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Katie's Critique

Rainbow bridge in Lorliale

Katie's Critique

by Karen Deal Robinson

Katie stared through the black letters on her computer screen into the world beyond them, the world of her dreams. Her fingers tapping on the keyboard felt their way through a rich green wood to a castle on a cliff beside the sea. Night fell, and moonlight shimmered on the water, building a jeweled bridge of light. Silently, she stepped onto the bridge and found that it held.

A thump at the front door told her that the mail had arrived. Maybe it was the critique from the writing contest. She stood up quickly, sending her fox-colored cat, Mr. Tumnus, slithering off her lap to the floor.

A big white envelope poked up out of her mailbox. With shaking hands she opened it and pulled out her manuscript. She had come close, so close through the years. She'd been a semifinalist in one contest, a finalist in another. There had been the occasional encouraging letter from an editor among the rejections. But still her novels lay unpublished in boxes in the back bedroom that she used as an office.

As her eyes scanned the critique sheet, it took a moment for the words to register. "Entered in appropriate category? No: I recommend fits into no category. Setting, descriptions? N/A Characters? N/A Dialogue? N/A Comments and suggestions: Castles and wizards are clichés. The author should read several novels to see what constitutes a story."

Katie felt as though she'd jumped in a back alley and beaten. She'd had years of practice taking constructive criticism, and putting it to good use, but this seemed to make no sense. What did the judge mean, N/A? Katie's novel had a setting, characters and dialog. Why were the questions not applicable? She stood swaying in the living room, unsure whether to faint or weep or throw up. Her stomach decided for her. She could weep later.

The next day, still shaking, she returned to work at the library. The books she loved so much seemed to mock her from their shelves. Katie had never dreamed about writing a best-seller. All she'd wanted, all the fifty years of her life, was to write something that would beckon to children from a library shelf, something that would wash through them and color their dreams. She imagined her books, old and battered, still being read a century from now. The bile in her throat tasted bitter. It would never happen. When she died, her manuscripts would go to the landfill, and be forgotten forever.

A tall, regal woman with a crown of golden-red hair approached the desk, carrying a huge book in her arms. Katie didn't remember ever seeing the book before. She ran the scanner over the ancient leather binding. "Book of Records" said the computer screen.

"I would like to apply for a library card," said the woman. Her voice reminded Katie of a viola.

Katie handed her a form to fill out. A moment later she read the woman's name, "Gilda Elvin," and her address.

"Why, you're my neighbor!" Katie said, surprised.

"I only moved in last night," said Gilda with a gentle laugh. "I couldn't last more than a few hours without a library card."

"Would you like to come to dinner tomorrow night?" Katie said on an impulse. "You and your family, that is. I'd like to get to know my new neighbors."

"I live alone," said Gilda. "I would be enchanted to have dinner with you."

"Would you mind taking a look at the critique I got?" Katie asked, after she'd cleared away the dinner dishes. "I know you haven't read my manuscript, and I won't ask you to, but I want to see if the comments sound as —as hostile to you as they do to me."

"Of course," said Gilda. "If you don't mind, I'd like to read the entry too."

Katie sat hunched over her tea, trying not to fidget as her new friend read silently. At last Gilda set the papers down. Katie hoped the scowl on her face was for the judge and not for herself.

"Castles and wizards are not clichés," Gilda said sternly. "They are archetypes. The oldest stories are the best to tell, because they teach us to be human. Love and death, courage and heartache, hope and beauty, how could anyone tire of them? "

Katie blinked back tears, as sweet as her tears the night before had been bitter. "Are you a writer too? Or an editor, maybe?"

"No, not exactly. How shall I tell you what I am? You'll think I'm mad."

"Of course I won't. After what you just said, I think you're the most sensible person I've ever met."

Gilda's silver eyes glittered. "Then I'll tell you. I am an elven queen. I have many names, and many realms, and some of them you know better than this town you live in. Would you like to visit some of your favorites with me?"

Katie couldn't help thinking Gilda might be mad after all. On the other hand, the offer gave her something more intriguing to think of than that hideous critique. "I'd be enchanted," she said.

"I hope she's not really mad," Katie said to herself two days later, as she rang the bell of the house next door. "I wonder if I'll be safe going in there alone."

