Have you ever started a book, only to realize that you read it before and forgot about it? I hear people talk about that happening to them, but I can’t remember it every happening to me until today, when I was about a third of the way into Elizabeth Marie Pope’s 1974 children’s book, The Perilous Gard. It was just too familiar to be a first-time read. I have no recollection of when I read this book before or what I thought of it then, but I enjoyed it this time very much.
The novel is set in 1558 England, and Kate Sutton has recently come to serve as a maid of honor to the Lady Elizabeth, but a rash complaint from her sister, Alicia, leads Kate to be banished by Queen Mary to an out-of-the-way castle in Derbyshire called the Perilous Gard. The castle is filled with mysteries. There’s an enchanted well, a missing child, and a strange woman who appears and reappears at the strangest moments, noticed only by Kate. As Kate remains at the castle, she starts to untangle the long-standing pain that exists between Sir Geoffrey, the owner of the castle, and his brother Christopher. But resolving the conflict and ending the pain will require her and Christopher to delve into the world of the fairy folk.
These are the fairies of such stories as “Tam Lin,” and All Hallow’s Eve is approaching. Their tradition requires them to give a teind—a sacrifice—to the devil on that night. Kate is determined that there will be no sacrifice, but the fairies have ways to turn others to their will. It takes a strong mind to resist, and that resistance only causes the fairies to offer different, more pleasing temptations. Kate must be clever and strong-willed if she is to keep herself and Christopher safe from the fairies on All Hallow’s Eve.
Kate is a resourceful and appealing heroine in the manner of so many heroines of children’s literature. She’s awkward and unsure of herself and feels loathed and second-rate. Yet her best qualities, her resolve and curiosity and observational skills, are exactly what is needed to navigate the fairy world. And in a strange way, the fairy world works a sort of magic on her. It gets her out of the shadow of her sister, but it also puts her among those who recognize her strong character for what it is, and while they may not value her strength, they appreciate its power.
The plot is a variation on “Tam Lin,” so the climax is predictable to those who know they story. The really great stuff is in all the time Kate spends in the fairy world before the fateful night. The creepiness factor is high, largely because it relies so much on mind control rather than brute force. And then there’s the romance, which is also predictable, but I was still thrilled to see it unfold. I read the book over the course of a single day, when I was getting over a nasty bug, and it was the perfect diversion.