Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Year of the Unicorn is for the most part a coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world. Gillan, the first-person narrator who is in her late teens, goes on both a physical journey to another land and a mental journey of self-discovery and self-reliance. Along the way, she faces many magical and physical obstacles that must be overcome, including finding her “other” self in a dream land. Andre Norton presents a strong female protagonist who finds love and self-reliance after many hard-fought battles.

Gillan is an orphan in the Dales. She does not fit in and knows that she is different, both in appearance and temperament, from those around her. She faces a bleak future until she takes the place of one of the brides meant for the Were Riders. For helping the Dales in a war, the Were Riders were promised thirteen brides. When the brides meet them, Gillan sees through the illusion that the Were Riders cast and is drawn to a cloak lying to the side of the rest. She thus becomes the bride of Herrel, the owner of the cloak.

Herrel and the rest of the Were Riders discover Gillan’s witch powers and fear her, even though she has used those abilities to save them from an evil spell set by their enemies. The Were Riders, without Herrel’s knowledge, take Gillan’s spirit to a dream land and take part of the spirit to make a copy of her. They then abandon the true Gillan while they ride through a gate into their homeland of Arvon, taking the...

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Year of the Unicorn Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Year of the Unicorn is one of a series of highly successful books that occur in a place called Witch World. All the basic characteristics of this land are established in the first novel in the series, Witch World (1963). Although this place is named “the Witch World” in other books in the series, it is never referred to by that name in Year of the Unicorn. Witch World is perhaps a distant planet, or it may exist in another dimension of Earth. Gates allow entry into Witch World from other worlds, and apparently human beings from Earth occasionally enter it. Many of the adventures confronting Gillan and Herrel are unique to this Witch World saga, while many other aspects are common to most Witch World stories. Thus, the Were-Riders are represented as a group in a number of other stories, but their history and functioning are only briefly summarized there. The land that they traverse, the Waste, is central to all the Witch World sagas.

The shape-changers, or Were-Riders, are introduced in this novel. They fought on the side of a land called High Hallack in a war against invaders called the Hounds of Alizon. The enemy used weapons from some other, unnamed world that are very similar to armaments, such as tanks and rocket launchers, found in this world. If High Hallack won the war, the Were-Riders were to receive thirteen brides, maidens between the ages of eighteen and twenty. They promised that they would then leave High Hallack and return to the unknown land called the Waste. This Great Bargain was the product of fear and desperation in High Hallack, and the novel begins when the price is demanded on the first day of the new year: the year of the unicorn.

The novel recounts adventures that occur during this year. Gillan, an orphan without a home or social status,...

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Year of the Unicorn Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Norton has written more than ninety books, few scholars have studied her corpus. One reason for this scholarly oversight is that her books defy categorization as either highbrow or lowbrow literature. Whatever category of class and taste they fit, they are popular: 10 million copies of Witch World books had been sold worldwide by 1987. Norton’s books also tap into scholarly writings and primitive images of the bestial in animal and human forms. The Were-Riders epitomize this theme and its combination in one being. Dark, light, death, life, evil, good, exhaustion, and renewal are integral components in her tales of adventure and trial.

Norton’s protagonists in Witch World are often female, such as Gillan. She began writing in science fiction in the early 1950’s, when it was seen as a “man’s field” for both authors and readers; thus, to be accepted, she selected the male pseudonym Andre. Thus, Norton’s tales balance everyday life and the sacred, and she shares this shadowy status in the world of the sacred, and she shares this shadowy status in the world of serious analysis, especially that written by feminist scholars. Despite the recent growth in feminist scholarship in science fiction, however, Norton remains caught between pulp writing, popular adventure stories, and academic acceptance.

Norton has had a tremendous impact, however, outside the groves of academe: The number of famous, “serious” science-fiction writers inspired by her is staggering. For example, Anne McCaffrey and C. J. Cherryh have each dedicated a book to Norton. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tanith Lee, Judith Tarr, and Poul Anderson are only a few notable authors who acknowledge Norton’s influence on their work and lives. Joan D. Vinge wrote an open letter to Norton in which she reflects on Norton’s profound impact on her: first as a junior high school student, then as a successful adult writer. As Vinge notes, “Written in a clean, straightforward prose that never gets in the way of its images, your adventures catch the elusive ‘sense of wonder’ that sets apart good science fiction from all other kinds of fiction and makes a fan into an addict.” Vinge, like Norton’s millions of fans, concludes: “Because of you, I am.” Norton’s wide-ranging vision and cultural innovation may be lauded by scholars one day. Until then, her readers will continue to enjoy this great storyteller’s tales of wonder and hope.

Year of the Unicorn Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Carter, Lin. “Andre Norton: A Profile.” In Secret of the Lost Race, by Andre Norton. New York: Ace Books, 1959. This overview of Norton’s work by a respected science-fiction author lauds and analyzes Norton’s corpus as it existed in 1959. This essay appears in some of the paperback editions of the novel.

Norton, Andre. The Book of Andre Norton. Edited by Roger Elwood. New York: DAW Books, 1975. Primarily an anthology of Norton’s short stories, with a few interesting essays on her work. The best essay is an autobiographical one in which Norton explains how she writes her fantasies.

Norton, Andre, ed. Tales of the Witch World. 3 vols. New York: T. Doherty Associates, 1987. An anthology of short stories written by many authors following the Witch World formula established in Norton’s books. Many additional details, figures, or continuing stories are found here. Norton’s introductory essays give an overview of Witch World.

Shwartz, Susan, ed. Moonsinger’s Friends: An Anthology in Honor of Andre Norton. New York: Bluejay Books, 1985. A science-fiction Festschrift honoring Norton. Instead of writing about Norton, the sixteen eminent authors write science-fiction stories inspired by her work. Shwartz’s editorial notes and introduction discuss the authors’ works and Norton’s influence.