Interview with Andre Norton
by Raymond H. Thompson
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
23 March 1991
When I discovered that Andre Norton was going to attend the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida, where I was giving a paper, I welcomed the opportunity to include her among the authors interviewed. After a panel discussion in which we were both involved, we tried to find a quiet corner where we could talk, but so many people wanted to speak to her that we had to put up with a number of interruptions, one of the penalties of her popularity among readers of science fiction and fantasy.
Norton's interest in Arthurian legend started early and continued long: Arthur makes a brief appearance in Huon of the Horn (New York: Harcourt, 1951), her adaptation of the medieval story; in Witch World (New York: Ace, 1963) the Siege Perilous transports the central hero to the Witch World of the title; in Steel Magic (Cleveland: World, 1965) three children enter Avalon where they recover the talismans of power stolen from Merlin, Arthur, and Huon of the Horn; one of the stories in Dragon Magic (New York: Crowell, 1972) deals with the career of Arthur; Merlin makes a brief appearance at the end of Here Abide Monsters (New York: Atheneum, 1973); Merlin's Mirror (New York: DAW, 1975) recasts the story of Merlin and Arthur as science fiction. Unavoidably, it was not easy for Norton to recall details of the process of writing so many different books so long ago, but she remained patient with my questions. Her answers help to explain why she returned to Arthurian legend so often.
RT: What attracted you to Arthurian legend as a subject for your novels?
AN: Rosemary Sutcliff really did. Her stories of Roman Britain were very good, following the same family for generation after generation. The Lantern Bearers introduces Arthur as a very young man, rather frowned upon by people for being too impetuous. The next book, Sword at Sunset, is the tragedy of Arthur. These captured my imagination.
RT: Did you read any medieval romances?
AN: Oh yes. I had read Malory years before, but I found that I was more interested in the historical figure of Arthur. When I realized that Malory's presentation of Arthur was far from what he really might have been like, I started reading books that speculated about the historical figure, including those by Geoffrey Ashe. I also read other historical novels, mainly by English writers.
After I read Mary Stewart's series, however, Merlin began to interest me more than Arthur. I also read Warwick Deeping's Man on the White Horse and Kipling's three stories of the Roman legion stationed along the Wall. Oh, they are stirring, those three Kipling stories! They are what started Rosemary Sutcliff writing about Roman Britain, you know. I have also read T. H. White. I found The Once and Future King amusing, but it wasn't my idea of Arthur. Since by then I had grown interested in Arthur as a historical person, I found that type of book irritating.
RT: Did you read works on archaeology?
AN: Oh yes, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age and a lot about Roman Britain. Years ago a writer friend of mine helped me find a London book shop that supplied me with books on history and off- beat archaeology that you couldn't find in the United States at that time.
RT: Were you interested in the Welsh material, such as The Mabinogion?
AN: Not really. I was more interested in the historical fact that the remnants of Roman Britain fled into Wales.
RT: Did you reread your literary and historical sources before you actually started writing your novels?
AN: Yes. For example, before I wrote Merlin's Mirror I scrutinized the material, looking for features I might interpret as the effect of an alien technology that was very old and had been reawakened.
RT: You deal with Arthurian legend in several of your books, adopting contradictory approaches to it in different places. Were you conscious that your view of Arthur in Huon of the Horn, for example, differed widely from that in Steel Magic?
AN: In Huon of the Horn I was looking at Arthur from Huon's point of view. In my source, the sixteenth-century translation of the romance by Sir John Bourchier, there is a secondary legend, not only that Huon and Arthur divide the realm of faery between them, but that Huon is the better of the two. Arthur emerges as a rather belligerent war leader in this source, which is why he comes across so unimpressively in my book.
RT: The next Arthurian reference is in Witch World. Why did you choose to make the Siege Perilous your gateway to the other world in that novel?