"Come in, come in, “said Gilda. " A little nervous, are you? Don't worry. There are no dangerous adventures planned for today, only a brief tour. Now let me see —" She studied Katie. "Yes, I think I know where to begin. Come with me."

As she followed her hostess, Katie saw that the floor plan of the house was the same as that of her own. The furnishings, though, were as different in appearance as Katie and Gilda themselves. Katie furnished her house with whatever came her way, a couch that she'd found a garage sale, a table that had been her grandmother's, a set of folding chairs from a restaurant that had closed. She never gave her furniture much thought. She couldn't help staring at the rich, intricate carved wood of Gilda's chairs and table, the hand-woven carpet of forest browns and golds, the turned wooden goblets, the mysterious green curtains over every wall. She felt unsettled, at home and at the same time not at all at home.

"Let's start here," said Gilda, standing before one of the curtains. She put a gold, tasseled curtain pull into Katie's hand.

Katie pulled the cord, and then gasped. If the floor plan was like hers, behind this wall should be the kitchen. But what she saw as the curtains drew back was a green, rolling countryside, dotted with shady trees. A road looped among the rounded hills, a road that looked suspiciously like yellow brick. "It's so real, so three-dimensional. Is it a hologram?"

Gilda pursed her lips as though trying not to smile. "Put out your hand. Touch the picture."

Katie reached past the curtains. Her hands felt only air. The air smelled different, clean and tangy, with a scent like spring and autumn together, fruit and flowers in season at the same time. She thought she must be going as mad as Gilda, and yet for some reason she wasn't frightened. She started to take a step forward, and then stopped. "Will I be able to get back?"

"Do you want to?" Gilda's eyes shimmered with —what? Was that laughter?

A quiet irritation flickered up Katie's spine. Her life here wasn't that pathetic. "Of course I do. I love my job, you know. And Mr. Tumnus needs me. And I'd really miss the mountains."

Gilda nodded. "Yes, of course. Forgive me. It is difficult to lose one's way in the lands to which we'll be going, and I will be with you. But if you're ever lost, call on me and I'll come to you. I'll bring you home any time you ask me to."

It was all some kind of dream, thought Katie, and like a dream, it had a curious logic all its own. With no more misgivings, Katie stepped past the curtains and onto the yellow brick road. The bricks were smooth and warm in the sunlight. She turned back, and saw a high wall behind her, made of rose quartz and studded with rubies. Across a small gate in the wall, green curtains were blowing. Gilda stepped through the curtains and joined Katie. Katie wasn't surprised to see that Gilda was now dressed in flowing silk robe of a dusky rose color.

"Of course," said Katie. "It's Glinda, isn't it? Why did you change your name?"

"I told you, I have many names. Glinda in Oz, Galadriel in Lothlorien —"

"Is Middle Earth real too?" Katie interrupted in her excitement. "As real as this?"

"As real as this? Certainly. Oz and Middle Earth touch in several places, as you will see. All the worlds are real, Katie."

"As long as the books last," Katie said, with a bitter sigh.

"Oh, much longer than that." Glinda blew a silver whistle, and a rosy chariot drawn by storks flew up over the wall and settled before them. "Come, Katie. Oz is a big land, and wonderful to explore on foot. But for a first tour, flying is better."

Katie stepped into the cushioned white interior of the chariot. There were no wheels, so she expected a terrible scraping when the storks flapped their wings and pulled forward. But the chariot lifted easily into the air. Forests and rivers slipped beneath it like shadows. Now and then Katie saw a farmhouse, with the familiar domed roof that told her immediately she was in Oz. "What do you mean, 'much longer than that'? Aren't the books what make the lands real?"

Glinda laughed. "Do you really think so? Haven't you ever felt, when you were writing, that you'd missed the mark, and you had to go back and rewrite to get the story right? You were trying to force something to happen in the story that wasn't true. Remember, Baum called himself the Royal Historian of Oz."

"You mean —you mean Baum wasn't inventing, he was —he was recording history?"

Glinda stroked the back of the nearest stork with a long rosy feather, and the chariot veered to the right. "He was inventing, in the way that he created his descriptions, and the way he organized the stories, of course. But the vision, the original vision: that was a glimpse of something real. Of course, even he missed his vision sometimes, and tried to describe something that didn't fit."

"Like the 'dainty china country', you mean?"

Glinda chuckled. "Exactly. Not that that wasn't real in its own way. But it wasn't part of my realm."

