Thursday, May 10, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (1974)

Kate Sutton and her sister Alicia are ladies-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, sister and (eventual successor) to Queen Mary I. When Alicia commits an act of foolishness, Kate is blamed for it and subsequently banished to Elvenwood Hall, also called the Perilous Gard. Here Kate meets Sir Geoffrey Heron, the man who has been charged with looking after her, as well as Geoffrey's brother, Christopher. Christopher has been blamed for the disappearance and presumed death of Geoffrey's young daughter Cecily, but Kate recognizes immediately that the circumstances under which she went missing do not follow logic. As she and Christopher investigate further, it becomes clear that tales of the "fairy folk" living beneath the Perilous Gard are not just stories, but factual accounts. Fairies have taken Cecily, and though her return brings great relief to Christopher and Kate both, it marks only the beginning of their own great trials in fairyland.

This novel, which received a Newbery Honor in 1975, is a complex blend of history, mystery, romance, and English folklore (especially the ballad, Tam Lin). Though the characters are strong, it is really the plot that drives the story, and I was hooked on the mysterious aspects of the book from the first moment Kate laid eyes on Elvenwood Hall. The writing, though not especially flowery, is still quite descriptive, and it gives the reader very concrete and memorable images of important moments in the story.  There is also a strong sense of suspense throughout the book, and while this is temporarily relieved at some points, the unsettling feeling remains even through the perfectly ambiguous ending, which just compounds the emotional impact of the whole story.

In terms of content, I would say this is primarily a book for middle school and maybe even high school readers. The romantic elements are minimal (and marriage is always their end goal), but I do think these situations are most likely to be appreciated by kids who are past the "kissing is gross" phase of childhood.  There are also a ton of historical references and allusions to folklore that most kids won't know, regardless of age, (I didn't know most of them myself!) but which middle school kids are most likely to grasp if they seek them out, or have them presented to them by an adult. There is also a lot of subtle commentary on paganism and Christianity that I don't think younger kids would be ready to grapple with, but which would spark lots of interesting discussion amongst eighth graders. For my own kids, I'll plan to use this book when we study the Medieval/Early Renaissance for the second time, during the Logic stage of the Classical Trivium. This should roughly line up with the start of middle school (6th grade), and hopefully it will be a nice complement to the factual historical texts we'll be using.

Elizabeth Marie Pope only wrote two books: this one, and The Sherwood Ring. Personally, I think I connected more with The Sherwood Ring because its fantasy elements were so straightforward, and I felt more comfortable with its American History references because they were more familiar to me. Personal preference aside, however, The Perilous Gard is probably the better book from a critical standpoint. The writer's craft is more finely honed in this second novel, probably owing to the 16-year gap between the two books, and it just feels like the story has more depth that would reward multiple re-readings. The Sherwood Ring is more of a romance novel with fantasy elements, whereas The Perilous Gard ties many threads together into a story that is not easily pigeonholed into one category.

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