A Shadow of Things to Come: Andre Norton’s Huon of the Horn

Between Huon of the Horn (1951) and Rogue Reynard (1947), I almost wonder if Andre Norton had some thought of making a career, or at least part of one, translating or adapting medieval texts. The two are very close in structure, style, and storyline. Huon seems a little less stiff and a little more comfortable with its yea-verily-and-forsooth prose, but it’s still a fair plod to get through.

The two texts (I won’t call them novels) share quite a few elements. Rulers with anger-management issues holding councils and demanding the presence of nobles who have stayed home for Reasons—bad ones for Reynard, justifiable for Huon. Royal favorites murdered both accidentally and intentionally. Royal messengers subjected to a range of adventures and tortures, and sometimes a combination of both. Impossible demands and impossible quests, and wicked villains scheming to destroy the moral and the good.

Reynard is a beast fable, but apart from the existence of talking animals, it has no elements of magic. Huon is full to the brim with it. Oberon the Elf-king is a major character, and much of the first half of the plot revolves around the uses and misuses of his gift to Huon, the enchanted horn. The second half waxes more overtly political, dominated by human treachery and sorta-kinda-maybe-slantwise actual history—until it takes a long detour through an enchanted fortress and past the very gates of Hell.

For the most part, as I said, it’s a bit of a slog. And yet there are moments that approach real beauty, and flashes of, maybe not brilliance, but something close to epic grandeur. The sudden appearances of the Elf knights at Huon’s greatest need have a certain breathless glory to them, and the Gates of Hell and the castle of Adamant are strange and beautiful and supernaturally terrible.

In some degree, this mode of narrative plays to Norton’s strengths as a writer, between the breathless pacing and her occasional habit of winding up a plot halfway through and then starting all over again with much the same order of events. Her major weakness, the inability to write characters of real depth or complexity, is actually a feature in medieval epic and courtly romance. Characters are not real or rounded people but representations of specific traits. The traitor lord, the scheming counselor, the wrathful king; and on the other side, the noble hero, the beautiful damsel, the wise elder.

What’s really interesting about the book is not the way it trudges through the source material and renders it in the mock-archaic style of Victorian medievalism, but in the way it echoes other, later works—and not only Norton’s. Huon’s voyage across a Mediterranean of the medieval mind is strikingly reminiscent of Tolkien’s poetic works. From the Lay of Earendil, the storm that drives the hero’s ship across enchanted seas, and the nether heats and burning waste that drive the hero back to mortal lands; from various texts including “The Last Ship,” the bell in the tower of Valinor, ringing beyond the ends of the world.

Tolkien must have known the sixteenth-century original which Norton was adapting. Huon was published years before The Lord of the Rings; Norton could not have foreseen that the future father of modern epic fantasy would also make use of the text. I wonder if, in later years, she had a chance to appreciate the connection. It’s an echo of a common source, and for this reader, it’s rather wonderful.

As for her own later works, I see the origins of the Witch World’s healing pool and its multiple variations. The castle of the Gryphon is here, right down to the griffin that preys on dead sailors and carries them off to feed her young. There’s a subterranean adventure—it’s seldom a Norton novel without one. There are supernatural Powers that control human lives and destinies, either indirectly or as directly as the horn that summons the Elves to Huon’s aid. There’s even a wise and noble woman who stands loyally beside the hero and, in dire need, takes up arms to defend their home and family.

This little-known variation on a popular medieval theme, the Matter of France as it was called, the romance of Charlemagne and his noble Paladins, was a seminal text for Norton. I can see where the Witch World grew out of it, and where she found inspiration for her own stories and characters. As an individual work it’s not particularly successful, but as a harbinger of works to come, it’s fascinating.

Next time, I’ll look at another collaboration, this time with Rosemary Edghill, The Shadow of Albion.

Judith Tarr has written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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