Monday, April 27, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Witch World

Gary Gygax didn't specifically list the 1963 Andre Norton novel, Witch World, as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons in the Dungeon Masters Guide, but I find it hard to imagine he hadn't read it. And while I wouldn't argue that the book was the primary inspiration for anything in the game, the general tone and setting of the novel are very much in line with the older pulp fantasies that did inspire Gygax and Arneson.

Witch World tells the story of Lt. Colonel Simon Tregarth, a dishonorably discharged World War II soldier, who runs afoul of organized crime and finds himself running for his life. Through the agency of a man renowned for helping people "disappear," Tregarth finds himself transported to another world, one where magic is real and strange cultures abound. This world gives Tregarth a second chance at life and he embraces it with great zest, entering the service of one of the world's many nations and falling in love with a practitioner of magic, Jaelithe, with whom he develops an unusual -- and potentially dangerous -- link.

Witch World is very much a descendant of the sword-and-planet genre exemplified by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom tales and his imitators. Here, as in its precursors, a man from our world travels a parallel one where he finds himself possessed of power and influence unlike any he's ever known. His appearance is literally revolutionary, setting into motion a great change in the established order of his adopted world. The book also freely mixes magic and technology, as the main antagonists of the book are technologically advanced refugees from yet another world. Indeed, Witch World presents a setting in which comparatively few of its inhabitants are in fact natives, with the others having come to it just as Tregarth himself did.

Witch World proved to be Norton's most successful book, spawning not just sequels to the original but all manner of spin-offs, many of them not written by Norton herself. I think many of these later efforts are less "primal" than Witch World and deal with stories and themes that I frankly find uninteresting and that aren't particularly inspirational for the kind of D&D games I prefer. But the original remains a classic and is well worth a read, if you haven't done so. Andre Norton was a very fine writer and her best tales are rightly regarded as among the best in the genre. Witch World is one of them.

12 comments:

  1. Coincidentally, I just ordered a new-old copy of Witch World for use as inspirational source literature in the high fantasy campaign on which I'm working. I loved those books as a kid, and I figure there are at least a few things in there that are ripe for the stealing.

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  2. This is one of those books that many trusted friends enjoyed and recommended to me, but I just couldn't finish it. I tried twice and got bogged down about 40% through each time. Perhaps if I would have read it earlier in life (I was 35+ both times I tried to read it), I would have enjoyed it more.

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  3. I remember as a kid, browsing the sci-fi section of my library and seeing the Andre Norton Witch World series taking up most of an entire shelf. Despite that, and despite a very deep and abiding love of the planetary romance, i.e. Sword and Planet subgenre, I somehow never actually read any of these.

    Now that you've specifically recommended it, I might see if I can track down a copy and give it a read. I did read some other Norton books as a kid which I did enjoy, so I'm confident that I can wring some value out of the experience. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see how she's taken the planetary romance genre in a somewhat different direction.

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  4. The 3rd-5th Witch World books, dealing with Simon Tregarth's children, are actually more "straight" fantasy (and IMO better) than the first two which, as mentioned, have the bizarre premise of displaced modern earthman on quasi-medieval fantasy world fighting against technologically advanced space-aliens.

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  5. That "bizarre" premise doesn't bother me; in fact, I'm intrigued by it. More and more over the last few years I've found myself migrating in taste back to an age where we didn't have these "hard" divisions between the various stripes of speculative fiction. Fantasy, science fiction and horror were all related genres, springing from the same source, and our current paradigm, that they don't belong together, is feeling more and more artificial and forced to me all the time. I actually really like the older paradigm of mixing magic, technology, aliens, mythology and ghost stories into a Weird Tales melange of coolness. In fact, given the nature of this "pulp fantasy library," I'd expect to see a lot of that. That was a strong characteristic of a lot of the pulps. It was only post-pulp fantasy that went it's own way, leaving completely behind any hint of science fiction, largely as a result of Tolkien's (and others like him) popularity.

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  6. I think Witch World might be the first "man from our world in another" novel I read. I certainly have enjoyed most of the Witch World books and while Gygax might not have mentioned it many other early designers certainly have.

    In fact, my copy of GURPS Witch World is one of the few licensed books I still find value in. It's a great source of inspiration even now almost as good as the books themselves.

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  7. I have that exact copy of Witch World, which I bought solely for the ridiculous/amazing cover. I've never read it because I doubt the book would survive even a careful reading. Looks like I'll be going to Powell's today in search of a second copy.

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  8. This book had been suggested to me in the past, but I keep forgetting about it. I need to put it on my library hold list.

    Can someone please explain to me why those men on the cover are wearing Toucan Sam hats?

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  9. how much do you think The Prisoner is a kind of planetary romance in disguise?

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  10. Richard,

    Hard to say, since The Prisoner is utterly unintelligible to me.

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  11. Re: richard.

    I'd never thought of The Prisoner in those terms, but it fits like a glove. Just don't let Number Two hear you talking like that. He'll have the Bubbles on us for certain!

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  12. I read this one a few years back, and while I love old fantasy of the pre-Tolkien era (and later S&S) I did find Witch World a dull read.

    It was a very slow moving book, and even though some cool stuff happened I never felt grabbed by it. It was an uphill struggle. Frankly I couldn't understand why it was popular enough to spawn so many follow ups!

    My wife just read it and she managed to get a grib on why it is such a dull read. The language is dead as a doornail! There is little or no emotion, and very little colour in these books. You might get to see some buckles, but when they swash they do it feebly, if at all.

    It might be a classic, but it sure aint a pleasurable one.

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