The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001, 288. Age/interest level 12-up.
Maturity Level: 6 (Ages 15-18) and up
Bottom line: The Perilous Gard combines a love story with issues central to Christianity and paganism, in a satisfying and thought-provoking read for teens.
Katherine Sutton serves as lady-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, sister of Queen Mary. Currently Elizabeth is locked away in dreary Hartford Castle by her paranoid sister. Kate has sister troubles too: through the meddling of her airhead sibling Alicia, Kate attracts the unwelcome attention of “Bloody” Mary and is banished to an even more remote location in central England. There she will abide under the watchful eye of Sir Geoffrey Heron in Perilous Gard (“Gard” being Old English for castle), deep in the uncleared forests of Elvenwood. Sir Geoffrey is courteous but remote; his younger brother Christopher is rude and even more remote (though better looking). The property is Sir Geoffrey’s by marriage, but he escapes from it at every opportunity due to unhappy memories. Kate slowly learns that the wood, the castle, and Christopher Heron are haunted–not by the dead, but by the living remnants of the ancient religion that once ruled all of England.
Though technically fantasy, The Perilous Gard could almost pass for historical fiction. It’s a riveting tale, once you get past the first couple of chapters, where the narrative leans heavily on description because the physical surroundings are so important to the story. Traces of the old druidic religion lingered in England up to Elizabethan times and beyond, as any close reader of Shakespeare knows. (C. S. Lewis also explored the phenomenon in That Hideous Strength.) Modern pagans don’t have a clue what the real thing was all about: nature-worship paired with blood sacrifice, mindless ecstasy ridden by fear, a relentless eye-for-eye accounting system that left no room for compassion. The “fairies”, as Ms. Pope presents them, are scrupulously just in their dealings with humans and any bargain struck they will keep, no matter the cost to anyone. But, as Kate perceives, humans don’t need justice from fairies: “We’re all of us under the mercy.” The Perilous Gard is not a “Christian novel” and makes no attempt to preach or proselytize. What the author achieves is a faithful representation of a spiritual clash, refreshing in that Christians are not automatically cast as stodgy, repressive meanies. In fact, they seem to be the good guys. It’s also an engaging , PG-rated romance that girls 12 and older will swoon for. Originally published in 1974, the paperback edition is readily available and includes illustrations by Richard Cuffari (that that don’t add much, in my opinion).
Cautions: Supernatural (practitioners of paganism, but shown in an unfavorable light)
Overall Value: 5 (out of 5)
- Moral/Worldview Value: 5
- Artistic Value: 4
Categories: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, YA, Starred Review, Mythology, Award Winners, Discussion Starter*
- Literary Element: Would you classify this book as historical fiction or fantasy? Why?
- Thematic Element: What sacrifices are Christopher and Kate called upon to make? Are they both equally effective?
- Worldview Element: How does Christianity compare with paganism in this story? What is the main appeal of each?