A green glow rose up on the horizon. Katie knew it was the Emerald City, though it must have been fifty miles away. She watched in silent wonder as it drew nearer. After a shorter time than such a distance ought to take, the swan chariot skimmed over the green marble walls. People waved from rooftops and balconies, cheering.

"We'll return another time," said Glinda, "but today we won't stop. I have other things to show you."

They left the city behind and flew low over a thick forest. Katie found her voice at last. "You said Oz and Middle Earth touch in several places. What did you mean by that?"

"Don't you know?" said Glinda.

"Well, I think so. Did you mean the way the Munchkins are so much like hobbits, at least in the book, and the way the Nomes are like goblins, and the giant spiders are in both? I think that's what led me from Oz to Middle Earth when I was a girl; it seemed familiar."

Glinda turned, delight on her face. "Yes, yes, exactly! Here, I will show you one of the places I mentioned." She landed the chariot on a strip of yellow brick that cut through the forest. Katie followed her onto the road. Walking away from them on the road was a young boy, apparently oblivious to what had landed behind him. He wore a pointed blue hat with a broad brim, and a bright blue suit. As he walked, one of the tall plants beside the road reached out its giant leaves and wrapped the boy in a tight cocoon, lifting him from the road as he struggled.

"It's Ojo, isn't it?" Katie whispered.

"Yes. Shh. Here comes the Shaggy Man."

Right on cue the Shaggy Man appeared, in his tall pointed hat and long brown beard and big walking boots. He whistled as he walked toward them. At the sound of the whistling, the leaf uncurled and released the boy. The Shaggy Man put his arm around Ojo and led him safely past the tall plants. Katie ran after them. The Shaggy Man turned back and gave her a grin. "It's the music that does it, you see. Look, here are two more that will need rescuing."

The path followed a river now. The yellow bricks had given way to a mossy trail. Two boys with furry bare feet sat beside the trail, leaning their backs on the huge trunk of an ancient willow tree. No, thought Katie, not boys. Hobbits. Merry and Pippin. Before she could warn them, a crack opened in the trunk, and Merry disappeared. The Shaggy Man strode swiftly toward the willow. His whistling turned to singing. The crack opened and released its prisoner. The Shaggy Man winked at Katie. "Music makes the willow sleep. That's why Tom is singing."

"Tom Bombadil!" she gasped. She turned to ask Glinda about it, and saw with a shock that there was no one there. "Tom, where is Glinda? I'm lost without her."

Tom winked again. "Elven folk are passing through. You will find your lady. Wait beside the riverbank; Galadriel is coming."

Katie waited, feeling frightened for the first time since she'd left Gilda's living room. What if no one came? She was almost ready to run after Tom Bombadil when she heard the jingling of harnesses.

Around the bend in the path came a string of silvery horses, ridden by fair folk in robes that shimmered green and gold to match the dappled light. Gilda sat tall on the first horse, her red-gold hair falling to her waist.

"Gilda!" Katie called. "I thought I'd lost you."

The horse stopped. "My name is Galadriel here. I have brought a horse for you."

The trail widened. Katie and Galadriel rode side-by-side. The trees thinned, and gave way to a sunny meadow. "I remember when I was thirteen," said Katie, "and I first read about Tom Bombadil. He seemed so familiar to me, but I never connected him with the Shaggy Man before. Do you think Tolkien knew Baum had written such a similar scene?"

Galadriel shook her head, and golden glints flashed in her hair. "Of course not. Do you still not understand? They both caught a glimpse of the same thing, and each one cast it in his own way."

Katie nodded. "I think I understand. Where are we going now?"

"To the Gray Havens."

"Isn't it a week's ride from the Old Forest to the Gray Havens?"

Galadriel turned and smiled at her. "Good! Very good. You see how real this land is? You know it well. We must call upon the Eagles now." She raised her hands, and the ring on her finger flashed. Two huge eagles swooped down out of the soft blue sky and landed on the grass.

A moment later, Katie felt the powerful shoulders of an eagle beating beneath the backs of knees as the earth dropped away. "It's just like Trot riding on the Ork," she called to Galadriel, riding beside her. "Only Baum's orks were completely different from Tolkien's orcs. It's like Jill riding on Glimfeather in Narnia. I know how to grip with the backs of my knees, because I've flown with them all."

"Archetypes," Galadriel replied, in Gilda's voice.

