Norman Saylor is that most-rational of men: the staid, college professor. He leads a relatively quiet life as an ethnosociologist at Hempnell College, a stereotypically conservative liberal arts school in New England. His wife, Tansy, is young, vivacious, and bit of a cipher for the other professor’s wives in his social circle. If he’s not well-liked by the other Hempnell faculty, he at least has their respect; though he secretly holds many of them and their tradition-centered attitudes in contempt. Life is good and orderly for Norman–until the day he sneaks into his wife’s dressing room and discovers that Tansy has been dabbling in the ancient arts of witchcraft to advance his career and to protect him from the maleficent influence of fellow practitioners at the college. Disturbed by his wife’s neurosis, he demands that Tansy destroy all of her charms and wards, though Norman soon finds that perhaps he was better off under his wife’s supernatural protection after all.
Leiber, perhaps better known as an originator of the “sword and sorcery” genre with his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, brilliantly builds suspense and tension until the very last page of the novel. Further, his description of the inner workings of the many systems of witchcraft is both fascinating and, ironically, rational. The writing here is top-notch on almost every level–the only weakness being in the flatness of most of the story’s characters.
However, the novel that Leiber created is not a character study. He’s playing with classic dichotomous ideas. Science vs. Superstition. Masculinity vs. Femininity. Rationality vs. Emotionalism. The roiling fires of barbarism beneath the surface of civility. The story is more than just a metaphor for these conflicts–it is a finely spun tale in its own right. But Leiber does an equally fine job of exploring these bigger ideas as well.
Nevertheless, you can’t discuss this book without addressing the role of gender in the central conflict of the novel. On the surface, Leiber seems to be playing into the old “woman = emotion, men = intellect” false comparison. And while his characters are certainly enmeshed in that worldview, Leiber is actually digging a bit deeper, turning the idea inside out. Norman, despite his seeming contempt for traditionalism, hides behind his rationality–to his peril. In fact, over the course of Norman’s journey, he has come to believe in a sort of rational supernaturalism, a true mixture of these two seemingly separate concepts and is thus a more realistic and sympathetic character. Nevertheless, more modern readers may find it a bit old fashioned in its gender sensibilities.
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