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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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The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 3: Chapters 6-8

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hello once again! Welcome to week 3 of the Perilous Gard read-along. We’re over halfway done with the book now! These are some very pivotal chapters, as Kate enters a new world and has to navigate some difficult situations.

Chapter 6: The Leper’s Hut

Towards the beginning of this chapter, we encounter Randal again. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t love his depiction, and perhaps especially the way he’s used for exposition and little else. Here he drops several hints by singing “Tam Lin,” mentioning the teind, and then dropping the big bombshell of the chapter. However, through all of this, he remains mostly a distant and pitiable figure. The one moment of his that does really shine through is when he describes how sometimes the People in the Hill will allow him to join them for a dancing night, “and when I awake I am lying out on the cold hillside again.” I wish that Pope had leaned into this emotion more, and given us a sense of how Randal actually feels as a human being.

Once again, we see the way Kate has very little patience for Christopher’s tendency towards the melodramatic. At the same time, I don’t want to discount the very real pressure and trauma that Christopher is living with here, and particularly the way it echoes his terrible childhood. It’s a delicate balance to portray and I think that overall Pope does a fair job of reminding us why he reacts as he does.

Anyway, Randal reveals that Cecily is actually alive and living with the Fairy Folk, in what is a pretty marvelous scene, in my opinion. I really like how Pope trusts the reader to understand the subtext of what’s happening with Christopher’s reaction to the news and his interactions with Kate and Randal. (Kate’s response is, “Of course she’s alive!…What did I tell you!” Amazing. I love her.)

Last week I noted the description of the valley, with the loneliness of the landscape and the single hawk overhead. Here we get an echo of that just as Randal reveals that Cecily is alive: “The sun was now nearly overhead and the whole valley lay in clear light from the archway in the distant wall to the dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.” I love the way the clear light and the sunshine contrast with the earlier description! It’s also a nice little tie-in to the description of Christopher a little bit earlier: “His eyes were still wet, but they looked as though they had seen the Resurrection itself, and his whole face was dazed and radiant.”

Parsing this out a bit, I don’t think it’s at all an accident that the Resurrection is brought up here, or that the radiance of Christopher’s face (tying in again to the story of St. Christopher) and the sunlight in the valley are linked. And also, I think, there’s an echo of the Resurrection in the “dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.”

Of course things aren’t quite that easy, and Christopher is primed and ready to be self-sacrificing. Cecily was stolen to pay the teind on All Hallows’ Eve, and he immediately decides that he’ll take her place. Kate knows exactly what he’s doing, but she can’t find an immediate way to stop him, despite arguing about it furiously. (Perhaps my least favorite Christopher moment is when he sends her back to the castle “like a good girl.” Come on, man.) She settles for letting him get rid of her for the moment so she can write a letter to Sir Geoffrey.

Chapter 7: The Evidence Room

And then Kate has to go back to the castle and get through dinner and a whole evening without revealing that anything is wrong, knowing Christopher is out there being his dramatic and self-sacrificing self. It’s so tense!!! I do love how Pope weaves in the everyday details of meals and sewing and how to get hold of ink and paper. The description of the meal also helped me make sense of something that has puzzled me for a long time–why meals in big households like this were so massive. I mean, it can’t all be just conspicuous consumption, right? As it turns out, the food is offered to the high table before everyone else gets it, which means that it’s feeding the whole castle! Anyway, I found this detail pretty delightful.

Then Kate follows Christopher back to the valley, leading to perhaps one of my favorite exchanges in the whole book.

“Kate,” said Christopher. “Dear Kate, kind Kate, clever Kate, will you for the love of heaven go away without asking any more questions?”

“No,” said Kate flatly. “You’re planning something.”

Have I mentioned recently that I LOVE HER? Also, why exactly does my brain take this dynamic and circle it and label it ROMANCE? Is it too much Anne and Gilbert at an impressionable age? Please discuss. (There’s another great line from Kate in this section: “‘How can I be quiet when I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be quiet about?’ Kate hissed back.”)

Christopher, of course, exchanges himself for Cecily, in a creepy ceremony with the creepy Creature in the Well, which I do not care for at all, nope, no thank you. Also, remember that moment in chapter 2 when Kate gets caught gossiping with Dorothy? Well, Pope pulls off that same kind of tension here when Master John catches her watching the scene and takes her back to his evidence room.

