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The association of beauty with virtue or worth is familiar in fantasy, as in fairy tales. Even when virtue is hidden by unkind fate, it often shines forth physically at the tale's denouement; redemption transmutes ugliness into beauty. The cinders are no hindrance to Cinderella's perfect foot fitting the shoe; when Beauty breaks the Beast's curse, he sheds his monstrous form for that of the handsome prince; the Ugly Duckling, once a pariah, becomes a glorious swan. Elizabeth Marie Pope's reimagining of Fairy in The Perilous Gard (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), a 1975 Newbery Honor book, problematizes that association. Rather than using beauty as a sign of good, she relates it instead to power, illusion, and their associated perils.


The Ugly Duckling

bookcover

To begin with, Pope's heroine, the stubborn, intelligent Kate Sutton, is "a tall girl, all arms and legs, and her awkward shoulders were the despair of Lady Sutton" (2). Her golden sister, Alicia, has inherited the beauty of the family's women. Alicia uses her pretty manners to manipulate people and evade responsibility. Both sisters are maids to Princess Elizabeth, but it is Alicia's letter to Queen Mary that results in Kate being sent to the Perilous Gard:

Alicia's eyes were enormous, as golden as honey, and innocently trustful as a baby's. When she looked up at Kate . . . they suddenly melted, and a faint sparkle of tears appeared on the lashes, like jewels on a fringe.

"You could say you wrote the letter yourself," she suggested hopefully. "That's what you'd do if you were a true sister." (3)

Alicia's beauty and charm are first detailed when she is attempting to shift the responsibility for her own action to her sister Kate. While Alicia's motives for writing the letter are positive—she is the Princess's partisan—and her chagrin upon learning that Kate is to be sent away is genuine, she is unable to anticipate consequences or deal with them when they occur.

Kate brings her understanding of the uneasy partnership between beauty and responsibility to the Perilous Gard. After Sir Geoffrey's brother, Christopher, relates the disappearance of their younger sister Cecily, Kate asks, "[D]id she have golden eyes? Big golden eyes, almost the color of honey?" (58) Cecily's eyes are gray, not golden, but Kate has already linked the dangerously winsome Alicia with the spoiled and thoughtless Cecily.

The eponymous Perilous Gard exhibits the same deceptive splendor as Cecily and Alicia:

There was no sign that the Perilous Gard was "old" or even "a castle" . . . . The walls were paneled in polished oak, finer even than the Princess Elizabeth's own bedchamber at Hatfield, and one wall was hung with a great tapestry showing ladies dressed in green, with garlands of oak leaves on their heads, dancing hand in hand through the trees of a flowery wood. The plaster ceiling was exquisitely moulded in an intricate strap-work design. The lattice windows flashed and sparkled with coats of arms painted on the glass. There were blue velvet cushions on both window seats; the long mirror that hung on the wall beside the bed was framed in gold and must have cost a fortune. She found her gray riding dress . . . laid out for her in a beautifully fitted garderobe opening off the main room. (27)

Indeed, Kate immediately pictures her sister in this setting. Yet soon she realizes that

[a]t her side of the courtyard the whole of the castle had been rebuilt . . . . The work was apparently not yet finished: there was a tangle of scaffolding around one of the chimneys, and the balustrade along the edge of the terrace was only half constructed, ending in a litter of raw stone and an ugly gap. Everywhere else the ancient walls and battlements and towers remained untouched. Most of them seemed to be abandoned, overgrown with ivy and gradually falling into decay. (28)

The Gard's glorious surface disguises the secrets it keeps and the human corruption that maintains them. The "dishonest trader" (117) Master John is the Gard's intermediary between the People of the Hill and "reasonable human beings" (115). Though Sir Geoffrey trusts him, Master John ultimately answers to the will of Fairy.

Likewise, the Gard is linked with the Holy Well, whose "round black cavity with its outthrust lip reminded [Kate] unpleasantly of an open toothless mouth, and the air that came from it was cold, dank with the smell of wet moss and old decaying rock" (52). The Well swallowed Cecily, and it is a point of contact between the Fairy Folk and the pilgrims, a liminal space where gold can buy drugged surcease from the cares of the world.

Under the hill, beyond the Well, are splendors difficult to resist or escape, as the redheaded woman tells Kate:

"Wonderful they are, the walls all covered with gold, and the Fairy Folk with crowns on their heads, drinking out of magical cups and dancing to the music of harps and pipes; and they do say that any mortal man who drinks from one of those cups will dance to that music for the rest of his days, and never find his way out of the Hill again." (78)

Kate dismisses "the gold and the harps and the crowns" as "the sort of stuff people used to trim up a tale" (78) and seeks a rational, nonmagical explanation for Fairy Folk as "heathen people . . . [t]rue believers, lore masters, priests and priestesses, great folk who hated the New Faith" of Christianity (81). The redheaded woman gives Kate something that will later counteract Fairy's glamour, a "little cross strung on a chain . . . remarkable only because it appeared to be made of steel . . . . The workmanship was of the crudest kind, and the righthand bar was so skewed and bent that it looked ready to snap off at a touch" (84). The cross's very crudeness gives it a symbolic quality of resistance to Fairy's deceptive glories.

