Hi everyone! Welcome to The Perilous Gard Read-along. This week we’ll start off by looking at some of the context for the story and discuss the first two chapters. Please follow along and feel free to add your own thoughts as we go!
Publishing and genre context
The Perilous Gard is one of two books written by Elizabeth Marie Pope. It was published in 1974 and won the Newbery Award in 1975. Although the Newbery is given for works of children’s literature, I would categorize The Perilous Gard as a proto-YA book, in the sense that the treatment of the characters, their ages, the themes, and the writing style are all very much in line with the YA age category as we understand it today. (For reference, the Michael J. Printz Award for YA books wasn’t established until 1999.)
It’s hard to gauge any one author’s influence on an entire field, but my anecdotal feeling is that Pope is one of those writers who has a narrow but very devoted fan base, particularly amongst readers who grew up before the current boom in YA. If you have any personal sense of whether this is true, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
One of the questions I have as I’m beginning this series is the degree to which we can classify The Perilous Gard as fantasy. Very little happens that can be considered fantastical, and yet the story feels like fantasy somehow. We’ll revisit this later, so for now it’s just something to keep in mind as we start reading.
Historical and folk context
As we discover in the first chapter, The Perilous Gard takes place in 1558-1559 in England, just as Queen Mary’s rule ends and Queen Elizabeth’s begins. Pope, an English professor who specialized in Shakespeare and Elizabethan England (fantasticfiction.com), uses this historical setting with an assured knowledge that grounds the story in everyday details while also reinforcing some of the themes.
There’s one final context that I wanted to discuss before we dive in, which are the folk songs and stories that are woven deep into the heart of this book. The Perilous Gard retells the “Tam Lin” ballad, while also referencing it and several similar folk ballads. “Tam Lin” tells the story of Janet, a young girl who falls in love with Tam Lin, who was captured by the Queen of the Fairies and who must pay his life for a teind. Janet pulls him down from his horse on the fateful night and refuses to let him go while he shapeshifts in her arms, thus saving him from the Fairy Queen and breaking the curse.
Perhaps because of its decisive heroine, “Tam Lin” is a popular choice for retellings and I’ll list several others in the final week. Several great folk artists have also recorded different versions of this one–my personal favorite is Fairport Convention. The story also references “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Twa Sisters.”
Chapter 1: The True Sister
As The Perilous Gard opens, we’re introduced to two sisters: Alicia and Kate Sutton. They are young girls who have been attached as ladies-in-waiting to Lady or Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Alicia has sent a letter complaining of their treatment to Queen Mary, which results in Kate being punished by being sent away to live under guard in Derbyshire.
Mary’s historical jealousy of her younger sister’s perceived influence and popularity offers a great means to set up several important events as well as establishing the somewhat tumultuous relationship between Alicia and Kate. I can’t say I love the way the story sets up the sisters as antagonists, with Alicia being portrayed as a stereotypically hyperfeminine, silly girl and Kate being portrayed as smart, plain, and interested in stereotypically masculine things. At the same time, there’s an interesting echoing here between Mary and Elizabeth and Kate and Alicia, which will find a different echo later in Geoffrey and Christopher Heron. Three sets of siblings, all somewhat at odds with each other.
We also do see moments which push back a little on this binary. First, Alicia does show some moments of self-awareness, and also Kate is right to a certain degree: Alicia has been able to move through the world insulated from real consequences because she fits a stereotypically feminine pattern whereas Kate herself does not. For me, this is a case of liking this individual story while also recognizing the issues with the larger pattern.
This first chapter is set in a very real historical location: Hatfield House, where Elizabeth lived as a child and from 1548-1558. In this context, Pope establishes one of the main threads that will continue throughout the book. Kate, Elizabeth herself, and her tutor Master Roger exemplify a sceptical and scholarly attitude, literally called “New Learning,” which is opposed to the superstition and emotion demonstrated by other characters (such as Alicia) and the folk beliefs which center around Kate’s new home, Elvenwood Hall.
This ancient fortress is also called The Perilous Gard, which Kate thinks of as a name from a story. As Sir Roger says, “Tom…held it was nothing but a by-name meaning that the place was a strong one–hard to attack, or dangerous to meddle with. It was my contention…that the word…was often given in the former age to such places as foolish and superstitious persons chose to believe were of a magical nature.” It’s also explicitly linked with the Fairy Folk and human sacrifice in ancient days. Sir Roger acknowledges such beliefs, but does not place any credence in them and Kate largely agrees.
Kate establishes herself in this chapter as a sensible, relatively undemonstrative person. She isn’t particularly sentimental or romantic. At the end of the chapter she thinks, “[she] was not suffering for the Princess, and she did not want to be a true sister to Alicia. She was conscious only of a furious irritation at the maddening senselessness of the whole affair.” It’s not that she doesn’t feel things deeply, but that her reactions are often a little unconventional, not what they “should” be.