In the first week, I mentioned that I’m still not quite sure to what degree this is a supernatural story, and the Creature in the Well is really the best evidence we have that there is actual supernatural stuff going on, as opposed to hypnosis, drugging, etc. It’s described in such an eerie and almost eldritch way that it’s hard to not read it as something that was never human. (Plus that one moment at the end, but we’ll talk about that later.)

I think the description of the evidence room is a really great one, so I’m going to quote it here basically in full.

“The little room was very plump and clean and commonplace, rather like Master John himself. There was a big table covered with papers and account books; more account books were ranged tidily on a shelf against the smooth whitewashed wall. Under the shelf was a great iron-bound chest. The floor had been polished and strewn with fragrant herbs–meadowsweet, rosemary, thyme. A pleasant handful of fire burned on the hearth…and Master John’s after supper morsel, a platter of cheese and ripe pears, was laid ready for him on a joint stool beside the modest wooden armchair.”

Master John then reveals himself as perhaps the truest antagonist of the story. I love how Pope uses the detail of his eating pears to make the homeiness of the room almost horrific. She was so good at building in tension and atmosphere in these tiny images that are so striking. I remembered this even before I read it–not the specifics, but the feeling of reading it, the way I was horrified but kept reading because I had to.

Speaking of effective and horrifying, here’s a sentence Master John sure does say!

“They have no intention of actually taking his wits away from him, or doing anything else that might weaken or spoil him for the–” he paused to select the exact word he wanted: “ceremony.”

No thank you at all!!

In a certain way, though, I do very much enjoy the back and forth between Kate and Master John. She really wants to fit him into her perception of the world. At one point, she thinks,

The talk was finally moving in a direction where she felt herself to be to some extent on her own ground, away from the dark, alien, mysterious world of the Fairy Folk. She knew better than to take Master John’s word that he was an honest trader…but at least he was a dishonest trader, not a heathen magician dealing in spells and charms and human sacrifice.

Unfortunately, Master John proves to be the wilier of the two. He plans to tell Sir Geoffrey that she and Christopher have run away together, thereby handily disposing of both of them. “Dishonest trading of this scope and quality was something she had never met with before. It had simply not occurred to her it was possible.”

As an aside, here’s another thing Master John sure does say. “‘Don’t blame yourself overmuch,’ said Master John in the kindest way.” GOSH, I HATE HIM.

It is interesting to me to look at Master John and Kate as sort of foils. They’re both incredibly perceptive and practical, but with very different moral codes and loyalties. We see Master John’s perceptiveness when he describes Christopher, “with all his fine talk and his tongue like a skinning knife…He might tear himself to pieces, if you choose to put it so extravagantly, but it would go very hard with him to make a display of the pieces…”

While overall Pope doesn’t put a ton of obvious weight on depictions of sexism in this book, I do think that she uses both Christopher and Master John’s relative social power as ways to compel Kate’s obedience in these chapters. Kate is smart, and thoughtful, and quick, but she doesn’t have authority, and that’s not a small thing in this world.

Chapter 8: The Lady in Green

We left Kate in the evidence room and that’s where we pick up this chapter as well. I have to admit to enjoying the moment when Kate talks herself down from being worried that Master John is about to murder her, thinking, “Master John was the last man on earth to commit a murder with his own hands, particularly a murder in his own private room, overturning the furniture, making a nasty mess of the sweet smelling, herb strewn floor.” She’s just so perceptive and slightly mean in a way that feels very gratifying to me.

She’s also correct! Master John returns with the Lady in the Green, the woman that Kate saw in the Elvenwood way back in chapter 2. The Lady proposes to take Kate as one of the mortal servants for the Fairy Folk, although Kate successfully avoids being drugged into compliance.

Throughout the book, the Lady is described in these slightly otherworldly terms, obviously very much connected with the forest and the natural world. Here, Kate thinks that “the walls and shelves and windows of Master’ John’s room…suddenly looked changed, unreal and grotesque, as if a young disdainful living tree had sprung up by magic through the flat boards of the floor.” Even the Lady’s clothing reinforces this connection with the forest and the trees:

The cloak was woven in varying shades of leaf color that wavered and shifted continually under the light, oak leaf, willow leaf, holly leaf, ash leaf, thorn leaf, elder and hazel, ivy and moss and fern…The fluctuating shapes and tints baffled the eye like the interlaced branches and foliage of a thicket.

