The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 4: Chapters 9-11

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hello everyone! Welcome back to the second-to-last week of the Read-along. This week we’ll be spending our time underground, talking about Kate’s experiences in the Hill.

Chapter 9: The People of the Hill

Once again, I have to mention how much I love the way Pope creates an atmosphere. For instance, this amazing description of the cavern where Kate is brought at the beginning of this chapter:

It was not high enough to suggest the carved arches of a hall or cathedral: rather, it appeared as if the stone were sagging under the pressure of some enormous weight that might bring it down at any moment.

She’s passed off to another one of the People of the Hill, whose name is Gwenhyfara. I have a nostalgic fondness for Gwenhyfara, so I was a bit surprised on this read-through to realize that she doesn’t actually have that much to do in the story.

I also love the description of the ritual that the People follow. “They circled around the cavern one by one in a beautiful curving line–all their movements were beautiful–and finally came to rest ranged in two exactly spaced rows down the walls along the whole length of the room.” It’s incredibly effective at evoking a kind of alien beauty, in my opinion. There’s also the way the room is described as being emptier than it should be, a sort of decayed grandeur that–in my mind at least–feels a bit like Tolkien’s Elves. The ending of an age, with all that entails.

Kate continues to exhibit her stubborn resistance to having the Lady “take away her mind” like the other serving women. It’s an interesting thread, and I’ll talk about it a bit more, but it does at the same time reinforce that sense of Kate not being like the other women. The other mortal women are also consistently referred to as both animals and slaves, which is really awful and inexcusable.

We do get a Clue here, as the People use wooden bowls and utensils, the servants use gold, and someone (who could it be?!) has a bronze bowl and spoon. As one of the other servants reveals, it’s “Gold for the maids, and wood for the masters, and one bronze one for the King of the land, at his death-time.”

The other big strand that runs through this chapter is the weight: the psychological effect of living underground, which Kate experiences as first a fear of being crushed. And then “suddenly all that she knew of the place as it really was came rushing over here. The earth and the stone; the blind passages worming their way under the ground; the slippery paths with the slime underfoot; the cold air and the darkness; and always, everywhere, pressing about pit and cavern and passage, the incalculable weight of the rock. Her breath was coming quickly now, in light shallow gasps, as if she had no room to draw it.” On a technical level, this sentence is just incredible–the way that the clauses pile on top of each other in a more and more staccato rhythm, like the shallow gasps of air which come too fast.

I also find the way Pope describes the weight to be a really fascinating and visceral way to talk about anxiety. Whether or not she meant this depiction, it works very well here. Later on, Kate thinks that “her misery and revulsion against the land piled up in some inaccessible region of her mind until the accumulated pressure became too great for it to bear any longer…” Eventually the underground world comes to have a kind of depressive effect on her as well, “life was only a timeless, endless, monotonous round that was broken by nothing but the attacks of the weight.”

This point in the story is also when Kate discovers the secret signs that run through the passages and allow the Fairy Folk to find their way. The rhyme that Randal sings earlier in the book comes back and turns out to be extremely relevant: “Go out by the oak leaf, with never a bough.” She uses these signs to explore and, just at the end of the chapter, manages to find another part of the cave and a familiar voice. I have to admit to loving Christopher’s reaction when Kate announces herself: “‘No!’ said Christopher–and then, like a man driven beyond all endurance: ‘Oh, good Lord! What are you doing here?’”

Chapter 10: Neither Sun nor Moon

This chapter shows us Kate’s changing relationships with Gwenhyfara and Christopher through a series of short montagey scenes. I continue to enjoy Christopher’s reaction to Kate’s appearance: “What would you do if you met your best friend in hell? Say you were happy to know he was there too, and isn’t the pitch hot?”

