Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings is one of her best books. That’s saying something since she wrote more than 200 novels of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy.
Not that it’s perfect. It has the limitations that are woven into Norton’s writing style, story-telling approach and target audience.
She wrote for teenage boys and young adult men. That means there’s not much psychological or emotional nuance to her books. For her — and for her readers, including me (who, for better and worse, is no longer a boy or young man) — adventure is the key.
Norton’s books are like westerns in space — good guys against bad guys, set in a strange, foreboding landscape where cultures collide (cowboy and Indian, humans and aliens).
There are parallels to these stories throughout human history. Some of the best examples include Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. None of Norton’s books is in that class.
Face-to-face with the Other
Still, for nearly three-quarters of a century, Norton who lived to the age of 93, produced high quality science fiction of a certain sort. It is a sort that eschews hardware and technology questions (such as how a hyper-drive might work) as well as generally ignoring speculations centering on higher mathematics and philosophical wool-gathering (such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and debates about multiple dimensions and “wrinkles in the fabric of time”).
Again, it’s adventure that Norton’s sort of science fiction is concerned with. Not simply adventure, however, in the sense of a physical testing against a harsh environment. That’s in her stories, journeys through threatening environments, hunting and being hunted.
Much more, though, Norton’s adventures deal with coming face-to-face with the Other. (Indeed, the title of one of her books is Ordeal in Otherwhere.)
Think about those great adventure stories I mentioned earlier. All of them have to do with confronting the Other in some way. That Other can be the Trojan army or Grendel or, in the classic western, the Indians.
Who am I?
Much more, though, the confrontation with the Other brings forth an internal confrontation with the Self. That’s what the Odyssey is all about, isn’t it? Odysseus searching to find himself. By facing the Other, the hero has to face himself or herself.
The Other is over there. I am here. I’m different from the Other. But how? Who am I? Why am I here?
That might seem like too ponderous a weight to shackle a simple adventure story with. Yet, think of Norton’s readers. Boys and young men, at the core of their beings, are trying to figure out who they are and how they are going to approach life.
They relate to her heroes because, like those adventurers, the readers are moving through their own confusing, forbidding and often overwhelming landscape (known as adolescence and young adulthood), seeking a safe haven, a home of their own.
This emotional and psychological aspect to the stories isn’t very subtle, but we’re talking about boys and young men. A sledgehammer may be the best way to get their attention.
It was for me.
I was 10, I think, just finishing 5th grade. My school, St. Thomas Aquinas, was taking part in an annual program with a book seller to encourage reading over the summer. We were given a list of books, and we could put a checkmark on the small box next to the title of a book, pay a fairly small (but not insubstantial) amount and have the book delivered to our homes. One of the titles I checked was Daybreak — 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton.
As part of the program, many, if not all, of the books on the list were on display at the school so there was probably something about the cover and/or the description of the book that caught my attention. I’d read some science fiction on occasion previously, but, as far as I can remember, never one by Norton.
Well, Daybreak — 2250 A.D. was a revelation for me, a breakthrough moment in my reading history. (I still re-read it every few years.)
Published originally eight years earlier in 1952 under the title Star Man’s Son, the novel tells the story of a teenager named Fors who is an outsider in his clan because of his mutant nature. He has silver hair and better eyesight than anyone else, and can communicate telepathically with Lura, a large mutated cat.
Mutants are the result of a nuclear war at some distant point in the past, and, because some have deformed into something less than human, all are considered unclean in some way.
When Fors is passed over yet again for full membership among the clan’s adult men, he flees his home village, angry and hurt and sets upon a quest. Together with Lura, he is searching to find the lost city his father had been seeking when he was slain in battle.
And Fors is searching for himself.
Let me tell you: Any teenage boy, battered by the confusions of puberty and the approach of adulthood, would feel a kinship with Fors. Every teenage boy feels himself an outsider, and he knows in some way that he is going to have to go out from whatever home he has to find his way. And find himself.
Certainly, I did.
Fors has a strong, clear telepathic connection with Lura. That meant nothing to me. My family had never had pets. But I think, for me and for the rest of Norton’s readers, Lura stands for an ally, a friend, a partner on the quest.
This companion is another version of the Other. On the quest, Fors (or any of Norton’s heroes) will have to deal with a threatening Other. But sharing the journey will be a friendly Other.
All this may seem mumbo-jumbo, and maybe it is. Yet, I think there’s something deeply resonant about the three ways in which Fors sees the Other — as a threat, as a friend and as the self.
Or maybe this is all psychobabble.
A way out
In any case, this is a long, windy way of getting to Moon of Three Rings.
Norton’s hero is Krip Vorlund, a young assistant cargomaster on the Free Trader ship Lydis. During a trading fair on the world of Yiktor, he protects Maelen, a Thassa woman, from an attacker.
This ends up putting him into the center of a battle among warlords for control of Yiktor. He’s kidnapped, taken to a remote castle and tortured in an effort by one warlord to figure out how to make and use weapons that the Free Traders know about from other worlds.
After Krip escapes, he is being tracked down by the warlord’s men and hounds. But, as they are closing in, he is found by Maelen.
If the hunters arrive, he will be immediately killed, so Maelen offers him a way out — a way he doesn’t really believe but he says OK. And it happens.
A distorted world
And Krip finds himself inside the body of a kind of wolf called a barsk.
I opened my eyes. Then I screamed, for the world I looked upon was distorted, a matter of odd shapes, shades — so altered that terror walked there for me. But no scream did my ears records, rather a howl with naked fear in it.
This is the essence of Moon of Three Rings. The Thassa have found a way to exchange bodies — a human with an animal, one human with another human.
Within moments of the exchange, the hunters arrive to find Krip’s body alive yet drooling and witless. The traditions of that planet calls for anyone like this — anyone out of their mind — to be taken to a refuge where monks care for the lost souls.
Maelen tells the hunters that bringing Krip to that refuge is their responsibility, and they agree to do so.
When they’ve left, Maelen tells Krip that, after the hunters have handed over his breathing but unthinking body to the refuge, she and he will go there and reverse the exchange.
“Walk a mile…”
It doesn’t work out that way, though, and, over the course of the rest of the novel, more exchanges are done, some involving Krip and some others. Not all of these exchanges are able to be reversed, and the ending is bittersweet. Yet, hopeful, too.
For me, the idea of exchanging bodies with an animal or with another human is wonderfully evocative. You’ve heard “walk a mile in his shoes.” This takes that concept to a whole other level.
What’s also interesting is that, in making exchanges, the Thassa and the animals have come to a deep understanding of each other and created a deep bond.
Krip is also changed by the exchanges he goes through.
He goes through an internal adventure that parallels his external one. He is forced to consider who he really is — a human, a barsk, something else?
It’s a scary thing for Krip to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
So it is with us. Even if we’re not actually exchanging bodies.
Patrick T. Reardon