Coming Full Circle: Andre Norton’s The Gate of the Cat

The Gate of the Cat, first published in 1987, is (as far as I can tell) the last of the solo-authored Witch World books, written while Andre was in the process of handing her world over to younger authors. She co-authored several more, and wrote some shorter works set in this world, but this reads as a sort of farewell—if also a sort of new beginning.

Both plot and characters come full circle here.

As in the very first novel in the series, a person from Earth travels by portal to the Witch World, discovers previously unsuspected powers, and changes the world forever. Like Simon Tregarth, Kelsie McBride is alone in the world, but unlike him, she has plans and a life and a future on Earth: she’s inherited a Scottish estate, and is trying to settle it before she heads off to veterinary school in the US. She doesn’t want to leave, she’s not being hunted down, but in the process of trying to save a wildcat from a determined hunter, she falls through a portal into Escore and is promptly embroiled in the endless war between the light and the dark.

Simon is the Sixties action hero, steely-jawed and granite-eyed. He faces the Hounds of Alizon and rescues the witch whose name, we will learn later, is Jaelithe. Kelsie is the Eighties version: fantasy has shifted to female protagonists (and female authors), and instead of action-adventure, we have more of a quest, in which Kelsie is a very unwilling participant. She faces the Sarn Riders and their vicious hounds, and fails to rescue a witch but is given her name, Roylane, and (eventually and through the cat) her jewel of power.

Kelsie really does not want to be here in “this place of many alarms and death.” She wants to go home. But there’s no going back, she learns when she’s taken to the Green Valley for a kind of family reunion. She meets Dahaun and Kyllan, Yonan and Crytha from Trey of Swords, and Simon Tregarth—but not Jaelithe. We hear about Kemoc and Katthea and Hilarion, but Jaelithe just isn’t mentioned. It’s as if she never existed.

It’s Simon who tells Kelsie she came in through a one-way door. Kelsie is most unhappy to hear this, but she’s quickly caught up in more involuntary adventure. Jaelithe may have been erased, but Estcarp has sent emissaries to Escore to find the source of the witches’ power. One of these, Roylane, is dead and Kelsie finds herself possessed of the late witch’s jewel and her powers. The other, Wittle, is a full-on antagonist, complete with skinny body, yellow teeth, and a tendency to spray saliva when she talks. Most of what she says is nasty. She hates that Kelsie has Roylane’s jewel and seems able to use it—or be used by it. She hates men. She hates everything except power. That, she wants. Bad.

The witches have not aged well. They’ve always been a negative force in the books, but Wittle is a shriveled, twisted caricature of the proud, confident person that Jaelithe was before she surrendered her jewel and, she thought, her powers to marry Simon. We get a brief glimpse of the sisterhood, and a faint sense of what they are to each other, but mostly it’s about how repellent Wittle is.

Kelsie finds herself bound by the witches’ mission. She has no agency, as we would say these days. It’s all compulsion and geas and involuntary performance of spells she never learned but has has imposed on her by Roylane’s powers and jewel. She’s pulled out of the Valley, captured by evil monsters, dragged through endless hellscapes both real and virtual, and finally more or less thrown into one of Escore’s patented ancient ruins. There, in a long, murky, fraught but emotionally blank magical battle, she helps remake a dollhouse version of Escore that turns out to be, more or less, the real thing. (It’s murky, as I said.) In the process Wittle becomes one with her jewel, Roylane’s jewel is shattered, a very old elemental power is freed from bondage, and Kelsie ends up back in the Valley.

There Simon proposes that maybe, now everything has changed and the dark has been vanquished, maybe the portal will work in the opposite direction after all. Kelsie looks at it, thinks about it for about three seconds, says “Nah,” and goes back to the Valley. Because there’s nothing really to go home for (vet school? Who needs it?) and she’s got friends here and that’s all good, then.