There is an interesting way in which, as Kate’s experience of the weight echoes the physical and mental effects of anxiety, Christopher’s experience of the gray creature’s training seems to echo a kind of depression resulting from gaslighting. As Kate thinks, “surely his voice as she remembered it had never been so–so–what was the word she wanted? Lifeless? Colorless? Empty? Remote? It sounded almost frighteningly like her grandfather’s during his last illness…”

One of the few things that brings Christopher back to himself is talking about the manor in Norfolk which he dreams of purchasing. I really like this bit, as Kate starts to see him in a new light–more connected with the everyday world that she’s used to dealing with.

She had always somehow, in her secret heart, never thought of him except in a world of knights and ladies, the sort of world that one read about in the old romances, where…champions rode out to slay dragons from high turreted castles–not the sort of castles that would ever go to ruin because the scrub had not been cleaned out of the water meadows and there was no money for the ditching and the drainage.

I really love this, in part because it connects back to the Arthurian romance thread that has run through the whole book, but also because I think it does give us a better sense of who Christopher is when he’s most himself and least the tragic hero. Kate is such a practical, sensible person that this aspect of Christopher builds their relationship in a new way than we’ve seen before.

There’s also a moment which sums up the darker side of how Kate sees herself, and sets up some of what will happen in the last two chapters of the book. It’s an odd bit of a scene, in that Kate wishes that anyone else was there with Christopher: Master Roger, Alicia, because she thinks of herself as so inept at comforting him. “But when she thought of herself, all she could see was herself, Kate Sutton, that first day up at the Holy Well…pelting him with questions and arguments, rummaging with her great clumsy hands through his pride and his grief and his dignity…” While it’s a bitter note in the middle of this chapter, it also echoes interestingly with the way she sees Christopher himself in a new light earlier.

On the other hand, I’m really not a fan of the casual mention of domestic abuse in this chapter. Could we just…not, please?

Finally, I’ll point out a bit of important Plot, which occurs when Gwenhyfara tells Kate that, “Not even our kind can form a true circle of power or pay the teind to the gods in a holy place that has once been broken or defeated and they were all driven out of their holy places long ago.” The Elvenwood is the last of its kind, “the most holy of all the holy places: it alone remains as it was, and here alone the true way of the land has never been lost or forgotten.”

So once again, we have the sense that this is the passing of an age. If the Elvenwood is lost, the People of the Hill will be lost as well. Although Kate is to a certain degree opposed to the People of the Hill, we also see the attraction that they hold for her. It’s an interesting split, and one that will be tempted in the next chapter.

Chapter 11: The Cold Iron

Chapter 11 opens with Kate being swept up in one of the Fairy Folk’s dancing nights. This is a really amazing passage, which showcases Pope’s prose abilities. It has an amazing dreamy feeling to the action.

They ran on and on, down passageways and around turns and through arches of stone, so fast that Kate could not tell which way they were going; it was all she could do to keep up with them. She was still dazed with the shock of relief from the terror of the last few minutes, and the insistant rhythm of the music was driving everything else out of her mind….and then the light was flashing on something thin and silvery like glass–not glass, water, a sheet of water falling over an opening in the rock, and then they were running through it, and plashing along the pebbles of a shallow pool and up the bank, and then they were all standing still and the night air was blowing against their faces, alive with wind and the scent of grass and the rustle of falling leaves.

I know that’s a long passage, but I really wanted to give a sense of how Pope uses the description here to build up this sense of tension as the dancers pull Kate with them, and then that marvelous sense of expansion in the last few lines.

It’s also the first time Kate has been outside of the Hill, on the surface of the earth, and I’m going to quote another chunk because it’s just so lovely.

They had come out into a wide level space like a glade in the forest, walled about by dark masses of trees, and with one enormous oak alone in the center of the clearing. The sky was gleaming with stars, and a great globe of a moon, almost full, was just beginning to swing free from the branches that entangled it. But at that first instant all that Kate could feel was the air, the shock of the air after the stillness and the stifling confinement of the Hill. She lifted her face and looked up into it, up and up and up into the sudden incredible heights and vastnesses over her head.

I just can’t get over those last two sentences and the way they convey the freedom that Kate feels after being under the Hill for so long. The way Pope repeats herself a few times–”the air, the shock of the air” and “looked up into it, up and up and up”–is just! gosh! So, so good.

