The small matter of paganism

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book was meant to be included in a Tam Lin-themed review/essay that I had happily planned a few months ago; however, I have a hard time shutting up and keeping quiet (on the page, that is). The essay ballooned to unreadable proportions, and also, I lost track of my Tam Lin reading and was easily diverted by other books. Hence, I’ll just review the books as individual ones.


Set in 16th-century Tudor England, The Perilous Gard weaves the basic premise of the Tam Lin ballad with ancient Celtic mythology and pagan beliefs. Our heroine has attributes typical of most YA fiction – neither pretty nor charming, Kate Sutton stands out for having brains, gumption, and a propensity for risky endeavours. Elizabeth Marie Pope is likewise (thankfully) an intelligent writer, and take risks with her character that allows Kate to be both typical and untypical. Kate strikes just the right chord between disbelief and the need to belief, and it is this quality that makes her rather endearing for most o f the first three-quarters of the book; furthermore, she’s awkward and not quite shy, but not quite articulate either (which doesn’t stop her from speaking her mind). A rather prickly but formidable blend of contradictory qualities makes Kate a pleasure to be with on the whole.

For the most part of the book Kate is largely alone, making sense of the world and the bizarre occurrences and people around her with minimal meaningful interaction with others, exiled as she is to a remote castle in the north country due to some freak misunderstanding involving herself, her sister, and the manic Queen Mary of Tudor. Relinquished from her post as lady-in-waiting to the Queen’s sister, Lady Katherine, Kate must now simply… go and live under the care of Sir Geoffrey, a friend of the Queen’s, in this relic from the ancient past, this old stone castle also known as the Perilous Gard for reasons that will soon become clear.

The plot devices are all in place: a mysterious castle, an impenetrable ancestry, strange locals who are strangely suspicious of the strange staff of the castle, a missing young girl, an eccentric but attractive young man (Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother, Christopher Heron), plenty of spare time for the lead character with nothing to do. Pope deftly weaves this all into a subtly creepy and immensely fascinating story. Long, descriptive passages on scenery and location can be tedious in the hands of a writer who uses descriptive writing as filler, but Pope’s prose is like latticework; intricate and tight and delightful in its precision and discipline. The geographic location, as it turns out, is essential to understanding the mechanisms of life for a certain group of “fairy folk”, and while the Tam Lin theme is recognisable to everyone who’s heard about or read the ballad, Pope is a scholar of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England who has set out to tell a different tale – that of the coming of Christianity and the exile of pagan belief.

The premise of The Perilous Gard hinges on this question: what if pagan religious beliefs and rituals were never really stamped out, but simply gone underground and into hiding? Pope has used a lot of material from Celtic and Welsh myths, as well as borrowed themes from the Mabinogion (a collection of folktales drawn from pre-Christian Celtic mythology) and bits of mediaeval history. Without giving away too much of the plot, Pope manages to weave in descriptions of the pagan folk (known as Fairy Folk in the book) and their rituals in delicious detail. Neither sentimental nor rigid, the initial descriptions of the Fairy Folk and their practices are explored in a spare, haunting tone that sets the mood for both interest and a vague sense of prickly discomfort.

My own interest in pre-Christian pagan rituals and/or mythology derives out of a fascination with similar themes in Hinduism, particularly the concept of atman (which is interestingly similar to the explanation given by the Lady of the Fairy Folk quoted below). In the Tam Lin myth, as well, the girl is required to hold on to the boy even as he changes shape and form to various creatures before returning to his own natural form – an idea that seems conceptually related to reincarnation.

No story with a motif borrowed from Tam Lin is complete with a boy, and the boy in question here is the aforementioned Christopher Heron. His interactions with Kate are quite a joy, and their relationship is built upon mutual trust – but more importantly, mutual ribbing. I enjoyed reading the bits where the two engage in conversation – their snarky and occasionally mean jibes were underlined with a sense of hope that went a long way in uplifting the atmosphere of a book that was otherwise sombre, heavy, and dark – a little like how it must feel to wear a Druid’s cloak. Which is perhaps apt in this context.

My main issue with the book is that there isn’t much opportunity to know the Fairy Folk on their own terms, which is a shame, as the short passages where Kate interacts with the Lady (or the “Queen”) and one of the younger adolescent girls, Gwenhyfara, are some of the more arresting bits of the whole book. The Fairy Folk are elegant and utterly devoid of desire or hunger, for the most part, and while they seem remote and aloof, they also seem imbued with a deep, heavy sense of sadness that is never really fully explored. There are allusions to magic that are not quite explored as deeply as I would have preferred as well, and a particular “creature” remains unknown  probably to create a sense of mystery, but which largely contributes to a sense of incompleteness and occasional incoherence.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that Pope has both feet planted safely behind the fence that’s cheering over Christianity’s “win”. Yes, human sacrifices are rather awful, especially so when someone you love is the sacrifice, but there isn’t a sense of palpable sympathy in the book directed towards the pagan believers who were all driven out by at times violent means as a result of the encroachment of a new religion. It is disappointing that Pope, an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent writer, decides to resort to binaries to explain the “us vs. them” scenario – us being the gentle, non-murderous Christians vs. the impenetrable, regal, but clearly heartless pagans. Kate, who while being in difficult situations brought upon by the Fairy Folk had for the most part refused to judge or criticise them for their way of life, suddenly undergoes a change of heart and goes with the explanation one of the village folk gave her earlier on: “They cannot be moved by pity because they have no hearts in their bodies.”

It seems like too quick and simple a resolution for an issue that brought up much questioning and uncertainty earlier on.

This just seems unfair, as the Lady of the Fairy Folk says:

All power comes from life, and when that life is low in the land of the people, they must take it from one who has it, adding his strength to their own, or perish. That is the law which the gods have laid on us; and they themselves cannot alter it. Do not even those of your own faith believe that in the beginning your strength came to you out of a death?

A great question laid down by Pope, but sadly not explored further. It’s unclear if Pope somehow felt she had to resolve or safely elide the more perplexing moral questions by the end of the book because this book is aimed and marketed towards teenagers. But it was quite easily done by weaving the human rituals with the Tam Lin mythology, and as in the case of Tam Lin where the man needs to be saved by the woman before being taken away by “evil” forces, so it is resolved here as “good” having triumphed over evil practices.

That’s just a little too convenient for my taste, certainly, but the book is still finely-written and absorbing, and if it raises more questions than it answers in a way that weakens the narrative towards the end, it still raises interesting ones.

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