The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001, 288. Age/interest level 12-up.
“Do you mean,” Kate ventured, “that they are men and women like ourselves?”
“Like ourselves?” The redheaded woman seemed puzzled by the question. “How could they be like ourselves? They cannot abide cold iron or the sound of church bells, and they cannot be moved by pity because they have no hearts in their bodies. They were here in the land for many and many a hundred years before us–yes, and ruled over it, but when the cold iron came into the kingdom their power failed them, and wherever a church was built they fled and hid in the caves and woods for fear they should hear the sound of the bells and be withered away.”
Elizabeth Marie Pope was a professor of English and a scholar of Elizabethan England. The Perilous Gard, originally published in 1974, was a Newberry Honor Book and by virtue of that accomplishment is still in print. Good news, for it’s a story worth reading. At 288 small-print pages, it may be a challenge for the younger reader, but girls 12 and older, especially historical novel buffs, will swoon over it. Also over the handsome, tortured–but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story opens during the reign of Queen Mary. Our heroine, Katherine Sutton, serves as lady-in-waiting to Mary’s sister Elizabeth, whom the Queen sees as a threat and keeps locked away in dreary, drafty Hatfield castle. Through the meddling of her airhead sister Alicia, Katherine attracts the unwelcome attention of “Bloody” Mary and is banished to Derbyshire in central England, where she will abide under the watchful eye of Sir Geoffrey Heron in Perilous Gard (castle), deep in Elvenwood.
Elvenwood is well named–an uncleared forest of primeval Britain, so far off the beaten track that Kate fears she’ll never be found again. Sir Geoffrey is courteous but remote; his younger brother Christopher is rude and even more remote (though better looking). The property is Sir Geoffrey’s by marriage, but he escapes from it at every opportunity due to unhappy memories. His wife died there, for one, and their only child, a little girl, drowned a year before under mysterious circumstances.
Christopher, it is soon apparent, blames himself for the child’s death. He was supposed to be watching her on the day she reportedly climbed over the wall surrounding the “Holy Well” and was swept away by the waters of an underground river. Kate slowly learns that the well, the wood, the castle itself are haunted–not by the dead, but by the living remnants of the ancient religion that once ruled all of England.
Christopher’s terrible bargain to redeem himself, and Kate’s fearful risk to save him, make a riveting tale, especially once you get past the first couple of chapters. (The narrative relies heavily on description because the physical surroundings are so important to the story, but a daunted reader should be encouraged to persevere. )
What particularly interests me is the story’s treatment of pre-Christian paganism. Unlike the alternative London of Bartimaeus or the transplanted Mt. Olympus of Percy Jackson, this story could almost have happened. Traces of the old druidic religion lingered in England up to Elizabethan times and beyond, as any close reader of Shakespeare knows. Today, as I observed in my previous posts, paganism is back in style, but I suspect that modern-day enthusiasts don’t have a clue what the real thing was all about: nature-worship paired with blood sacrifice, mindless ecstasy marred by fear, a relentless eye-for-eye accounting system that left no room for compassion. The “fairies”, as Ms. Pope presents them, are scrupulously just in their dealings with humans and any bargain struck they will keep, no matter the cost to anyone. But, as Kate perceives, humans don’t need justice from fairies: “We’re all of us under the mercy.”
The Perilous Gard is not a “Christian novel” and makes no attempt to preach or proselytize; in fact, I have no idea what Ms. Pope’s religious convictions are or were. What she achieves is a faithful representation of a spiritual clash; refreshing in that Christians are not automatically cast as stodgy, repressive meanies. In fact, they seem to be the good guys.
So okay, I like it for that reason, but it’s also an engrossing romance. The paperback edition is readily available, and includes illustrations by Richard Cuffari (that frankly that don’t add much).
- Moral value/Worldview: 5
- Literary value: 4