And so Kate leaves the castle, and is led down into the Lady’s domain. And that’s where we’ll leave her this time! Next week, we’ll find out what’s going on down in the Hill.

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The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 2: Chapters 3-5

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hi everyone! Welcome back. Last week we talked about some of the contexts we can place The Perilous Gard in, and looked at the first two chapters. This week, we’ll be diving into the early part of the book as Kate adjusts to her new life at Elvenwood Hall.  Please feel free to follow along and add your own thoughts as we go! 

Chapter 3: The Young Man at the Window

This chapter opens with Kate waking up in her new room the morning after arriving at the Perilous Gard (aka Elvenwood Hall) with Sir Geoffrey. I love the way the room is described, and especially the way it points out that what we think of as ancient was once considered brand new. 

We also meet some of the key members of the household at Elvenwood Hall: Dorothy, the late Anne Warden’s nurse, Master John, the steward of the house, and a mysterious man who will turn out to be Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother Christopher. 

Pope does a fantastic job of showing the dynamics of the household, which are quite tense and complex. It is not Sir Geoffrey’s home, having been in the Warden family for generations, and he associates it with a double loss and largely just wants to get away. Dorothy is almost a stereotype of a devoted family servant, with a slightly sinister edge. Master John and Christopher are more complicated and we’ll talk about their reactions and motivations later. (I am unhappy with the fatphobia that’s pretty consistently in evidence in Master John’s description, for whatever that’s worth.)

I’ve mentioned Pope’s descriptions last week, and I just love this line that we get as Kate goes through the house: “where they went solemnly through one beautiful, empty room after another.”

My favorite moment of the chapter comes when Dorothy is gossiping to Kate. It’s a scene where Pope takes Kate’s expectations and sets them slightly on end, as Dorothy turns out to be devoted, not to the Herons who she despises as soft, but to the Warden family. Pepe builds tension throughout the scene by layering in these conflicting perspectives and emotions, and then brings it to a head by having Sir Geoffrey walk in and overhear the gossip. It’s quite something

We also get an important plot point late in this chapter, as we learn that Sir Geoffrey is going away but will return “sometime after All Saints’ Day,” which is November 1. 

Overall, this is another introductory chapter that gives us a sense of some of the minor characters. I do love this moment of Kate’s internal dialogue, which gives us a good insight into her general approach to life:

She had often heard her father quote that proverb; he said it was invented by fools to save them the trouble of thinking. “Don’t meddle in what you can’t mend,” he would growl at her. “And how do you know it’s past mending? There’ll be time enough to meddle after you’ve looked into the matter. At least you could try to satisfy your mind first.

Chapter 4: The Holy Well

For me, this chapter is where the story really hits its stride. We get the introduction of another key setting within the bounds of the Perilous Gard, Kate being extremely wonderful, and the first real interactions between Kate and Christopher. 

Early in this chapter we get a description of the history of the Warden family which will become relevant later:

They had not gone crusading; they had somehow contrived to stay out of the wars of the Roses; the unending aristocratic struggle for power, rank, office, court favor, and advantageous marriages appeared to have passed them by…They stood almost as aloof from the world as if they were members of some religious order–but there was no sign that they had ever been religious; they did not even keep a household chaplain of their own, like other noble families.

Throughout this book, Christianity, folk beliefs, and rational/scientific thought will intertwine in interesting and often complicated ways, sometimes aligning and sometimes sharply diverging. I’ll be pointing out some other ways that Christianity and older pagan customs are depicted as we go along. 

Unfortunately for Kate, she’s at Elvenwood Hall as a ward of Sir Geoffrey, and no one there likes Sir Geoffrey. Pope depicts this with an almost Shirley Jackson-esque sense of isolation and outsider status. “She was only quietly and deftly shut out of the life of the castle…Elvenwood Hall was a community in itself; but Kate was almost as alone as though she had actually been chained up to the wall in the black dungeon of Alicia’s imagination.” 