One of these friends is Yonan, who bravely and loyally accompanies her on her quest out of the Valley, demonstrates mad survival skills that keep her alive and mostly functional, gets attacked incessantly by Wittle, and is instrumental in the final battle. In that battle his sword, or rather the sword of his previous incarnation, is destroyed along with Kelsie’s jewel, but he’s all right with that. He’s happy to go back to the Valley.

I more than half expected him to get together with Kelsie—their interactions follow a familiar pattern for a Norton novel, in which one of a pair goes well out of his or her way to help and protect the other, while the other mostly ignores or mistreats him or her, but in the end they become a couple. But once Yonan is gone, he’s gone.

Kelsie’s main bond seems to be with the cat, with Simon in a very distant sort of mentor relationship. And she seems to think she’s found friends in the Valley, though there’s nothing visibly friend-like in their scenes together. I guess she wants to explore her powers after all. After spending the entire novel resisting or just plain not believing in them. So, the thing she gets together with is magic, a la Crytha’s happy ending in Trey of Swords, but without most of the emotional underpinnings that Crytha provides us. It’s an unusually sharp turn even for a Norton character.

There’s also a distinct undertone of misogyny despite the female viewpoint (I won’t say protagonist; Kelsie does very little to move the plot, and is mostly pushed along by it). The witches are sterile, bitter, power-hungry bitches, and Wittle is just nasty. Kelsie is helpless for the most part. The one genuinely likeable or relatable major character is Yonan, who is the epitome of the good, loyal, capable guy. The mentor figure is not Jaelithe as might be logical, but Simon. (Though maybe Jaelithe is lying low because she doesn’t want to deal with her former sisters of Estcarp. But nothing is said about this at all.) The message I take away is that women are useless or bitchy or both, and they need a man to keep them from spinning off into even worse useless bitchitude.

I think this novel is supposed to be the big denouement, in which all our favorite Estcarp/Escore characters contribute to the final destruction of the Dark. And I usually love portal fantasies with Earth person thrown into magical world and learning how to survive there, then essentially taking it over. (See Outlander, which used the Scottish-stone-circle trick a few years later to very different and for me, much more compelling effect.) But I’m just not feeling it here.

This is by far my least favorite of the Witch World books. Kelsie is whiny and passive. Yonan is lovely and helpful and does his duty but we’re being set up for them to pair off and it fizzles. (Just as well. She doesn’t deserve him.) And Wittle is a caricature of all that’s wrong with the witches of Estcarp.

Her mission is a fizzle, too: she doesn’t really find the source of the jewels’ power, not in any clear way, and nothing she does is of any use for Estcarp. Nor does she care at the end. For all her ranting about sisterhood, what she is does is purely for herself. The witches, like Jaelithe, just…aren’t there.

If I hadn’t had this column to write, I would have thrown the book at the wall at one particular point, and stopped reading right there:

“How did you get here—did you not see the Fooger Beast—?” [says Yonan]

“I slept for I was wearied; I awakened here,” the witch returned. “The Fooger—!” It was as if she had bitten on something harsh and stinging.

“The Fooger. We are within it, Witch. And I do not think that any power of yours is going to get us out.”

To which I said, “Fooger?!” And felt as if Yonan told the truth. I was never getting out of this book.

Norton’s naming sense can be unfortunate. There’s the divinity of the Moonsinger books, whose name got autocorrected in one to “Molester,” and her alien names are not even pronounceable, but this is one for the ages. What could be more evil-beast-ish, after all, than a mashup of “Fucker” and “Booger”?

Not the Witch World’s finest hour. I did enjoy seeing Simon again, and Dahaun is always a joy, but all in all, I’m glad this one is behind me.

Next time I’ll go back to Arvon and the Dales with Ware Hawk. Falconers—it’s time we learned more about these strange, heavily misogynistic, but perversely fascinating denizens of the Witch World.

Judith Tarr forayed into the Witch World with a novella, “Falcon Law,” in Four from the Witch World. Her first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published last fall by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.


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