The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Published: 1974, Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction, Retelling
Source: Library book
I first read The Perilous Gard in my seventh grade English class. Of all the books we read that year, this was one of my favorites. When I realized I had the excuse to read it again as an adult for Project: Fairy Tale, I was pretty excited, but also nervous. It's been twelve years since I read it for class. I'm a different person now and have doubled my life, reading, and experiences since then. I am happy to report, however, that I ended up loving The Perilous Gard, perhaps loving it even more so this time than when I first read it. It's a book that has aged well, and, for me at least, benefits from re-readings.
Kate Sutton is a likeable protagonist and throws into question how strength of character can be determined. She is banished to Elvenwood Hall, also known as the Perilous Gard, through no fault of her own. Yet she does not spend time blaming her impetuous younger sister Alicia, instead quietly submitting to her sentence. Her determination to make the best of her situation does not make Kate an easy victim, however, nor does she accept the victimization of others. From kindly treating the wandering bard Roland, whose brains have supposedly been addled by the fairies, to aiding a village woman in her time of need, Kate proves to be sensitive and aware of others' needs. Kate's sense of morality shines through when she agrees to live beneath the ground and serve the fairies, in the hopes of rescuing Christopher, the younger brother of her guardian Sir Geoffrey Heron. Kate's strength is a quiet and subtle sort of strength, but a strength nonetheless.
I thought it was genius of Pope to place this story within the context of Tudor England under Mary's rule. Philippa Gregory (along with some other authors and history books) has given me a healthy appreciation for and knowledge of England during the 1500s. I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds this time period fascinating. What makes the setting really work for the story is the fact that it does take place during a tumultuous time of change. None of the Tudor family had a relatively peaceful or easy experience presiding over the English throne. What was significant about Mary's few years of ruling was that England had just been forced to undergo many changes, from religion to way of life under her father Henry VIII. When Mary ascended the throne, she expected the English people to easily return back to the way they were before all of Henry's changes. Easier said than done, of course, yet Mary was willing to harm and persecute those who resisted yet another change to their very ways of life.
It is in this historical setting that Pope expands her story into the fantasy realm. The fairy folk here are being forcefully removed from every place of residence. The Fairy Queen remarks to Kate that the places where fairies can live are constantly being taken over by humans, and that soon they'll no longer have any place in England left to live in. Much like the new Protestants and those who followed Henry VIII's edicts, the fairy folk find themselves unwanted in a land that is purposefully moving away from the powers and influences of the past. In a way, it's almost tragic. The fairies of Pope's story are not harmless, certainly, but they also are not vengeful or cruel, participating in the tiend because it is the only way to renew their strength.
Another enjoyable aspect of The Perilous Gard is that its characters are self-aware of fairy lore and tales such as "Tam Lin."
"Why was it wrong of you to sing the ballad of Tam Lin?" Kate cut in...
"It's not a song to sing so close to the Queen's hall," said Randal, shaking his head. "Surely they'd never show me the way in again if they heard me. For it tells of the lady who rescued her lover out of the fairy land, and that's a story they wouldn't care to remember; and in it the tiend is openly spoken of, and that's a thing they would choose to have for a secret." p. 90So not only does Pope as the author draw upon the rich history of fairy lore and tales about it, but her characters are aware of such stories and use that knowledge to better situation themselves and help determine their own actions. It is an interesting literary device to have, and, through its use, Kate and Christopher literally become new versions of Janet and Tam Lin. In a way, having the characters be aware of the stories gives Kate the solution and strength she needs to save Christopher.
Reading this did make me wonder if Pope has included bits of other ballads and fairy stories. Both the Tudor England setting and the "Tam Lin" story appear to be meticulously researched. They wove together so well that I definitely could have been persuaded to believe that "Tam Lin" was a story that originated in 1500s England.
There are a couple little things that ordinarily would have caused me a little annoyance in other books, such as the heavy use of dialogue to relate relevant background information and some characters that could have been more fleshed-out. I found that those issues did not really bother me at all while reading The Perilous Gard, however, and that it's status as a Newbery Honor Book is well-deserved.
With all that in mind, how do I think The Perilous Gard fared? As should now be obvious through my review, I absolutely loved The Perilous Gard and will definitely keep it in mind as a text to refer back to again and again. It has just the right mix of historical fiction and fantasy and is a classic that should be read by any who love those genres, and even those in need of a quick but satisfying read. And as a bonus: you don't even need to necessarily read "Tam Lin" before the story to get the connections, since the ballad's story is explicitly mentioned within the main narrative.