Eventually, she goes exploring, down to the cliffs where pilgrims come to visit a Holy Well. (When Kate asks about which saint is its patron, Dorothy is shocked at the very idea of saints being involved.) I’ve mentioned Pope’s descriptions several times already, but I can’t resist highlighting this line, which is so beautiful and evocative of the place and of her loneliness at the same time: 

It was a gray cloudy day, smelling of wild places, with the promise of rain in the air. The only living thing in sight was a hawk circling and soaring on the wind above the cliffs.

SMELLING OF WILD PLACES. What a perfect phrase! Who writes that?! And then the image of the lone hawk!

It’s at the Holy Well that Kate encounters the mysterious man who she saw at breakfast on her first morning and who turns out to be Christopher Heron. The Heron brothers, it appears, have an extremely tragic backstory: their mother died when Christopher was born and their grief-stricken father avoided Christopher to the point of neglect. Geoffrey mostly raised Christopher, and they were very close until Geoffrey met and married Anne Warden. They had a daughter named Cecily before Anne died, and Cecily is the child who was lost, supposedly fallen down the Holy Well while in Christopher’s care. Everyone, including Christopher himself, blames Christopher for Cecily’s death and Geoffrey has avoided him and Elvenwood Hall itself ever since. 

Kate and Christopher establish an immediate connection of what I can only describe as intense bickering. Christopher wants so badly to mope around the landscape being a tragic figure straight out of the Romantic Poets (yes, a few centuries too early) and Kate just has no patience for it at all! As we’ve seen, she has an intensely practical and pragmatic streak and I really enjoy watching her pull Christopher up short whenever he is trying to go into a Decline. At one point she even says, “I am utterly at squares with this childish dealing” to which my notes read, “Ahhhhh ilu.”

I also just have, like, a lot of feelings about the Heron brothers and how they’re trying to avoid the patterns of their family history only to fall right back into them once the fresh tragedy of Cecily’s loss hits them. I think part of the strength of this book is the way it treats Christopher’s very real anguish gently while also allowing Kate to pull him up short when he’s being overly self-pitying. 

Chapter 5: The Redheaded Woman

In the final chapter for this week, it floods and Kate meets some of the villagers while also receiving several Clues. 

I’ve mentioned a couple of times when various characters are compared to people in romances already, but there’s another great moment when Kate thinks of Christopher in these terms:

 He had more likely laid it upon himself to tramp about in the rain…it was all very well for a hero in a romance, like Sir Launcelot, to break his heart and…’run mad in the wilderness’; but in her opinion Sir Launcelot had behaved very foolishly.

This is such a great way to sum up both of them, in my opinion! 

I also just love the atmosphere that Pope paints with the endless rain around the castle, and the way it affects the characters. She does a marvellous job in general of depicting the physical and emotional landscapes. 

Eventually, Kate visits the nearby village, where she discovers that they hate and distrust anyone from the castle even more than everyone from the castle distrusts her. This is a pretty pivotal scene, where the danger of the countryside really makes itself felt. (And again, it felt somewhat Shirley Jackson-esque to me, which is interesting!)

Kate then ends up saving the child of one of the villagers, the red-headed woman of the chapter’s title. The woman is so grateful that she helpfully provides some exposition about the Fairy Folk and the Lady in Green who are said to steal away children. She describes the Lady in Green as the woman who Kate saw on in the forest on the way to Elvenwood Hall, which leads to this wonderful line: 

She could hear Master Roger’s voice discoursing gravely about folly and superstition…but out under the oaks at the edge of the Elvenwood…Master Roger’s voice no longer spoke with the same authority it had had in the Princess Elizabeth’s little parlor. The Lady in the Green was at least a real person–Kate had seen her with her own eyes…

The Fairy Folk are a potent force in this area, unlike most of the rest of England, because “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.” Their power here is said to be alive and well, and the Wardens and their servants were bound to the Fairy Folk. 

There’s an interesting contrast here with Kate’s line about St. Christopher earlier in the chapter, “But that had been in the morning of the world, when miracles rose out of the wayside grass as easily as larks; it was not to be expected that such a thing would happen again.” She’s still operating in the New Learning, rational world at the moment, even if she also considers herself Christian and believes that miracles once happened. 

