Creating a Cruel Culture: A Study of Andre Norton’s Falconers

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In my first Inspiration article, I mentioned that it was an Andre Norton novel that motivated my interest in falconry. This novel was ‘Ware Hawk, and it was set in the Witch World. I described it as “shocking” but did not give an explanation why, for the simple reason that the account was superfluous to the purpose of that post.

It is not redundant here. One of the reasons ‘Ware Hawk shocked me was because Miss Norton had a culture – the Falconers – which had institutionalized rape in order to survive. It was not a pleasant discovery and, in today’s world of snowflakes, micro-aggressions, etc., I can see Miss Norton’s misogynist race being condemned and her books banned by the “thought police” for this transgression of “politically correct” considerations. And they would do this despite the fact that Miss Norton clearly loathed the Falconers’ practices as much as her fictional Witches of Estcarp did.

Miss Norton’s whole purpose in creating the Falconers was to clearly denounce misogyny and promote the ideal that women were just as competent as men in any profession they chose to pursue. These days, however, authors who attempt something along the lines of what Miss Norton did with her Falconers may be called to the carpet to apologize for using their fiction to fight against such injustices. One recent example is an author who created a fictional world with fictional racial prejudice (I believe her novel is called The Black Witch). Now the author wrote this book in part to show her disapproval of racism and to reinforce the argument against such evil. Yet the minions of the “thought police” attacked her as a racist before her book was even released to the general public.

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Yes, I am having trouble figuring out how that one works, too. If the current, universal zeitgeist is to slam racism and racists, why would the movement turn on an author who was following its clarion call via a fictional example? She was using artistic expression to make the same point those in elite circles claim is the root of every modern problem. In spite of this, the proponents of the philosophy she ascribes to decided that she was a racist herself, and thus needed to be destroyed. They then proceeded to do this in such a public way as to make some beginning authors believe that showing the evil of racism/misogyny/fill-in-the-blank in their stories is verboten.

The idea that authors may not create fiction to demonstrate how and why attitudes such as racism or misogyny are wrong is foolishness of the highest order. Fiction’s main aim is to make men and women want to live, and it does that by showing the attractiveness of virtue and the repugnance of evil. Take out the evil – however covert or overt it is – and the story loses its potency. Even romance novels such as Pride and Prejudice need some form of evil to propel their narrative forward. Miss Austen’s most famous story relies on the twin evils of pride and prejudice, showing how they can and often do ruin lives before she goes on to demonstrate how they may be overcome.

Readers, I think you can see why this article has appeared before you today. There is nothing inherently wrong with creating a science fiction/fantasy universe where the characters overcome racism, misogyny, cannibalism, infanticide, or some other evil. Miss Norton showed future authors the way by creating a culture that is repulsive, in spite of the fact that the men and women who abide by it are fascinating people.

Following the logic of the “thought police,” one must wonder how this author could find any good in a fictional race which had institutionalized rape, infanticide, and continuous misogyny. Certainly, the established pattern of Falconer behavior is appalling. I do not approve of any form of infanticide, nor do I approve of rape or misogyny, which should have been obvious when I used the word “shocking” to describe ‘Ware Hawk. Reading that book for the first time, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head at the descriptions of Falconer life in the early chapters.

Nevertheless, I found myself highly intrigued by the Falconers, who remain one of the more captivating members of Miss Norton’s fictional world. This is because she gave her fictional culture its redeeming qualities as well as its bad ones; for instance, although they have many evil practices, the Falconers never truck with the Shadow or the True Dark. They will fight against any manifestation of both, refusing a commission which seems the slightest bit dishonorable. Honor is also precious to the Falconers; their word is their bond, and they have never been known to break faith with their employers or those to whom they have sworn allegiance. The least vow they take is as sacred to them as any major trust; only death will prevent them from fulfilling an oath.

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Also, despite their inbred dislike of women and “witchery,” the Falconers do not make it a practice to be actively discourteous or abusive of women outside their race. If they must help girl children from Estcarp climb aboard a wagon, they will do so without uttering a complaint; if a woman who is ill must be moved and the Falconers are the only ones capable of accomplishing the task, they will do it without a harsh word or act. They will also allow a woman skilled in healing to treat their wounded without abusing her, verbally or otherwise.

So while Miss Norton never cuts the Falconers slack for the evil built into their culture, neither does she condemn them out of hand. They have their good points as a race, and these she praises without applauding their sins. Future writers with similar cultures in mind can do this, too, and they should not be made to feel their desire is wrong.

“But what this [fictional] race does in the story is evil!” some shout. Yes, it certainly is. The Falconers’ practices are terrible, as is the Hindu practice of suttee, wherein the new, living widow is immolated along with her recently deceased husband, willingly or not.* But as Miss Norton confirmed in her Witch World series, admiring another culture’s good points (whether it is fictional or real) does not mean one should avoid calling on them to drop the abhorrent aspects of their social order. Modern authors have this ability and duty, but certain people do not want them exercising that freedom in their work. These people will happily tell beginning writers what they can and cannot do by attacking a new author in an attempt to drive her from the market.

Creating a race like the Falconers does not make the author a misogynist who is – or wishes to become – a rapist. Neither does it mean that the writer supports such behavior. It means that the author is doing his/her job of exploring new worlds while showing the universality of good and evil, demonstrating to the readers who pick up the story why one is attractive and the other is not.

All of this means that if you have a race like the Falconers in mind in a novel decrying racism, etc., go ahead and write it. If the critics want to accuse you of supporting these things, ask them what they are doing to challenge the evils of misogyny, racism, infanticide, or what-have-you lately. Writing a book isn’t the same as pulling a widow off of her husband’s funeral pyre, but it is still a more effective weapon against evil than any hashtag has been or will be. Don’t feel, therefore, that you must apologize for it.

*(With thanks to Declan Finn for the anecdote about a British officer and a Hindu regarding the differences between their cultures. I enjoyed According to Culture; it was a good story. 😉 )

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4 thoughts on “Creating a Cruel Culture: A Study of Andre Norton’s Falconers

  1. Well said. Authorial integrity exists. Telling a good story means telling a *true* story–portraying both sides accurately. Being able to portray both sides of a story does not mean that the author agrees with either or any of them! The story is separate from the author, and the stuff that we read/write/create/consume *does not determine who we are.*
    I wish more people could understand this.
    With that said, I could never get into the Witch World series…I seem to prefer Andre Norton’s standalones to her series/collabs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing is, it WAS once understood that this was the job of authors. Only recently has that changed – and, obviously, for the worse. If writers can’t show evil in all it’s ugliness, then how can they show good in all it’s beauty? The answer is they can’t, which says more about the people telling authors what they can and cannot write than it does about the authors.

      I’m sorry the Witch World didn’t work out for you. It IS hard to get into, especially if you don’t start with the first two books. Have you read Beast Master? I really enjoyed that one.


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