Monday, January 23, 2012

Witch World: Where Magic And Science Are One

“Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science, well I come from a place where they’re one and the same.”  That line grabbed my attention in the 2011 theatrical release of Thor.  It sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it.  My brain’s energy efficient light bulb took a while to shine at full capacity, but when it did I had the answer:  Andre Norton’s 1963 novel Witch World.

“Simon Tregarth’s lot would pit him against an uncanny world where the laws of nature operated...differently.  Where in fact, ‘magic’ was science.”  That quote comes from the back cover of my Witch World novel, printed in November 1978.

The key innovation of this first book is that the white male hero, Simon, is introduced into a magical world dominated by women.  He is sent by a stone of power - the Siege Perilous - through a stone arch to the Witch World.  Yet unlike the wardrobe of C.S. Lewis, there is no coming back to Earth.  Simon finds himself near Escarp, a land where witches dominate as a matriarchate.  He gives aid to Jaelithe, a woman being hunted.  She can cast spells, but he has a revolver which is the first symbol of science the reader sees in the Witch World.  In fact, the association of men with science is further demonstrated by the Kolder, the mysterious male enemy.  An otherworldly battle of the sexes, it is alien men and their strange technology against native women and their magic. 

As the storyline advances in the inaugural book and beyond, Simon and Jaelithe fall in love.  This is a key development because a witch can perform magic only if she is a virgin.  Jaelithe must not have sex with Simon or she will her lose the Power.  Thus a great deal of sexual politics are implied in the divide between men and women.  The witches, like the Catholic hierarchy, must be celibate.
What makes Simon and Jaelithe such memorable characters is that they ultimately defy the witch matriarchy by falling in love, and Jaelithe mysteriously retains the Power.  This, from my point of view, is how Norton’s “‘magic’ was science.”  If memory serves, Simon and Jaelithe become linked and have magical ability as a couple.  Moreover, they conceive triplets - Kaththea, Kyllan, and Kemoc.  The three are a half-earthling and half-witch brood, linked together much like their parents.  When Kathea is kidnapped by the witches, the link with her brothers cannot be severed.  Kyllan and Kemoc rescue their sister and try to escape the terrible power of the witches, thus they become Three Against The Witch World.  The brothers, in a world where only women have the Power, are genetic inheritors of it from their parents along with their sister.  This is the ultimate expression of magic and science becoming one.

As the Witch World series evolves with new characters from different lands, the magic and science link is lost.  Too bad.  This theme is what makes the first books so original, and so worth reading.


  1. I haven't read the book, but I find it interesting, even from the brief description you give here, how strongly traditional stereotypes of gender come through. Men are associated with science and reason; women with magic and intuition. Women only retain their power as long as they are sexually pure.

    I'm wondering, then--does Simon and Jaelithe's relationship challenge these stereotypes?

  2. Good question. I'd have to dig out and reread Witch World, Web of the Witch World, and Three Against the Witch World to give an informed answer. But from what I remember, these stereotypes are challenged in small ways. In Witch World, Simon remains the consummate white male hero, but when he first meets Jaelithe he thinks she's rather unattractive. As a witch, she could read his thoughts and was amused. Clearly, his idea of sexiness did not matter to her. How refreshing when in our world implants and face lifts are valued. Simon, in his own way, developed a whole new intuition for what is attractive in a woman. In Web of the Witch World Jaelithe finds out she still has the Power which challenges the orthodoxy of the witches. Having a husband and still remaining a witch just does not happen. And in Three Against the Witch World, Kaththea is kidnapped to help replenish the witches numbers. Kyllan and Kemoc are still not valued for having magical ability. By this novel the Kolder have been defeated so the science aspect is gone. It's more of a pure fantasy since the three are the embodiment, in my mind, of science and magic becoming one. That, in itself, is the greatest challenge of all to the men/science and women/magic stereotype since the three are equally linked by magic.