Katie bent low over the eagle's neck. Below her she saw a wide river —the Brandywine! And there was Woody End, and at last the Hill of Hobbiton, looking low and shapeless from above. She recognized Bagshot Row, and the Mill, and then they were gone behind her.

She flew past Michel Delving and over the Far Downs, and between the Towers that looked out over the sea. The eagles landed on a long quay of silvery wood, beside a white ship. Galadriel led Katie up a gangplank onto the ship. "Where are we going?" Katie asked, breathless. "To the Undying Lands?"

Galadriel's eyes shimmered with something like pity. "Not this time," she said softly.

The boatswain climbed to the quarterdeck. "Out oars for Narnia!" he called.

Katie turned to her companion. "Narnia! What is your name there?"

Gilda gave her a secret smile. "It's odd, but Lewis never named me. I was only known in relation to the men who loved me: my father Ramandu, my husband Caspian, and my son Rilian. You may as well continue to call me Gilda."

"I always loved the Star's Daughter. I never noticed before that she didn't have a name. Shame on me."

Gilda laughed gently. "It doesn't matter. I have enough names."

For hours Katie leaned out over the dragon-head prow, watching the white foam parting around the bows. At last, the man in the crow's nest called, "Land, ho!"

A few minutes later Katie could see the white towers of Cair Paravel rising out of the sea on the horizon. "It looks like Minas Tirith," Katie said softly. Then she chuckled. "Or Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, or the Disneyland castle for that matter."

The ship docked at a quay of white marble, beside the wide green lawn of Cair Paravel. Banners of all colors flew from the castle walls, and from pavilions on the lawn, where hundreds of creatures gathered to see their king and queen return from their journey. Katie walked down the gangplank into a crowd of centaurs, unicorns, giants, dwarfs, dryads, and talking animals, as well as an occasional human.

A winged horse bowed its head before her. "I was sent to take you on a flight over Narnia, if you will come."

Katie turned to Gilda, who nodded. "You are perfectly safe with Fledge. I must stay here with Caspian this time, but Fledge will take you to the Lamppost, and from there you will find your way back to my living room. I'll meet you there."

Riding the winged horse was completely different from riding the eagle. Katie felt much more secure in her seat, with the horse's broad shoulders between her knees. The horse galloped across the green lawn. The vast wings spread, and with two slow graceful beats, lifted Fledge and Katie above the waving crowd.

Far to the north, Katie saw the white line of distant mountains. Far to the south, more mountains, and beyond them the golden sand of Calormen. The horse flew steadily east, over Aslan's How and the Dancing Lawn. Then he turned to the northeast, following the Great River over rolling wooded lands. They passed the gray castle of Miraz, and the long-ruined castle of the White Witch.

At last they landed in a clearing in the woods. Katie slid off the horse's back. "Thank you," she said.

Fledge nodded toward a pathway out of the clearing. "There's the Lamppost, and the land of War Drobe. I'll wait here until I'm sure you're safely gone."

"Thank you," Katie said again, and kissed his soft nose. She found herself humming as she walked through the woods toward the glowing lamppost. The burning critique had lost its power to harm her: Oz and Middle Earth and Narnia would live on, and somehow that was enough.

She passed the lamppost and found the tree branches growing more thick and more soft, until they were green curtains. The curtains parted, and she found herself in Gilda's living room.

"How about a cup of tea?" said Gilda.

Katie followed her into the kitchen. "What's behind the other curtains?"

"Other lands, of course. Everything from Gormenghast to Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood." She put a kettle on the stove. "Why do you write, Katie? Is it for fame and fortune? Because I can't promise you that, you know."

"No, it's not that. It's —maybe it's to keep from dying."

"Everyone dies," said Gilda softly.

"You know what I mean. Baum died when my grandmother was a girl, but he's still alive to me. As long as Oz lives, he will too. But I realized something really important today."

Gilda poured hot water into a teapot that looked like the bole of a tree. "Yes?"

"It doesn't matter that much whether my writing survives me. Because I've put as much of my heart and soul into Oz and Middle Earth and Narnia as I have into my own lands. The masters have said the same things I wanted to say, only they've said them better than I ever could."

"Maybe," said Gilda, pouring a cup of tea and handing it to Katie. "Do you like to hike?"

