Friday, March 11, 2016

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Elizabeth Marie Pope is an author (of vintage YA historical fantasy) whose books I've been waiting to try out for quite a long time. My opportunity came a few short months back when I finally tracked her books down on Open Library (which is an amazing source for vintage and otherwise hard-to-find books!). I read The Sherwood Ring just before Christmas, and found it every bit as adorable as I'd ever heard it was, though I had a couple of philosophical cautions; but my interest was whetted in Pope's other book, The Perilous Gard, when a friend told me it was by far her favourite of the two.

At first, I was a little unsure about this. From the book's description, I half expected it to be a typical pro-pagan narrative about the niceness and feminist smarts of pre-Christian Celtic culture:
In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice.
Well. Yikes. Was I wrong. I obviously didn't read the description quite carefully enough:
whose customs include human sacrifice.
 And so. And so...

Katherine Sutton is clumsy, tart, clever...and accustomed to getting the blame for the crazy schemes thought up by her impulsive sister Alicia. So she isn't really surprised when an ill-advised letter to Queen Mary complaining about living conditions at Hatfield Manor with Princess Elizabeth results in her own exile to a castle in the craggy forests of Derbyshire. Upon her arrival, Kate is mystified by the inhabitants' suspicious behaviour, the mysterious Holy Well in the valley behind the castle, the old legends of elves and fairies surrounding the castle itself...and the peculiar behaviour of Christopher Heron, the younger brother of the castle's lord, who lives in a leper's hut eking out an agonising penance for the disappearance of a child for whom he was responsible. When Kate figures out what happened to little Cecily, Christopher comes up with a wild plan to recover her from the half-legendary People of the Hill--and Kate, almost against her will, is also swept into the strange land under the Hill.

I was astonished to find how many elements The Perilous Gard shared with my own new release, The Bells of Paradise--to the extent that I'm glad I didn't read the former until after the latter's publication. Both stories include elements of the old tale of Tam Lin--The Perilous Gard is an intriguing retelling of the story. Both stories are set during the reign of Queen Mary, and the accession of Elizabeth I strikes a note of resolution near the end. And both stories take place in the wild woods of Derbyshire.

Unlike Bells, however, The Perilous Gard demythologises Tam Lin and the fairies somewhat. Kate, a very rational, sensible heroine, discounts out of hand the idea of anything being particularly magical about the People of the Hill. The ending gives no more than a hint that they might be anything but very different, very strange human pagans. Now, normally I don't like it when modernists suck all the magic out of old legends. Tales like King Arthur and the Trojan War lose all their stature when they're retold in strictly mundane terms. The Perilous Gard, however, avoids this trap in two ways. One of those ways is by telling a story of real emotional import, a story with a great sense of beauty and nobility. The other way is how Pope gives us a wonderful counter-myth to the ugly, bloody pagan myth of the People of the Hill: a very clear, unambiguous Christian message. I was so stunned with this I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I first encountered it:
"How can you tell what I meant to do? How can I? How can anyone? I think the damned souls in hell must spend half their time wondering what it was that they really meant to do."
"If you think the damned in hell spend their time doing that, then you can't know very much about the damned in hell," Kate retorted furiously. "I am utterly at squares with this childish dealing. Why in the name of heaven don't you go down to the village and make a proper confession to the priest and let him tell you what penance you ought to be laying on yourself? You aren't one of the damned in hell. We're all of us under the Mercy."
As I've often told people, you can include just about any Christian theme in a story so long as it fits organically into the context of the people you're writing about. All the same, I was staggered by how unapologetic, and yet how fitting, this theme was. In this story, the pagans were bad (though not without their own cultural beauty and grace), and the Christians were good. And the Christian myth was pitted against the pagan myth and came away triumphant, in a way that fitted very well into the story and yet at the same time was delightfully uncompromising.

I was stunned.

Add to this a tale that wrenches your heart, an often witty and hilarious romance (and if it's a little predictably mid-century in flavour, well, it's still very cute), and a gorgeous writing style that fleshes out the setting beautifully, and you have one of the best works of girls' YA I've ever been privileged to read. My only complaint, really, would be that the world-building for the Under the Hill segments was a little underdone in some regards. But apart from that, I loved this book, was utterly gripped, and deeply satisfied.

Find The Perilous Gard on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.


Abby said...

Thanks for this review! It helped me decide to get this book. I just finished it today and really enjoyed it. Your perspective is very appreciated!

Suzannah said...

I'm so thrilled you enjoyed it, Abby! It's really a gem!


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