When I picked up Andre Norton’s 1951 novel, Huon of the Horn, I was expecting a standard fantasy. What I got has a lot more in common with Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga,which is also a modern presentation of a centuries-old work. This discovery casts a lot of light on some of the peculiarities of the Witch World series now that I know one of the sources that inspired that series.
Adventure the First
The story begins soon after the death of Roland and his men at the hands of the Saracens. A grieving Charlemagne is all too aware that death will soon come for him and he worries about the succession. He has two sons, Louis and Charlot. Louis is very young and Charlot is a hot-tempered ass. Charlemagne is convinced to forgive Charlot his past transgressions. Unfortunately for Charlemagne and also for Charlot, the person who convinces Charlemagne is a courtier named Amaury — a wretch who would be an evil vizier if France had viziers1.
Next on Amaury’s to-do list is revenge for past affronts. He has a grudge against Duke Sevin of Bordeaux, who is, unfortunately, dead and safe from vengeance. However, the Duke’s two sons, Huon and Gerard, are satisfactory replacements. Amaury arranges for the two boys to be called to court, then convinces Charlot to ambush them. Gerard is badly wounded by the heavily armoured knight but Huon not only escapes serious injury, he kills the Prince.
When Huon complains to Charlemagne about the ambush he has no idea who it was that he killed. When Charlemagne learns that his oldest son is dead, he is in no way pleased. Huon is canny enough to guess at Amaury’s role and he demands the right to clear his name in single combat. The King is vindictive enough to arrange the duel in such a way that Huon will almost certainly be exiled at the end of it.
Rather than seem completely unreasonable, Charlemagne does grant Huon the right to return — if he can travel to Babylon, confront its Emir, take from him several teeth and the hair of his beard, strike down the Emir’s greatest warrior in full sight of his court, and steal a kiss from the Emir’s daughter, also in sight of the court. Needless to say, Charlemagne does not expect to see Huon again.
[Just to give you an idea of the pacing, all this happens in the first twenty-seven pages.]
Huon is the sort of good Christian knight who makes friends whenever he can; one of the people he meets very early in the story is Oberon, King of the Elves. Huon’s sterling character so impresses Oberon that the Elf King gives Huon a horn with which he can summon the army of the elves. Oberon also comes to the conclusion that Huon should be Oberon’s heir.
Even with the magic horn, Huon has no easy time getting to the Emir’s court or retrieving those items he has been commanded to collect. He does succeed in all that he was commanded to do and more, because he wins the heart of the Emir’s daughter Claramonde. Unlike certain dickhead heroes from Classical legend I could mention, he marries her.
Alas for Huon, Gerard has married badly and, being influenced by his malign bride, has no intention of surrendering Bordeaux to Huon….
Adventure the Second
When hot-blooded Duke Raoul sees Claramonde, he is determined to have her for his own. Bad news for Duke Huon! But even worse for Raoul, because Huon chides the would-be Lothario and then runs him through. That would be the end of it … except that Raoul is the beloved nephew of the Emperor of Alamayne and the Emperor is a man to hold grudges, even after Huon spares his life.
In short order Huon, Claramonde, and all the fighting men of Bordeaux are penned up in the city of Bordeaux, facing a vast, hostile host outside the walls. Charlemagne fails to live up to his obligations to Huon and Huon is forced to defend his city with a dwindling supply of men, weapons, and food.
When it becomes obvious Huon cannot hope to break the siege through mundane means, he sets out on another quest, one that will take him over almost as much of the world as his first journey. Along the way he will best Cain, fool a demon, befriend Christian and Muslim alike, and defeat a great worm.
Alas for Huon, all the fighting men of Bordeaux die, the city falls to the invaders and the Emperor is not a man to treat prisoners in a Christian manner….
The prose in this book is archaic, intentionally stylized, to evoke a sense of the original documents on which Norton was drawing: Lord Berners’ 1534 Boke of Duke Huon of Bordeux. This is not so much a new narrative inspired by Berners than it is an attempt to update the language while preserving the original tale.
Because Norton is hewing closely to the original text, there are some elements of the plot that might seem a little odd to modern eyes. Most of the characters seem absurdly prone to lethal violence and almost nobody can detect a lie, even of the most blatant sort. The path to reconciliation between foes is sometimes a bit odd to us, because heroic figures of the 9th century do not think as we do.
I will say that Huon may have set a record for how quickly he manages to violate one of the rules Oberon gives him for using the horn. Also a record for managing not to learn from the experience, so that possession of the horn will not keep him from being captured.
I now see why it is that, in the Witch World series, one can hardly go a hundred paces without finding some arcane item that will prove key to resolving the great challenge confronting the characters. This is a detail borrowed in the epics that inspired Norton.
However, most of Norton’s books do not duplicate the pace of the events narrated in Huon of the Horn. That is fine with me, because Huon proceeds at a particularly dizzying speed. He can hardly make it through a full page without confronting a giant, crossing a continent, or learning yet again that the nobility of Europe are a flighty, untrustworthy lot.
This was a diverting little read. I am sorry to say that as far as I can tell Huon of the Horn is completely out of print and has been since 1987. I would love to discover that I am wrong about this and that there is a recent edition that I have overlooked.
1: When did France become a term for that patch of land? Shouldn’t the region Charlemagne rules be called the Carolingian Empire? But the text uses France.
I think Alamayne might be an archaic form of Allemagne. I have no idea what is going on with the Christian Shah of Persia who turns up at one point. That development seemed … unlikely.