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>Fire and Hemlock

August 4, 2010

Before I could write up my impressions of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Fire and Hemlock, based on the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer stories, I learned that Jenny believes it’s even better on rereading, and since this was my first time through it, all I can give you is first impressions.

Like most readers, I was appalled with the characterization of the main character’s (Polly’s) parents, who neglect her to an extent almost unbelievable even in fiction–at one point, leaving her stranded in a strange city with no food, money, or shelter. And like any reader, I was enchanted with the magic that allows Polly and her friend Tom Lynn to imagine things and then see them come true. Another pleasure for readers is seeing Tom sending books to Polly, and hearing about what she learns from reading them, along with her occasional ignorant mistake before she has read something, like the time she asks if she can call him “Uncle Tom.”

As in any novel by Diana Wynne Jones, one of the incidental pleasures is in the little slices of psychological verity, like this one:
“Polly came away from the Headmistress to find that the rest of the school regarded her as a heroine. This is nothing like being a hero, which is inside you. This was public. People asked for her autograph and wanted to be her friend. She came out of school at the end of the afternoon surrounded by a mob of people all trying to talk to her at once. It made Polly’s head ache.”

The title image, of a painting in which the young Polly could see images that the older Polly does not (at least for a while, until she gets her memories of Tom Lynn back) also seems to me to have some psychological reality. How many times as a child did you look at a crack in the ceiling or the uneven pattern of tiles on a floor and see a face or figure? Do you still see them? I sometimes do, especially when I’m tired or running a fever, but I think when I’m feeling well I’m like most other adults and don’t have the same kind of attention or time to notice.

I enjoyed the first part of the ending, in which Polly reconciles her two sets of memories–one with Tom Lynn included, and one without, which she traces back to a promise she made to forget him–and has an adult discussion with him, for the first time, about the risks of loving him and involving herself in his world.

The second part of the ending, though, with a test involving a pool, was confusing. While still thinking about it, I was confronted with the reactions of other celebrators of Diana Wynne Jones week (Eva, for one) who also didn’t understand the ending after their first reading. I found the ending of Fire and Hemlock slightly disappointing, but after consideration decided that perhaps such disappointment is an appropriate response to the ending of a story about the tricky ways of the Queen of the Fairies. Who ever comes away from such an experience feeling satisfied? You’re lucky to come away at all, as the story of Tam Lin amply testifies.

The other result of this first reading is that my memory was tickling me with the central image of the empty autumn pool, and I found out why when I read that DWJ based the image on one from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (see Two Sides to Nowhere and her links to DWJ’s essay “The Heroic Ideal”).

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2010 6:18 pm

    >I love what you say about the disappointing being perhaps appropriate to the kind of story this is – I definitely felt it too on my first reading, but the more time passed and the more I thought about it, the more perfect I found it. And reading that essay a while ago really made me appreciate it even more.I didn't find Polly's parents THAT unrealistic, but then again maybe I'm just bitter over my less than happy childhood 😛

  2. August 4, 2010 10:36 pm

    >"As in any novel by Diana Wynne Jones, one of the incidental pleasures is in the little slices of psychological verity."Love this remark! Totally true, and even more true of Fire and Hemlock than of many of her books. I love it how this book points out that embarrassment is this tremendous obstacle in doing the right thing.I can never feel that Diana Wynne Jones's dreadful parents (all the parents in her books are dreadful, even the nice ones) are unbelievable, because of how dreadful Jones's own parents were. If you ever read The Time of the Ghost, the girls in that book essentially have the parents and the life that Jones and her sisters had. It's terrible! They were completely neglected and had almost no books at all.

  3. August 5, 2010 12:42 am

    >Most of the parents are terrible. Derk and Mara seem to be ok.

  4. August 5, 2010 12:27 pm

    >Nymeth, I often find that I'm disappointed in an unhappy or ambiguous ending but grow reconciled to it on reconsideration. I think this is related to what I tell students when we read something like The Handmaid's Tale–that I tend to prefer the optimistic reading of an ending.Jenny, I didn't know that the author had dreadful parents herself, but I did suspect that someone would tell me that Polly's treatment wasn't that unrealistic. I think these days those parents would have gotten turned in to social services at some point, like when Polly was stranded in the strange city, but I also know that the people who work for such services are already overextended and often happy enough if such a child has a grandparent or family friend to step in.I don't come from a book-owning family. My parents got me to the library on a fairly regular basis, though.Bookwyrme, if most of the parents are terrible, then DWJ has something in common with John Green. The parents in his novels are terrible and/or absent.

  5. August 6, 2010 10:18 am

    >Right, and I meant to also say: As the daughter of a child protection worker, I do not find her parents unrealistic at all. :pI didn't mean they didn't keep books in the house, I mean they wanted books and had no access. Also their parents regularly forgot to provide them with food for the evenings, mixed up their names, and neglected them utterly. It's rather shocking to read about.

  6. August 6, 2010 12:53 pm

    >Jenny, MIXED UP THEIR NAMES? That's right out of The Willoughbys, which is MEANT as satire!

  7. August 6, 2010 4:23 pm

    >This was a great book to read with my husband. We made up for the confusing abruptness of the ending for talking about the book for a long time afterward, sort of hashed it out in a way that pleased us both.Somewhere on her official fan site, DWJ said something about not knowing how she would write an autobiography because her childhood was so much stranger than fiction. (And we are talking about HER fiction, here!) I am longing for her to do it! Where did you read the stuff about her parents, Jenny?I like extremely horrible (and yet not monstrous) parents in fiction, the kind where the author walks the fine line just this side of believability. Probably part of the reason why I have never been a big Roald Dahl fan.

  8. August 6, 2010 6:34 pm

    >Trapunto, how can you like horrible parents and not like Dahl? What about the parents in Matilda–are they too over-the-top for you? Or the ineffectual (John-Green-type) parents in George's Marvelous Medicine?

  9. August 7, 2010 3:02 pm

    >I liked your insight about the images that children see, and how those images fade in adulthood, becoming almost inaccessible. Don't you love how DWJ takes these "hidden" experiences and makes them large?

  10. August 8, 2010 1:38 pm

    >Mumsy, yes. DWJ is growing on me mostly for that particular reason.

  11. August 8, 2010 3:42 pm

    >I agree with Jenny's comment that this point is excellent – "As in any novel by Diana Wynne Jones, one of the incidental pleasures is in the little slices of psychological verity."I found that even in the Dalemark books, that she just nails really tiny points in a way that's fun to read. This one sounds fun too, even if the weird and slightly disappointing ending.

  12. August 8, 2010 8:11 pm

    >Kim, I might have to try the Dalemark books next.

  13. August 10, 2010 11:44 pm

    >Yes, too over-the-top. I haven't read George's Marvelous Medicine. Perhaps somebody should do a Roald Dahl week?

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