-riders returned to Arvon and were readmitted to the nation that had given birth to them. Their return was not entirely without difficulty (that is the basis of the story in The Year of the Unicorn, which I don’t want to spoil here) but eventually they settled down.

Years later the children born of those marriages grew up and began to interact with Arvonian society. And as the children of the Weres they inherited powers that made them both dangerous and potentially influential in Arvon’s affairs. Andre focused on one of those children, Kethan, the son of Herrel and Gillian (the main characters in Year of the Unicorn).

In the course of the discussion at SF-Fandom it occurred to me that Andre and her co-authors had gradually drawn a picture of Witch World emerging from centuries of chaos and conflict to the dawn of a new “golden age” of peace and cooperation between the various nations and peoples. They were starting to work together to improve life and safety, and in The Warding of Witch World a decision was made to close all the gates that could be found, so that Witch World could find its own path without interference from other worlds and without threatening other worlds as well.

In the wake of this radical change in its environment, I wondered, what would be the social impact of allowing all the specially bred creatures and half-humans like the Were-riders — who were essentially created for war — to live within Witch World’s societies? There would still be a need for many long years and centuries for warriors who could defend the “good” peoples from the remnants of the unredeemable “dark” creatures — or, at least, from creatures who would require many generations to learn to get along with everyone else.

But over time all these specially bred peoples and creatures would have to exist in a world that did not need them for conflict. What a great opportunity that would be for stories about the struggle to grow and find a new place in Witch World.

Andre Norton passed away in March 2005. Her literary rights have passed to Sue Stewart, who is working to preserve and enhance Andre’s legacy. I don’t know what Sue intends but it seems to me that there are many creative minds that could populate Witch World with new ideas, new challenges. Somewhere out there may be one or more authors capable of, perhaps ready to succeed Andre.

Andre had long since invited other authors to share her world. I was not pleased with all the choices, but I doubt anyone would be. Still, unlike Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien — who had tried to “close out” their worlds (Asimov’s Galactic Empire/Foundation universe had chosen a hive-mind destiny and Tolkien removed the Elves from Middle-earth) — Andre Norton left unresolved threads in Witch World. Perhaps the task of tying everything up neatly was just too much for one person. By the time she wrote the last Witch World novel, The Warding of Witch World, she was relying on someone else’s notes to help her keep all the “facts” established in earlier stories correct.

In fact, one of the challenges of being an Andre Norton fan is that it’s hard to find truly canonical truths in the stories. She did not work from a single Bible, a source of coherent mythology to help her be consistent. The spelling of town names and character names, and even geography might change from one story to the next. There was just no way to close off Witch World completely.

And maybe that means some day we’ll find a new author who can take up Andre’s mantle and carry on Witch World’s stories. I think I would like that, provided it was someone who could reflect Andre’s imagination and style in a way that makes me feel comfortable.

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