Part of the danger in Fairy's illusions comes from their transient nature. The minstrel Randal tells Kate:

"I've seen them strip the crowns from their heads and the jewels from their hands and throw them to me like pennies at a fair for a tune that pleased them; and then I think sure they will keep me forever, but they never do . . . . For at the last I always fall asleep, and when I awake I am lying on the cold hillside again, and all that I have in my hand—"

He knelt . . . and taking the leather pouch from his belt, emptied something out over the stones at Kate's feet. It was a cluster of brown oak leaves and a little circlet of dead wildflowers, the blossoms so withered and dry that they had begun to fall from the stems. (92)

Randal's experience with Fairy riches suggests that anyone who accepts payment in illusion will forever seek an unattainable ideal. In Randal, at least, these double-edged gifts and adornments lead ultimately to madness.

When Master John gives Kate to the Lady, her eyes are drawn to the Lady's bracelet, which holds "a huge rounded stone, green like an emerald, set in the gold" (136) and springs open to reveal a supply of the drug the Fairy Folk use to pacify their human servants. When Kate refuses the drug, the Lady says, "It will not take away your mind . . . only the part of your mind which sees what is harsh or unpleasing. And who would not be glad to lose that?" (136) Kate discovers, however, that the Fairy Folk themselves disdain use of the drug. Not only are they willing to see the "harsh or unpleasing" (136), they use this willingness to reinforce the division between their people and ordinary humans. The Lady explains, "With my kind it is a matter of pride always to speak the truth . . . . The most that can be said for your kind is that they will sometimes tell a good lie instead of a bad lie" (179); that is, the Fairy Folk choose to perceive reality over illusions, however lovely.

The Fairy Folk have other ways of signaling the difference in power between their kind and humans. The mortal women they keep as servants live in luxury; they sleep on rich velvet and fur, wool and silk (142). Kate is given a new robe "sumptuously lined with fur," and "the broad leather belt which went with it was clasped and studded with gold" (147). Humans eat decadently from golden bowls with spoons of silver, while the Fairy Folk eat their plain "[b]oiled grain with a spoonful of milk and honey" from bowls of wood (154). In spite of this luxury, Kate's first impression of her fellow-prisoners attests to the completeness of their dehumanization: "She had heard the pigs wallowing and grunting in the darkness" (143); she later realizes these were her human companions. Even the humans' cutlery, with "handles shaped like animal heads: geese and asses and swine," reasserts their bestial state (154). Meanwhile, the drugged women notice nothing of their abasement and are bedazzled by the beauty around them. Joan speaks endlessly of "lovely white linen towels that she washed and hung up to dry, lovely white linen towels, lovely" (164).

It is not that the Fairy Folk only use beauty to manipulate humans. When Kate first sees them enter the great hall, she notices that "all their movements were beautiful" (150). The difference is that they choose when to show beauty and when to let appearances be straightforward and unadorned, as in the case of their food. They present their beautiful faces and movements deliberately, as a matter of control—of power.

When Kate continues to refuse the tranquilizing drug and to see her captivity as it really is, she begins to earn the Lady's respect. Because Kate's perception is like that of the Fairy Folk, the Lady has her taught "to move as our kind are taught to do" (181), which is a physical manifestation of Kate's transformation from her awkward, ugly-duckling self into a person of power. She is no longer plied with illusions; she is given the tools to create her own.

Kate's increasingly controlled self-presentation evokes an almost human response in her instructor Gwynhyfara, who "pick[s] up a strand of her long dark hair and [sits] twisting it between her fingers," the "first time Kate had ever seen her make a restless or an unnecessary movement" (193). Kate's mastery of comportment convinces Gwynhyfara that she should also learn "how to use" her voice (193), which grants Kate another of the manipulative powers of the Fairy Folk. This development alarms Christopher, who sees both the empowerment and the assimilation it implies. Indeed, by the time Randal encounters Kate on All Hallows' Eve, he mistakes her for a "fairy woman" (223).

