The Faerie world is gaining popularity, rising from the plethora of titles featuring mythological creatures of old in teen, adult and kids fiction. Faeries (not fairies, thank you very much!) are beautiful, cruel, capricious, and dangerous to cross. That makes them perfect to fit into the current popularity of shimmering vampires and zombified Austen characters. But tonight we’re not talking today’s fae characters (that’s a booklist for another day) but an Old Favorite.
The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, was originally published in 1974, and won a Newbery Honor that year. It is one of my favorite books to re-read every couple years…just because. Why not? It has a gawky but smart heroine, an evil queen, a misunderstood hero, a missing child and some of the most beautiful scary creatures that ever walked the face of the Earth. Or in a book about it.
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It’s 1558, and Kate is a lady-in-waiting to the young exiled Princess Elizabeth. Kate is too tall, too awkward, too smart to be a good lady-in-waiting, but she tries. Her sister Alicia, on the other hand, is beautiful, sweet and kind of…well, stupid. So when Alicia sends a letter scolding Queen Mary (Elizabeth’s mortal enemy who is responsible for her captivity) for keeping her in such a horrible place, no one blames Alicia, they all think that Kate is somehow behind it.
To protect her sister, Kate takes her punishment, and is exiled into the care of Sir Geoffrey Heron at his estate Elvenwood…known to the locals as “the Perilous Gard”. It’s far from her home, and she knows no one there. Sir Geoffrey seems kind, but is distant and preoccupied. Upon their arrival, a minstrel wandering by warns Kate not to get lost, “like the little one”, and Kate learns that Sir Geoffrey’s young daughter has vanished and is presumed dead. Dead, because Christopher Heron, Geoffrey’s younger brother, confessed to being responsible for her disappearance, and will not–or cannot?–tell anyone where she is.
Sir Geoffrey departs soon after, leaving Kate to try to figure out what is going on in The Perilous Gard. Christopher, although quiet and brooding, seems a kindred spirit, and she finds herself enjoying his presence, becoming friends as they share time talking and arguing about everything under the sun. Soon though, she learns of the mysterious Lady in the Green, who lurks in the forest and seems to be watching either Christopher, the castle, or Kate herself.
When Christopher vanishes and his young niece Cecily turns up alive, Kate sets out to unravel the tangle of clues that might save Christopher and uncover the secrets of the Heron family. But her curiosity almost kills her, for she stumbles upon the otherworldly residents of the land around Elvenwood–the People of the Hill. The People want to make Kate a slave for life, and they have an even worse fate in mind for Christopher. Can Kate save him? Or is it too late?
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I read this book for the first time when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Kate seemed like a wonderful character to me. Curious, too tall, slightly klutzy, and more apt to argue with a boy than romance him. The fact that she manages to complete her self-appointed mission is mostly due to stubbornness and being herself was a revelation in a book world populated (at least in the 1970s) with girls who changed for love. Christopher, too, was someone who I would have liked to know. Tormented by guilt, practical, and determined to do the right thing, he would do anything to rescue his niece and help his brother. The atmosphere of the Perilous Gard was alternately threatening and pastoral, dangerous and charming, but mostly suspenseful. I really wanted to go there, and in reading the book, felt like I had.
This wonderful book is based on an ancient Scottish ballad with many variations. Most often known as Tam Lin, most versions begin with a young man made captive of the faerie queen, and end with him being rescued and freed. His rescuer is usually a courageous and defiant young girl, with much strength of character. There have been many adaptations of the ballad over the years for all ages; the appeal of the “girl saves boy” storyline is no doubt one of the biggest reasons.
Some of the more popular versions in juvenile and teen fiction are Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones (my second favorite version!), Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, and Noble-Hearted Kate, by Marianna Mayer. Picture book versions include Tam Lin by Susan Cooper, Wild Robin, by Susan Jeffers, and Tam Lin by Jane Yolen. All are worth reading, and are enjoyable for different reasons.
Fantasy fans of all ages should enjoy The Perilous Gard. It’s usually classified as a “sixth grade” book, which means that it ends up in both the juvenile and teen collections. I’d say it could be enjoyed by kids in fifth through ninth grades. If you do read it, let me know what you think!