I also will return to this many times, but I love the vividness of Pope’s descriptions. For instance this moment when Kate is trying to process her banishment: “the names only darted and tumbled about her mind like a scatter of loose beads in a box-lid. They had no meaning.” It’s such a perfect image!
Chapter 2: The Elvenwood
Chapter 2 begins with Kate travelling with Sir Geoffrey Heron through the Elvenwood on the way to the Perilous Gard. Notably, in Chapter 1, Kate tells Alicia that she (that is, Alicia) should be in a romance, but here we open with that image switching to her, clearly the real heroine of the story.
This is actually one of my favorite chapters, and it’s so rich with deeply evocative imagery. For instance, this is how Kate sees the Elvenwood as they travel through it:
She could not get even a glimpse of the sky. The great arching boughs of the trees had met overhead and shut it out completely…It might have been the wild forest of another age, centuries ago…In the silence, immense, dark, overwhelming, shouldering over the road, towering like castles, the great trees rose and pressed about the horses and their riders, melting away on every side into depth on depth of green shadow that opened a little to let them through then closed in behind them again.
It’s pretty common in literary analysis to think of the setting as another kind of character, but it’s very applicable throughout this story. Here’s another great moment I can’t resist quoting in full:
“…over a desolate moor seamed with ridges and outcroppings of rock, as if the bones of the land were forcing their way through it, with nothing alive on the wide gray folds of the hills except for an occasional flock of sheep so far away it could hardly be told from one of the low drifting clouds.”
As if the bones of the land were forcing their way through it! Goodness. I might need to lie down for a while.
This chapter also introduces a few new characters. First, Sir Geoffrey Heron. I love the way he and Kate interact with each other. He is very stiff but trying to take care of her, and she is very stiff and not willing to be condescended to. Pope does a marvelous job of portraying the tension between them, and then the way it melts away once she snaps at him.
Next, we have the introduction of Randal, a wandering minstrel who first appears as “a high clear voice, curiously piercing and sweet. It was singing a verse from the old ballad about the minstrel who met the fairy lady under the elder tree.” (“Thomas the Rhymer,” which shares some similarities with “Tam Lin”.)
Randal is depicted as mentally ill or intellectually disabled, and unfortunately, the text doesn’t treat him very well. He plays a role in several pivotal plot points, but he’s never fully allowed to be a person and the other characters tend to treat him as a childlike figure. His own description of his story is bound up in the Queen of the Fairies, who stole him away and took his wits, and then let him go again. This comes across as a period-typical explanation for his disability but sits uncomfortably with me on several levels.
As he appears, he introduces the first iteration of a riddle song which will take on more significance later:
Oh where is the Queen and where is her throne?
Down in the stone O, but not in the stone.
O where is the Queen, and where is her hall?
Over the wall O, with never a wall.
O where are her dancers, and where are they now?
Go out by the oak leaf, with never a bough.
This is typical of Pope in that several times we will see an image introduced as one thing, only to come to understand its meaning differently as the story goes on.
Randal also refers to a lost child, which Sir Geoffrey reacts strongly to. Kate doesn’t know what this means, as she admits when Sir Geoffrey asks her. He responds, “You will soon enough,” in “his grimmest voice” which is just very *ominous music*.
The chapter ends with the introduction of one other character, a woman who Kate sees standing by the edge of the road. Once again, I’m going to quote the whole paragraph, first because it’s just a fantastic passage, and also because it sets up the way that Kate will see this particular character through the rest of the story:
She was standing so still, her long dark hair and shadowy green cloak melting in and out of the shifting leaves, that for an instant Kate thought she was not real, only a trick of light and color…But she was real. Kate could see the hard delicate bones of her face, and the glint of a gold bracelet on the wrist under the edge of the cloak. She was gazing down at the scene on the road beneath her with an amused, faintly disdainful laugh still lingering about her mouth…
*ominous music increases*
All in all, I find that these opening chapters do a marvelous job of setting up the characters, the places, and the relationships between them. Next week, we’ll meet some more important characters and learn what in the world happened with the lost girl. (OR WILL WE?) Thanks for reading and please chime in with your own thoughts and reactions to these first two chapters!
“Derbyshire” at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derbyshire
Elizabeth Marie Pope biographical blurb at fantasticfiction.com https://www.fantasticfiction.com/p/elizabeth-marie-pope/
“Hatfield House” at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield_House
“Tam Lin” at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tam_Lin
“Thomas the Rhymer” lyrics: http://www.kitsuneyama.com/Mountain/Bardic/Songs/rhymer.htm