While Randal might mistake any form of self-mastery or beauty for that belonging to the Fairy Folk, Kate is unlikely to make the same mistake. Between her comportment lessons with Gwynhyfara, she spends hours talking with Christopher about the ramshackle manor he would like to improve. Not only do these conversations keep Kate firmly grounded in herself, they offer Christopher a similar opportunity to resist the intoxication of Fairy and control his own thoughts. On one occasion when Christopher's mind has "gone away" (188), Kate startles him out of indifference by reminding him that they are not discussing some "palace . . . on a golden cloud, all hung with diamonds and rubies . . . . We're talking about the farmyard at the manor" (190), a real, dirty, human place that cannot be mistaken for a Fairy illusion.

The Lady, not realizing that Kate is strongly holding on to her humanity, tempts her by offering to let her "live as we do" (206), for "to be the least among us is to be greater than any princess of your kind who is alive on the earth. And what more could you wish for?" (207) On All Hallows' Eve, Kate replies with a counteroffer: having seen Fairy's modes of power, she offers the mysteries of the Christian faith as an alternate paradigm. However, the Lady is only capable of interpreting Christ's death within her cultural framework of sacrifice, and Kate despairs that "[t]he Lady's mind was completely set in its own conception of 'power'" (210).


The Golden Boy

Kate's foil in The Perilous Gard, Christopher, is first described as "a very young man . . . and a handsome one . . . . The hand resting on the hilt of the knife was long and finely made, with a heavy ring on one of the fingers; the hilt itself was studded with amber and inlaid with gold" (32). His fine clothes and knife are "to keep his brother from knowing where he had really been spending his time" (68)—living in a former leper's hut. This is not a magical illusion on par with those of the Fairy Folk, but it serves Christopher's self-flagellating purpose and keeps his brother Geoffrey from asking too many questions.

When Christopher first tells Kate of the teind, he specifies that "the gentleman [Tam Lin] feared that he was to be put to death as a kind of sacrifice because he was tall and handsome" (91). Christopher's beauty becomes his tool when he offers to take Cecily's place as the intended victim of the Fairy Folk's teind. He uses his appearance against more than just the Fairy Folk, of course; at one point, Kate notes that "[h]is face was set in a mask of contemptuous amusement which of all his masks was the one she disliked the most" (87). Although this rigid self-presentation is part of Christopher's self-imposed penance, it is also a trap, for his descent into Fairy sets in motion a hollowing of the self. As a sacrifice, he is to be made nothing but a shell, a vessel for an outside power. This begins as soon as he strikes the bargain and drinks from the proffered vial, after which "[h]e did not appear to know what he was doing, only to be going through a set of motions that had been laid down for him, like a piece of clockwork" (113), and his face becomes as blank as a mask. Christopher later explains to Kate that

once they chose a man to pay the teind, they shut him in here . . . to be trained and prepared, so that when the time came he would go freely—even willingly—without trying to hold any part of himself back. The "death service" was what they called it long ago, when the king of the land did it. To their way of thinking, he was dead from the moment he entered this place, or at least couldn't be treated as if he were even in the world any longer. (172)

On All Hallows' Eve, when he has completed this process of self-negation, Christopher wears a mask whose "golden hair and. . .rigidly set, beautiful face might have been his own except for the dark empty holes where the eyes and the mouth ought to have been" (236). The mask mirrors the psychological "remoteness" (236) the Fairy Folk have instilled in him. The core of the ritual occurs when the Guardian of the Well asks Christopher, "Will you be nothing?" and Christopher responds, "I will be nothing" (237) through several variations designed to confirm his abnegation of will.

The sacrifice is almost complete when Kate intervenes, as permitted by custom. The Guardian counters with its own form of seductive illusion and "kindly, persuasively, like an old wise man, a counselor" (241) questions whether Kate is in fact a manifestation of Christopher's hopes and fears, appealing to his guilt and death wish. Then Kate brings up the manor, that earthy symbol of the outside world that has kept both her and Christopher anchored in spite of Fairy's illusions. Finally, the Guardian appeals to Christopher's pride: "And why else . . . did the people lead the [King] to this place in glory, adorned with gold and precious things like one of the gods . . . because he alone had the greatness of spirit to spurn this earth from under his feet, and be free of it like the god he looked" (246). Kate's irreverent retort, that Christopher "look[s] like a piece of gilded gingerbread," is what finally forces Christopher to "thrust the golden mask back from his face" (246), rejecting the image of glory offered him in favor of the honest truth Kate offers.


The Perils of Perception

When Kate wakes up in the Perilous Gard, free from Fairy, she finds it difficult to judge the value of appearances. Her old clothes seem as though they "had been meant for an entirely different person. Even the face in the mirror did not look like the one she remembered," and the scrubbing robe that seemed luxurious is described by Dorothy as "nasty heathen rubbish . . . not fit to be worn" (250). Kate, once awkward, has learned to carry herself in beauty, which difference even Sir Geoffrey notices (253). And the dress that Dorothy and Susan make for her, "the most beautiful Kate had ever seen" (261), is casually derided by Alicia as "antiquated" (264).

