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Literature / The Perilous Gard

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Or "the dangerous castle", if you were wondering

The Perilous Gard is a young adult novel by Elizabeth Marie Pope (The Sherwood Ring). The book is set in Tudor England and tells a variant on the ballad of Tam Lin. It won the Newbery Honor in 1975.

Summary: Kate and Alicia Sutton are young maids of honor to the Lady Elizabeth Tudor who is confined to her house at Hatfield under the extreme displeasure of her sister Queen Mary.

Alicia, a beautiful ditz, writes the queen to complain about the conditions at Hatfield. Her Majesty takes offense but elects to punish not the beautiful Alicia (who she's sure isn't responsible), but instead her older, plainer sister Kate. Kate is sent to live under house arrest at Elvenwood Hall in the care of Sir Geoffrey Heron.

She soon discovers she has walked into a somewhat fraught family situation: Sir Geoffrey's small daughter and only child, Cecily, disappeared under mysterious circumstances while in the care of her uncle Christopher Heron, who of course is now Sir Geoffrey's heir. Everybody draws the obvious conclusion and Christopher's Byronic posturing does nothing to help the situation.


This is followed by the revelation that the 'Elvenwood' really is the haunt of honest-to-God 'Fairy Folk' (or surviving pagans) who pay a teind to Hell (or their gods) of one human life.

Guess why Cecily was taken. Guess what fate is intended for Christopher who has offered himself in exchange for his niece. Guess who has to save him.