AN: I came across this legend that the only knight with the right to sit on the Siege Perilous was Galahad and, moreover, that all others who tried to sit in it were transported to the world they were meant to live in. So I took a man who was on the run from everything, and I sent him to the world where he was meant to be, the world that suited his personality.
RT: Would it be fair, then, to say that the Witch World had its origins in Arthurian legend?
AN: In Arthurian legend, yes. There was never meant to be more than one book, I should add, but readers became interested in that world. They wanted more and more, and now I think the series has grown to some fourteen books.
RT: Mary Stewart, also, only meant to write one book about Merlin.
AN: Her Merlin was marvellous, and to me Merlin is really more interesting than Arthur, as I said.
RT: The next books that include figures from Arthurian legend are Steel Magic and Dragon Magic. What particular age group were you aiming for in these two books, and how did this affect your presentation of the Arthurian material?
AN: The Magic books were part of a series intended for readers aged ten to fourteen, and each one had to have magic in it. In Steel Magic it is the picnic basket, together with the fact that iron and steel are opposed to magic. In Dragon Magic I wanted to provide the dragon history of four different peoples: there is the dragon of the Ishtar Gate, which faces Ethiopia; the story of the Chinese dragon came right out of The Art of War, a book that is over a thousand years old; the Germanic dragon was the one slain by Sigurd; the British dragon was the pendragon, the banner no one had a right to use except the king. I wanted to show the death of Arthur.
RT: Why did you decide to write again on Arthurian legend in Merlin's Mirror?
AN: I liked Merlin as a person, and then I came across this reference to Merlin's mirror. I thought, what if it were a technological device of another race that he alone could work? Of course, Merlin is a very mysterious figure in tradition where he is credited with being only half human. So I decided to write Merlin's Mirror from that point of view. I enjoyed writing that book. It was a lot of fun.
RT: Why did you decide to write it as science fiction rather than fantasy, as in your earlier books dealing with Arthurian legend?
AN: I don't really think about form; I just write, fitting the story to what I think might have happened. I realize that I took liberties with tradition by proposing an earlier civilization, but I was trying to prove to myself that such a theory could account for many features of the legend. They didn't have to be magic; Merlin might have been using forgotten lore to achieve his purposes.
In fact, I didn't really think of my novel as science fiction. I have in my library a lot of what I call speculative archaeology, dealing with phenomena that cannot be readily explained by current theories. It was believed that the Indians came to America in 10,000 B.C., passing over the land bridge, but then objects were found that carbon dated at 40,000. Unexplained discoveries have been made in this country, such as a Roman camp in Virginia. Such discoveries ruffle the feathers of archaeologists who would rather ignore or dismiss them than change their familiar theories.
Civilizations can disappear with barely a trace. Out West, on the Gallina River, just before World War II, an authority on early American history decided to check out an Indian tradition about some towers in the area. He assumed they were cliff dwellings, but in a remote valley, now totally dry, he found signs of intensive agriculture and irrigation. Along the cliffs on both sides were four-story towers of stone, not cliff dwellings at all. They had no windows, and could only be entered through the roof, presumably with the aid of ladders. The inhabitants had been magnificent workers in stone: they had stonework bowls and stone bins with moving lids that still contained petrified grain. When he examined one of the towers, he found it had been burned out. Someone had shot fire arrows into it, setting fire to the wooden interior. We still don't know who these people were, though they were apparently wiped out, tower after tower, perhaps by the incoming Apaches. There is a whole civilization that nobody knows anything about.
I think that history is very distorted because no two people see events the same way. They carry away entirely different impressions. It is like that old game where you whisper something to one person, and it goes all around the circle. What you get at the end is totally different from what you started with. Well, that is what history is. All the records from the Dark Ages were written by churchmen who were more interested in the Church than anything else, and our records reflect their bias.