"What?" Katie wasn't sure she'd heard right. "Hike? I love it. When I'm out in the mountains, that need to write goes away for a while, because I'm really there in fantasy land."

"Do you get paid for hiking?"

"Paid? Of course not. I do it for fun."

"Do you win any races?"

Katie was starting to see where Gilda's questions were leading. She felt her mouth twist into a wry smile. "No. I don't hike to win anything. I hike to enjoy the mountains."

"So you'll still write, even if you're not as good as the 'masters'?"

Katie's smile widened. "Oh, yes. Of course. And I suppose I'll still enter contests, and send queries to publishers. But I won't wait with bated breath by the mailbox for their replies." She sipped her tea. It tasted like a summer afternoon, sweet with wildflowers and woodsmoke. "Until I was thirty, I didn't even bother to type my stories, let alone send them out. Just writing them was enough."

"And what was that like?"

"Like —like exploring. Like prayer. Like coming home. I think —if the truth be told, I think I was trying to get back into Oz and Narnia and Middle Earth. I took what whetted my longing and satisfied it at the same time in those books, and made it my own."

"You mean you copied?" Gilda said, with a sly twinkle.

"Maybe," said Katie humbly. "I tried not to."

"I was just teasing. Of course you didn't copy, not much. You just caught a glimpse of that same reality, that's all. Have you read this?" She opened a battered paperback book and laid it before Katie.

"Tolkien's essay on fairy stories? Of course. It was my handbook, back when I was a girl."

"Read this passage again."

Katie read. "'Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator...hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or flowing into it...The peculiar quality of the "joy" in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.'"

Katie's vision swam a little as she looked up at her new mentor. "I should have listened to the master, instead of that stupid judge. What was I thinking? I see something else now. What I love most about those worlds, and the one I wrote about too, is here all around us. Trees and fields and moonlight on the ocean. If my stories are lost, those things will still be there."

Gilda nodded. "You said Cair Paravel looked like Neuschwanstein. Do you know what inspired Mad King Ludwig to build it?"

"Of course. Wagner's operas. Lohengrin, and the Ring —" Katie stopped, startled. "Why, its that 'Northern thing' that Tolkien and Lewis both loved so much. Dwarfs and giants and dragons and magic rings. They were copying too. Not from Wagner, of course, but from the same sources."

"In a way. Life imitates art imitates life, as they say. There were real castles that looked like that once. They got into the old stories, and into the archetypes. Wagner put his stamp on the archetypes, and so did Ludwig, as well as the authors you love. You have too, you know."

"Really? Even if no one sees my novels but me?"

Gilda put on a pair of imaginary spectacles and peered over the top of them at Katie. "Why don't you start a fantasy-writers' club through the library? There must be other people in town going through the same agony. You could read each others' works, maybe set up a special shelf in the library to circulate them. Or set up a website. You don't have to sit around waiting for some Prince Charming of an editor, you know."

Katie stared at her. "It's so simple! I should have thought of it with my brain."

"Here." Gilda handed her a plate with a pattern of leaves and grapes. "We have one more journey to take today, so you'd better eat something first." On the plate were flat white cookies, fluffy silver cookies, and taffy wrapped in white paper. "Lembas from Lothlorien, mist-cakes from Polychrome's rainbow, and toffee from a Narnian toffee-tree."

One of the lembas was as good as a whole meal, but Katie enjoyed the insubstantial, sweet mist cake and the date-like toffee fruit too. "Wonderful! We'll have to serve these at the club meetings."

"Are you ready now?" Gilda led Katie back to the living room, and opened the same curtain. Through the doorway, Katie saw a moonlit castle on a cliff by the sea. It looked a little like Minas Tirith and Cair Paravel and Glinda's castle, but it had an overlay of the old public library building and Katie's childhood church, too.

"Is it just a dream, or is it really real?"

Gilda peered at Katie over her imaginary spectacles. "Plato. It's all in Plato. What do they teach them in these schools?"

"Gilda, who are you? Who are you really?"

"Don't you know?" She gestured toward Katie's world. "I'm there, too. You have your own name for me. Come, just a quick tour. I'll have you home in time for supper."

Katie felt her way through a rich green wood to the castle on the cliff beside the sea. Night fell, and moonlight shimmered on the water, building a jeweled bridge of light. Silently, she stepped onto the bridge and found that it held.

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copyright 2002 by Karen Deal Robinson

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