So what makes a book Christian? This question has been treated recently by some other bloggers. I think Mike Duran's post On “Christian Horror” and Atheist Dread sums up the essential criteria. It's the author's worldview and how it plays out in the story. Some writers are very pronounced in exposing their worldview while others are more subtle or simply allow their worldview to inform the heart of the story. Duran uses H.P. Lovecraft, a master horror writer and an atheist with a mechanistic-materialistic worldview, as an example. Duran writes that for Lovecraft, the horrific was what resided at the center of the universe, a monstrous, chaotic nothing with no conscious purpose. This is diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview which posits a divine consciousness with purpose at the center of the universe.
Evidence suggests that a Christian worldview pervades and informs The Perilous Gard. At the center of the story simmers a conflict between a group of pagans who practice the old religion and Christian culture which has literally driven them underground. The action takes place in the summer and fall of 1558, the last year of Queen Mary I's reign. Kate and her younger sister Alicia are maids of honor for Princess Elizabeth, whom Mary has placed under house arrest at Hatfield Palace. Alicia, though prettier and more socially adept than Kate, lacks good sense and pens a letter to Queen Mary complaining about poor living conditions at Hatfield. Mary blames Kate for Alicia's letter and exiles Kate to Elvenwood Hall, also known as Perilous Gard, under the guardianship of Sir Geoffrey Heron. Kate expects to spend many dull months at Elvenwood but soon suspects that something is amiss. The nearby villagers shun anyone associated with the castle; Sir Geoffrey's daughter Cecily is missing and believed dead; and the housekeeper makes veiled comments about people living in the so-called Holy Well associated with the hall. Sir Geoffrey's brother Christopher, who blames himself for Cecily's disappearance, lives in self-imposed punishment in a crumbling shack once inhabited by a leper. Kate and Christopher find evidence that not only is Cecily alive but that she has been kidnapped by a group of pagans living in a network of caves connected to the well. Christopher hatches a scheme to trade himself for Cecily. The pagans are happy to make the trade since a young man is a better sacrifice than a child. The steward of Elvenwood, who furnishes supplies to the pagans at a profit to himself, delivers Kate to them when he determines she knows too much.
The Holy Well is a popular destination for pilgrims who throw money into it. The pagans collect the money and use it to buy supplies. The site is also a shrine for the pagans living in the hill and is guarded by a mysterious, probably supernatural, character known as the Guardian of the Well. The pagans are ruled by a Queen who Kate comes to know as the Lady. Pope portrays the pagans as stoic and embattled. They have some admirable qualities. For example, they abhor telling lies. They also have a dark side. They employ slaves whom they have kidnapped and drugged into submission and they practice human sacrifice.
The most obvious Christian element in the story is Christopher's name. It's of Greek origin and means "bearing Christ inside." Christopher willingly agrees to turn himself over to "the enemy" to undergo certain death in order to save another. Christopher is not a Christ figure. He has some problems, but he does carry that element of service and selflessness inside. Both Kate and Christopher view the world through their faith. Consider this exchange after Christopher relates his story to Kate.
“How can you tell what I meant to do? How can I? How can anyone? I think the damned souls in hell must spend half their time wondering what it was that they really meant to do.”
“If you think the damned in hell spend their time doing that, then you can’t know very much about the damned in hell,” Kate retorted furiously. “I am utterly at squares with this childish dealing. Why in the name of heaven don’t you go down to the village and make a proper confession to the priest and let him tell you what pennance you ought to be laying on yourself? You aren’t one of the damned in hell. We’re all of us under the Mercy.” (pp. 64-5)Another interesting exchange takes place between Kate and the Lady when Kate tries to convince the Lady that sacrificing Christopher is unnecessary.
"There is no other way," said the Lady. "All power comes from life, and when that life is low in the land and 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?"
Kate hesitated. The only answer she could think of seemed wild to the point of blasphemy, but there was no help for it: she would have to put the thing into the only sort of language that the Lady might possibly understand.
"What need is there for another teind, then?" she asked, trying desperately to keep her voice steady. "The time for that has passed by. It was finished and done with when Our Lord paid it freely, to add His strength to our own; and His power is enough for us all." (pp. 208-09)Unfortunately, Kate's arguments have the opposite effect than she had hoped. The Lady's concept of power dominates her thinking, and she decides that Christopher's sacrifice will be even greater since he has the power of Christ in him. The pagans call the sacrifice "paying the teind" and perform the rite on All Hallows Eve whenever they believe the power of the land needs to be replenished.
At another point in the story, Kate uses the "power of the cross" to thwart the Lady. Much earlier in the narrative, Kate helps a mother from the nearby village save her son from drowning in a swollen stream. In thanks, the boy's mother gives Kate a humble trinket, a steel cross whose workmanship is exceedingly crude. The mother claims it will protect Kate from the Fairy Folk, the People of the Hill. She tells Kate that "[t]here's a great virtue in the holy sign and the cold iron" (p. 85). Kate manages to hide the cross from her pagan captors, and when the Lady attempts to hypnotize Kate, to put her to sleep so that she will not interfere with the teind, Kate squeezes the cross in her hand, cutting her palm. She focuses on the pain instead of the Lady's mesmerizing words and swinging bracelet. Kate feigns sleep, fooling the pagans. Christ, embodied in the humble cross, does not come charging in to save Kate, but provides the aid she desperately needs at a most vulnerable moment to save herself and ultimately Christopher as well.
Reminder: Voting for the Clive Staples Readers' Choice Award is ongoing through the end of August. Book introductions, voting instructions, and Readers’ Choice survey are available at http://clivestaplesaward.wordpress.com/. You must have read at least two of the nominations to vote. You're on the honor system here so please be honorable.
I recently posted a review for one of the nominees, Curse of the Spider King. See Cursing the Spider King.
For commentary from other tour members on their favorites, visit their blogs listed below.