This, I believe, allows room for speculation of an unconventional nature. Thus I started out with Geoffrey of Monmouth's story of Merlin disclosing that Vortigern's tower kept falling down because the dragons were fighting. I tried to show how that might really have happened, but had been embroidered in the retelling. I did the same with the story of how Merlin raised the altar stone in Ireland and took it to Stonehenge, suggesting that he might have used sonics.
RT: How free did you feel to adapt the traditional material?
AN: I didn't feel I was held to anything because I viewed Arthur as a Romano-British leader, rather than as the medieval monarch who presided over the Round Table. I was working on the basis of what I deemed might be history, rather than from the legends. I have always believed, I might add, that the traditional picture of Merlin with the long white beard is wrong; he was probably a much younger person at the time.
RT: Merlin's Mirror captures the strong sense of the inevitability of fate in Arthurian legend, doesn't it?
AN: Yes, that is a powerful part of the legend, and I wanted to keep it in.
RT: Why did you exclude the various romantic entanglements from your treatment of Arthurian legend?
AN: They just didn't fit into the focus of my story. Nor, I believe, does the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot love triangle fit in with the rest of the traditional story. It may have been added at a much later date, or Rosemary Sutcliff's idea may be right: Arthur found out he had committed incest with his sister without knowing it, and that made it impossible for him to love another woman. That strikes me as very plausible. Arthur's marriage to Guinevere has always seemed a marriage of convenience for both. She strikes me as a weak person in whom Arthur soon lost interest. The love story certainly creates a romantic Arthur, but the romantic Arthur, in my mind, is removed from the historic Arthur that I was interested in.
RT: Merlin's Mirror is less optimistic in its overall outlook than are the fantasies that deal with Arthurian legend. Why is that?
AN: Oh I don't agree. Arthur leaves Merlin to be healed at the end, while Merlin himself retreats because he knows it isn't time yet for the progress he has to offer. It leaves you the feeling that they will return, as the legend promises: the king who was, is, and will be. There is hope for the future.
RT: The characters in all your books learn lessons, sometimes painful ones. What lesson did you want your readers to learn from the Arthurian legend?
AN: The Arthurian legend is tragic, but it teaches duty, duty that rises above emotions. The scene in "Pendragon" in Dragon Magic where they bury Arthur, then throw his sword into the river, I conclude with the words, "And the sun went down." That meant the sun on their civilization was gone. This pessimistic note was inevitable because the ancient sources for those dragon stories all end unhappily.
RT: In Merlin's Mirror Nimue defends her opposition to Merlin by questioning whether progress of the kind he envisions is necessarily a good thing. How sympathetic were you to her point of view?
AN: Like Merlin, Nimue has only one point of view, refusing to see that there might be some good in progress. Both of them have their limitations.
RT: When you were writing, did you find that your sympathies were unexpectedly engaged by characters who developed in directions that you hadn't expected?
AN: That always happens. I know where I want to go, but my characters take over and do things that I hadn't planned. The book I am working on right now started with one set of ideas, but by the fourth chapter I had changed my whole conception of what I was doing. Once a character I had intended to be the villain of the story turned out to be a hero in the end.
RT: You tend to write from the point of view of one particular character, don't you?
AN: I have to do that. I write a great many books in the first person, but even those I write in the third person I can only see through one person. I write as if I am seeing pictures in my mind, and I describe them as though I personally have nothing to do with them.
RT: Now, if you could rewrite the books, would you change them in any way?
AN: No. That is the way I did them. I can't even go back to the technique I used in some of my earlier books. In the case of Merlin's Mirror, I felt that the story was finished because Merlin had made his decision to wait for a later era. That, of course, recalls the old legend that Arthur lies sleeping in Avalon and will come again. I put him in the mountains in Wales.
RT: What aspect of the legend did you feel was most important to include in your stories?
AN: I was interested in the fact that so many people had worked so hard, and it broke apart in their hands through no fault of theirs. That is what impressed me. Nevertheless there is the promise of Arthur's return, offering humanity another chance.
RT: Thank you.