This section ends with the dance reaching a kind of fever pitch, and then an abrupt change back to the everyday world of the Hill. Kate “opened her eyes to find that she was lying on the couch back in the stable, with the mortal women whimpering beside her. Gwenhyfara was just stooping down to rouse them, the branch of candles in her hand and her severe delicate face locked and remote again. The glade, the stars, the oak tree, and the dancers were all gone like a dream.”

Once Christopher and Kate, however, they realize that time has been passing much faster than they realized and it’s now well into autumn. There’s a really haunting image here when Kate decides to talk to Gwenhyfara to try to find out how long they have before the teind.

“What she could not bear were the times when she felt as though she were hiding behind the rocks in the gorge again, watching helplessly as he walked further and further away from her towards the shadow at the mouth of the Holy Well.”

I’ve talked a few times about the ways that Pope seems to be showing a type of depression in Christopher’s mental and emotional state; this moment also works very well as a way to describe what it’s like when someone you love is struggling with mental health.

As it happens, the Lady has decided that she’ll allow Kate to learn how to become one of the People of the Hill. There’s a tension that runs through this whole long scene, and I think it’s one of the moments where Pope really delivers on showing us just how differently the People of the Hill encounter the world. This especially comes to light when the Lady says, “to be least among us is to be greater than any princess of your kind who is alive on the earth. And what more could you wish for?” and Kate thinks that she wishes for “water meadows, and a manor house, and an orchard of green apples, and at least a month’s clear time to herself and Christopher safe out of the Hill.”

I also hadn’t remembered the degree to which Christopher’s dream of the manor in Norfolk has become a shared thing at this point. It’s a nice way to show them as partners: the discussion of the manor is the place where they’re closest to each other in terms of practicality and vision.

Unfortunately, the Lady then reveals that they do not have a month. The teind will be paid that night, on All Hallows Eve. The passage that follows directly after this is absolutely amazing at conveying the effects of this revelation on Kate:

Absolute shock has sometimes a curious power of both numbing and clarifying the mind. Kate did not even move. She could tell that she had not moved because she could see her own hands, clear and still and flat like hands in a painting, resting against her knees. The hands were clasped lightly over the weight of the coiled chain, and the brown leather robe fell away under them in stiff motionless folds to the floor.

I know I’m a bit obsessed with The Queen of Attolia at the moment, but I could not help but think of one of my favorite passages in that book, which circles around this image of stone, coming back to it in every sentence. Pope uses the same trick here with Kate’s own hands, even moving from “her own hands” to “the hands.” I love the details, and the way the weight of the coiled chain and the stiff motionless folds add to the image of being frozen in place.

Kate then spends a long time arguing theology with the Lady, which I won’t quote here. It’s another moment which shows how different the Lady’s belief system is, and I love how Kate thinks she has convinced her only to have the argument turned around against her.

Eventually, the Lady attempts to hypnotize Kate with her bracelet after realizing that Kate loves Christopher. Kate is quite literally saved by the cross here–she uses the broken cold iron cross that the red-headed woman gave her to keep the Lady from putting her to sleep. I love this moment, which is just so extremely Kate: she “had a sudden furious impulse to rise to her feet and announce that she was not a seed in the furrow or a leaf on the ground.”

Tam Lin also shows up here, with the Lady admitting that the story is based on a real event and that there is a way for Kate to claim Christopher, although she very prudently won’t tell Kate how.

Once she’s left alone, Kate tries desperately to find Christopher, because they are out of time. She doesn’t have a plan any longer, but thinks that “all that would have to take its chance now. Any chance was better than none.”

But when she arrives in his cavern, the door is open. And then, in a truly Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy moment, the chapter ends with this passage:

Christopher?’ she said questioningly.

There was no answer.

AND ON THAT NOTE, that’s all for this week! Next week, we’ll be discussing the final two chapters and some wrap-up thoughts.

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