There comes a time in every fantasy fan’s life where they’re faced with the Real Facts about fairies. That is to say, that, in most of the mythology about the fae, they’re almost never aligned with good or evil in the way that humans understand them. They’re not really Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, but they’re not really Maleficent either. Rather, they have their own morality, and follow their own rules regarding what is and is not acceptable behavior.
For me, this discovery came around sixth grade, when I first read The Perilous Gard.
The titular Perilous Gard is a place; namely, an estate in deeply rural England belonging to the troubled Heron family. When Kate Sutton’s ditzy sister pisses off Queen Mary Tudor, Kate—blamed as the instigator—finds herself exiled there. The Gard is a mysterious place, full of superstitions and myths that even the Herons don’t quite understand. And as this is a fantasy story, these myths turn out to be 100% true: there are indeed Fairy Folk who live under the castle; they do indeed steal children as suits their needs, and they will indeed need a human sacrifice for their teind come All Hallows’ Eve.
When she witnesses the Herons’ younger son, Christopher, being taken to pay said teind, Kate is also taken prisoner by the Folk. Desperate to save Christopher and escape before the teind ceremony, she manages to win her way into the Queen’s good graces while also single-handedly keeping Christopher himself grounded in sanity and reality. Her victory over the fairies isn’t graceful or beautiful, but it’s a victory nevertheless, because the fae keep their own strange rules. By their laws, if a teind circle is broken before the sacrifice is made, that place is no longer sanctified and they must leave it forever. With nothing but her wits and a snatch of an old ballad to go on, Kate is able to break the power of a magical force dating back centuries.
Looking back, The Perilous Gard set a very high bar for me when it came to fantasy heroines. Kate is stubborn and determined, fierce and wily. She’s also clumsy, and not in a cute Bella Swan way. It’s actually a plot point of sorts—the fairy Queen is so disgusted by her clumsiness that she has her lady-in-waiting teach Kate how to walk the graceful way the fae do, and these lessons turn out to be crucial in Kate’s escape from the fae. Kate is a flawed protagonist, but flawed in the way a stubborn, smart, and not-particularly-pretty preteen could find comfort in. Unfortunately there is a bit of ‘not like other girls’ mentality in the story; Kate’s sister is obsessed with fashion and gossip, and so childish and spoiled that she can’t understand the political or otherwise far-reaching implications of any of her actions. But, well, I have a younger sister, too, and a decade and a half ago it was harder to find fiction with Kate’s sort of heroine. I could sympathize with Kate’s frustrations. Furthermore, this is probably one of the first books I read growing up where the heroine saved the hero at the end of the story. (It should be no surprise that I grew up to love movies like Labyrinth.)
I feel like a lot of the YA fiction that gives us the amoral conception of fairies that I’ve become so fond of is set in modern times: stories like Holly Black’s Tithe (which is also, coincidentally, about a fairy teind) or Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy. Elizabeth Marie Pope manages to give us a compelling piece of fiction on two fronts, with a well-researched and developed historical setting that perfectly complements its fantasy side.
One of the things that continues to fascinate me about the story, though, are the layers of moral conflict. When I was little, the Fairy Folk seemed strange and fascinating, but I don’t know that I thought more critically about it than that. As an adult, I can see the complication involved. The fae are immortal, and we are to them as, say, pigs are to us. Is it, then, wrong for them to treat us in a similar way? Is it wrong for them to attempt a ceremony that will save them from a sentence of eternal wandering and homelessness? Kate does so well with her lessons that the fairy Queen actually invites her to join the ranks of the fae; is that an abhorrent fate rather than a great honor? As with any story where a human hero faces off against these sort of questions, the answer to these questions ends up being yes, but it’s an interesting concept to present to a young reader.