The Perilous Gard contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Master John, a civilised man of business who discusses Christopher's demise with Kate over a plate of pears and cheese.
  • Arc Words: "Mad or blind." Kate first uses the phrase in when pointing out the holes in the story of Cecily's disappearance, saying that they're obvious to anyone with the use of their senses. The full significance is that "mad or blind" is what the Fairy Folk make mortals blind by keeping their captives in darkness, and mad by giving the maids and pilgrims a drug to keep them happy, or take away their wits like Randal. Later, Christopher tells Kate that she seems as much a part of him as his mind or eyes, and being separated would be like madness or blindness.
    • "Nothing": what the teind-payer is supposed to become, and Christopher frequently refers to with heavy irony. When Kate tells him 'nothing' is wrong he says he's taken a dislike to the word.
  • Beautiful All Along: Kate gets a makeover during her time in the Fairy Hill.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Kate and Christopher spend most of their time together arguing - and we all know what that means! (Except Kate. Kate doesn't know what it means.)
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  • Big Eater: Kate enjoys practical pleasures, like food. Christopher evidently notices that she's partaking of a huge dinner when they first meet, interrogates him about his rations the next time, and that her unflattering analogies for him include a fattened goose and a gilded gingerbread.
    Kate: Christopher, do you ever think about food?
    Christopher: I might have known that would be what you'd think of.
  • Big "NO!": When Alicia suggests fixing the trouble by writing another letter to the Queen Kate, Master Ascham and Princess Elizabeth all chorus a loud 'No!'.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Master John, to go with his black heart.
  • Breaking Speech: The Guardian of the Well gives Christopher a "Reason You Suck" Speech combined with a Nihilistic rant about life in general.
  • Bring Help Back: Kate's last-ditch attempt to summon help before disappearing into the Hill is to send Randal the idiot to fetch Sir Geoffrey from Norfolk by Hallowe'en. Unfortunately Randal fixates on Exact Words and she realises right away that she's confused him about the timing.
  • Call to Agriculture: After two months of debating about Christopher's ideal manor in Norfolk, London-bred Kate is as invested in it as he is.
  • Cassandra Truth: Randal the bard is very knowledgeable about the Fair Folk, but he's considered to be "touched in the head" and people don't realize that his songs and ramblings include vital information.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: One of the entrances to Fairy Hill is behind a waterfall.
  • Claustrophobia: One of the conditions of life under the Hill is occasional attacks of "the weight", or panic attacks about the sheer mass of rock looming overhead. The Fairy Folk consider mere mortals incapable of enduring it, and Kate first wins the Lady's respect by persisting in her refusal of the relaxing drugs they give to the other maidservants.
  • Curtains Match the Window: Alicia whose eyes match her golden curls.
  • Cold Iron: Zigzagged. The cold iron cross a village woman gives Kate doesn't hurt the Fair Folk, but it does hurt Kate when she cuts her hand with it, preventing her from falling into an enchanted sleep.
  • Distressed Dude: Christopher, who is very difficult about being rescued.
  • Deep Sleep: when Kate arrives at the castle, she sleeps like the dead until the next afternoon.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Christopher again. Most memorably his remark about hoping to get a spot next to Kate at the Last Judgment because he wants to hear her commentary on the proceedings. And that her mother ought to tell her that she needs to marry the man she's been spending all her nights with.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Kate and Christopher very much earn and deserve a long happy life on their Norfolk manor.
  • Everyone Can See It: Everybody but Kate herself sees at a glance that Christopher is lost in love with her.
  • The Fair Folk: Probably perfectly human pagans. Probably.
  • Fairytale Motifs: Aside from the numerous references to "Tam Lin" and other ballads, Kate thinks of Christopher and Alicia as the kind of beautiful, unworldly people found in Arthurian romances: Christopher as the Knight In Shining Armour putting Honour Before Reason, Alicia as a naive heroine.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Kate's younger sister Alicia has the cuteness, charm, and intelligence of a small fluffy animal, while Kate is intelligent and prosaic.
  • From Bad to Worse: Kate is reminded of a joke about a man whose dog died...when his house burned down...during his mother's funeral... when Alicia tells her that she just adores Christopher, and he's rich now, and he's got an engagement ring... She means it's for Kate and she, Alicia, loves Christopher like a brother.
  • Halloween Episode: The teind is paid on Halloween in "Tam Lin" and also in the Elvenwood.
  • Hidden Depths: Kate's strength of mind is not obvious to the Lady from her unprepossessing exterior, and Christopher keeps his agricultural dreams so close to his chest not even the Guardian of the Well finds out about them.
  • Love Potion: Of the Love First Person Sighted variety. The Lady gives Kate one to use but Kate refuses to accept it because she is afraid of it being fake and would not want a relationship based on false feelings.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Kate doesn't believe for a second that the Fairy Folk aren't entirely human. The only thing she can't explain is who the Guardian of the Well is, and why his robe washes up with a few old bones after the flooding of the Hill.
  • Meaningful Name: Christopher ("Christ-bearer") is named after a saint who carried a beggar who turned out to be the Christ child across a raging river. The name is symbolic of Christopher's exasperating tendency to take burdens on himself, like responsibility for his mother's death and Cecily's life.
    Kate: You and your conscience! One of these days you're going to start trying to carry the whole world on your back, and then God won't have any more work to do.
  • Must Make Amends: Christopher lives in a leper's hut in penance for Cecily's disappearance, and later offers himself as a human sacrifice in her place. Kate considers this theatrical and ridiculous.
  • Not So Different: After her first impressions of Christopher as a melodramatic hero of Chivalric Romance, Kate is bewildered to discover that his true interests are as mundane as hers: he has a passion for farming and strong opinions about drainage.
  • Promoted to Parent: Sir Geoffrey is fifteen years older than Christopher and raised him after their mother's Death by Childbirth and their father's refusal to have anything to do with him. It's perhaps not surprising that Christopher resented Geoffrey's wife Anne.
  • Reconstruction: The novel is a version of the English ballad "Tam Lin", which the characters initially dismiss as a fairy tale, in which the magical and superstitious elements are explained by the doings of a pagan cult.
  • Rescue Romance Of course the usual sex of rescuer and rescuee is reversed.
  • Scary Amoral Religion: The Fairy Folk believe that power to protect their people is acquired by Human Sacrifice. They usually use mortal children like Cecily because, quite simply, children are easier to abduct. Kate tries to persuade them that Christ's sacrifice was so powerful that further sacrifices are unnecessary, but the Queen, though interested, is unconvinced.
  • Separated by the Wall: Kate and Christopher really get to know each other after they spend weeks talking through his cell wall in total darkness so he won't Go Mad from the Isolation. Kate learns to hear and interpret every tone and shade of Christopher's voice but is genuinely startled when she realizes he knows hers just as well.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare:
    • "The grief of a wound" is taken from Falstaff's soliloquy on honour in Henry IV, Part 1, while "tilly-vally" and "fire-new" are obsolete words found in Twelfth Night. Pope was an English professor specialising in Shakespeare.
    • "Kate! Unkind!" may be a shout out to The Taming of the Shrew. Christopher cries this when Kate admits she's afraid he wants to marry Alicia, a fate Christopher considers only slightly better than death
  • Spoiled Sweet: Alicia, though exasperatingly dim and unwittingly insensitive, is far too good-natured and affectionate for anyone to actually dislike. Alicia has no idea that Kate has a crippling inferiority complex about her social graces, and they do not wage The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry.
  • The Un-Favourite: Kate's mother, who resembles and favours Alicia, appears to be at the root of her sense of inadequacy. Fortunately she's clearly her father's favourite, though he doesn't neglect Alicia.
    • Christopher's father blamed him for his mother's death, and left him to be raised by his elder brother. This also appears to be a root cause of Christopher's belief that his life is expendable.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Alicia has always gotten everything.
    • Kate fears that Christopher has fallen in love with Alicia after meeting her, but this trope is averted as he is in love with Kate instead.


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