Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tudor Awesomeness - The Perilous Gard

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. Kate Sutton is a lady in waiting to Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield when her flighty younger sister Alicia writes an ill-considered letter to Queen Mary. The letter enrages Mary and gets Kate exiled to the Perilous Gard, a remote castle owned by Sir Geoffrey Heron. That’s right Kate – not Alicia. Life in Tudor England? Not fair.

Our intrepid heroine is sent away to a remote location with only her host/jailer, Sir Geoffrey, his sullen younger brother Christopher, and a traveling minstrel named Randal to keep her company. At the Gard there are servants that she's pretty sure she can't trust (either because they seem totally shady or completely bird-witted). She’s physically isolated due to the remote location of the Gard and her banishment means she can't leave, no matter what happens. And of course there's the mysterious death of Sir Geoffrey's daughter Cecily. No one talks about it, but Christopher has shouldered the blame, and it makes the whole castle very tense. It’s only now when re-reading that I realized The Perilous Gard is actually a gothic novel in Newbery-winning disguise.

Being of an inquiring turn of mind (and really, she's stranded in the middle of a forest called the Elvenwood with nothing else to do), Kate sets out to discover the truth. What follows is a spin on the ballad of Tam Lin, which pits awkward, gangly Kate against the Lady, Queen of the Fairy Folk who live under the hill in a battle for Christopher's life.

Can I tell you how much I love this book? So much. Kate is prickly and ungraceful, but she’s also trenchantly funny and unwilling to give up in the face of what should be insurmountable obstacles. Her adventures as a serving girl under the hill (she's not a very good sneak and gets caught quite quickly) are some of my favorite part of the book. Kate is brought face to face with the Lady and with Christopher. Their interactions form the central conflict of the book, as Kate struggles to find a way out of their imprisonment, but also finds herself learning from the Lady and building a close friendship with Christopher.

*Major Spoilers* The final scene in the book – when Kate is confronted by the Lady still makes me a little sick to my stomach. It’s that good. The Lady, always a complicated thinker, offers to Kate magic to make Christopher love her (Kate's convinced that Christopher is in love with her sister Alicia and is at that moment literally standing in the cold, watching them together through a window, and despairing). Kate rejects the offer. Not because she doesn’t want what the Lady is offering with every fiber of her being, but because she knows the inauthenticity involved would poison the rest of her life. Her clear-sightedness allows her to escape the final trap laid for her by the Lady and emerge victorious in a meaningful way. Seriously, it's amazing. You should read it.

Random note: The Perilous Gard was my first introduction to the idea of Elizabeth Ex Machina (yes, I coined this phrase myself; no, I don't believe it's proper Latin). Is it just me or do half the novels set in Tudor England reach some dire point where no positive resolution seems possible, at which moment Queen Mary dies, Elizabeth ascends the throne, and all problems are suddenly solved? The lady was veeery busy in her first few days on the throne.

Ugh, I have gone on for far too long and I haven't even touched on the interesting thematic exploration of the disappearance of old pagan Britain and the possible environmental messages! I will leave that up to Elizabeth - I'm sure she'll be thrilled.


Books to try if you loved The Perilous Gard:

Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles. Six hulking books with tiny print and untranslated allusions in at least five languages. What on earth could they have to do with the simplicity and charm of The Perilous Gard? A lot! I swear! These books evoke the heady intellectualism and political maneuvering that characterize the Tudor period like none other. And the anti-hero at the center of it all, Francis Crawford, keeps things interesting even when you want to kick him across Scotland. Not for the faint of heart or easily bored, but definitely worth trying if you like historical fiction. The series starts with The Game of Kings.


  1. The Perilous Guard is on of my all time favorite books from middle school!! I must have checked it out of the Fremont Library 50 times (or it seemed like I did)....ahh faries.

  2. Please please please tell me that this book is orders of magnitude better than Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, which is the last book based on Tam Lin that I read at Ker's urging...

  3. Eliza - isn't it so funny which books were "library books" that you'd just checked out over and over again? My "library books" were 'The Magicians of Caprona' by Diane Wynne Jones and the Betsy-Tacy series.

    Dave - this book is like twelve times better than 'Fire and Hemlock'. Make that fiften.