To add to Kate's confusion, earlier misconceptions haunt her. During one of her talks with Christopher during their imprisonment, Kate has "a momentary vision of Alicia, laying her velvet cheek against the mesh [cage] and crying" (182); when she compares this lovely fantasy to herself, talking level-headedly of farm maintenance, she finds herself lacking. Kate's perception of Christopher is likewise skewed. She realizes, when he begins to speak passionately of ditching and drainage, that she had "never thought of him except in a world of knights and ladies, the sort of world one read about in the old romances" (184)—no doubt the world that Alicia belongs in. Although at this point she knows that Christopher thinks as much about drainage as frippery, when she sees Christopher "very splendid in blue velvet" and "smiling, but not at her, and . . . holding his hand out, but not to her" (263), Kate assumes herself to be supplanted by Alicia. Stricken by her sudden loss of confidence, Kate "could feel herself stiffening again at Alicia's touch like a troll-woman turning to stone as the sun rose" (265).

Alicia's flirtations with Christopher are innocent, but of course Alicia's innocence has always had the power to wreak unintentional havoc. While Kate assumes the worst, Alicia lets slip that "Christopher showed me one [ruby] he was saving out for a betrothal ring to give—but that really is a secret, and I promised him faithfully not to say a single word until everything's settled" (268), a move acutely, if thoughtlessly, cruel. Kate envisions an unbearable existence "watch[ing] Alicia and Christopher sitting together all the long evening and telling each other secrets" (269).

Alicia is beauty without awareness, manipulation without calculation. In this, she is a pale imitation of another morally ambiguous figure, the Lady in Green. The Lady is both beautiful in her guise as Fairy Queen and keenly aware of appearances; everything she does, she does with purpose, and that purpose does not acknowledge human conscience or concerns. Ironically, although Kate "had always known . . . that nobody with that face and bearing could be a gypsy tinker or a charcoal burner's wife" (80), the Lady's final appearance is in the guise of a gypsy peddler.

The Lady does not lie, but she can nevertheless speak the truth in deceptive ways if one is not paying close attention, and she promises Kate, "If ever I avenge myself on you or the Young Lord, it will be after another fashion" than robbery or murder (271). Her final temptation speaks to the wish of Kate's confused heart—the Lady asks if Kate is willing to let Alicia "take" Christopher. This doubt now planted, she offers Kate a "very powerful charm" to win Christopher's heart (273). Unlike Christopher at the sacrifice, Kate responds with "No," and "No," and twice more "No" (273). The Lady tries to convince her by saying, "He will never know what you have done. No one will ever know," but Kate, wiser now, replies, "I would" (274). She accepts the truth as she perceives it and refuses to achieve the truth she wants through magic. Kate explains that "there are some things in which I would still choose to live as you do" (274), combining the strength of will of the Fairy Folk with her own mortal stubbornness. In bittersweet acknowledgment of that remnant of kinship, the Lady performs "the great bow that the women of her kind made to a Queen" (274). By breaking the power of Fairy at the Perilous Gard and bringing her own synthesis of human and Fairy modes of power, Kate has triumphed over the Lady.

Once Kate rejects the Lady's offer, she realizes that the Lady's final attempt at revenge was in poisoning what Kate most wanted. She already has her heart's desire, for it is she whom Christopher wishes to marry, not Alicia. As Christopher says, "Do you think I could sit beside you and listen to your voice for as long as I did without coming to know it?" (277) Christopher describes his love in terms of perception and its loss: "If you were any other woman, I could tell you I loved you . . . but not you—because you've always seemed to me like a part of myself, and it would be like saying I loved my own eyes or my own mind. But have you ever thought of what it would be to have to live without your mind or your eyes, Kate? To be mad? Or blind?" (279) During their time with the Fairy Folk, Kate and Christopher have both learned the costs of even the most pleasant madness or blindness.


As Kate and Christopher discover, beauty is not virtue so much as it is power: sometimes in a literal sense, as in Christopher's attempted self-sacrifice, and sometimes in a more worldly manner, as in Alicia's coquetries. Perception, as the Lady shows time and again, is mutable and can be manipulated to potent effect. Conscious awareness of appearances signifies control, although it operates orthogonally to questions of conscience. Kate's growth into beauty is not a magical reward; it signifies growth into, and understanding of, her own strengths, as well as an acceptance of power and its consequences.




Yoon Ha Lee's fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She lives in Washington state with her husband, an astrophysics graduate student, and their daughter. You can contact her at requiescat@cityofveils.com.
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