On hearing the red-headed woman’s explanation, Kate immediately thinks of heathen gods and goddesses, although with a bit of skepticism: “Forgotten heathen goddesses did not stand about under trees; or if they did, it was not Katherine Sutton who would see them.” But then she realizes, in a wonderfully effective scene, that she’s described “Not heathen gods: heathen people.” That is, people who still believe in the old gods, following ancient patterns and customs. 

I also just love the way Pope describes this moment of realization for Kate, after setting it up vividly with her swirling thoughts: “And then–suddenly, cutting through the confusion–a stillness without word or sound, like a thought taking shape in the depths of her own mind.” 

Overall, these chapters really establish some of the main threads and characters that will run through the rest of the book. Next week, we’ll return to Christopher and Kate and Plot Will Occur. 

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The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 1: Welcome, context, and chapters 1-2

The Perilous Gard Read-along

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 (, 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:

Elizabeth Marie Pope biographical blurb at 

“Hatfield House” at Wikipedia: 

“Tam Lin” at Wikipedia: 

“Thomas the Rhymer” lyrics: 

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The Perilous Gard Read-along announcement

Hello everyone! I’m still in the midst of my MLIS (Masters in Library Science) program and therefore haven’t been posting here. But! I do want to announce that starting next Sunday, October 4, I’ll be hosting a Read-along for The Perilous Gard, one of my favorite seasonal books. All of the posts are written and scheduled, and I’d love to have you along for the ride! Whether this is an old favorite or a brand new read, there should be plenty to discuss.

Here’s the schedule we’ll be following:

October 4, Week 1: Welcome, context and Chapters 1-2

October 11, Week 2: Chapters 3-5

October 18, Week 3: Chapters 6-8

October 25, Week 4: Chapters 9-11

November 1, Week 5: Chapters 12-13 and wrap-up

If you’ve already read this book, I’m sure you can see what I’m doing with the timing there! Comments will be open for all the posts, so read along with me and join in with your thoughts and favorite moments.

The Perilous Gard Read-along

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I wish there were more books from…

The other day I started thinking about a very particular reading experience: I discover a new author, start reading their books, enjoy them hugely, and then find out after four or five that there are no more. And not just that, the author has stopped writing, or passed away, and so there will never be any more. These are a few of the ones I thought of–I left off anyone who wrote a lot (Diana Wynne Jones) or who is just writing very slowly (Megan Whalen Turner).

Franny Billingsley: I know that Billinglsey writes quite slowly, so perhaps we will be surprised with another book someday! I love all three of her published books a lot, but especially the beautiful, spiky, healing Chime. 

Elizabeth Bunce: Bunce has only published three books, despite winning the Morris award for A Curse Dark and Gold. I actually preferred her duology, StarCrossed and Liar’s Moon.

Sarah Caudwell: The author who prompted this by writing the four Hilary Tamar books and then writing no more.

Susanna Clarke: I had heard that Clarke was working on a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but it’s been fourteen years and so far there’s no sign of it. There is a collection of short stories called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but for me it doesn’t quite scratch the same itch.

Elizabeth Marie Pope: Two books–TWO BOOKS–but they are both gems, especially The Perilous Gard which I have loved whole-heartedly since I was about 12.

Judith Merkle Riley: Riley’s books are delightfully fresh & funny historical fiction, so I remain quite sad that there are only six of them. Even though that is more than most of the other authors I’ve featured here, it doesn’t feel like enough.

Kate Ross: Another mystery writer, who sadly passed away very young but wrote some pretty delightful Regency mysteries about a dandy named Julian Kestrel.

What about you? Are there authors you long for more books from?

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Favorite Authors: Elizabeth Marie Pope

Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote only two fiction books, and yet she is so very much a favorite author that I had to include her in my list. I first discovered her when I was in middle school which, as I’ve already talked about, was a very important time for me reading-wise. I picked up The Perilous Gard in my school library and thought the description sounded interesting. I didn’t expect to fall completely and whole-heartedly in love with Kate and Christopher and the setting of the Perilous Gard itself. It’s a book I loved when I was in middle school, and high school, and college, and still love, without reservation. The Sherwood Ring is also a lovely book, complex enough to be interesting, but also funny and a little bit sad.

And sometimes I still wish that Pope had written more books, although the two we have are so wonderful.

The Perilous Gard
The Sherwood Ring