Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)
Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.
The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.
Thomas Lynn is the young man, Laurel his fairy queen and young Polly (whom we follow from just before she starts secondary education to when she is in her first year at Oxford) is Tom’s apparent saviour. We also get to meet Polly’s dysfunctional family, her grandmother and her school friends, along with Tom’s associates, both human and otherworldly.
The novel succeeds on a human level, largely because it seems to have a autobiographical flavour to it: Polly, like Jones, is drawn to books even though her parents largely disapprove, and like Jones, is able to create other realities through the power of story. Jones’ book references, quite apart from their relevance to the plot (as when Tom insists that Polly reads the book on fairy tales he has sent her), must be a good indicator of Diana’s own childhood and adult reading matter. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of the first mentioned (published in 1962, not too long before Jones embarked on her own writing career and which may have been an inspiration); then there’s some E Nesbit stories such as The Treasure Seekers, The Three Musketeers of course, and tales of King Arthur (a running theme in many of Diana’s books, most obviously in The Merlin Conspiracy and Hexwood). Another long-recognised influence on Fire and Hemlock is T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, principally the images and structure, though many of Jones’ potential young adult readership would remain less aware of this (as I was, until it was pointed out to me).
There are so many avenues to explore in this tantalising novel, but I will begin by thinking about the significance of names. I’ll start with the fairy who seduces the Tom Lin character, Laurel (or, to give her the names she has in the Will reading which takes place early in the novel, Eudora Mabel Lorelei Perry Lynn Leroy). Eudora (“good, excellent gift”) was one of the Greek sea nymphs, but perhaps the name is used rather ironically here, as is Mabel (from French aimable, “loveable”). Lorelei of course is the siren of the Rhine, a literary creation apparently, a river nymph who ensnared passing males. Perry, probably originally of Welsh origin (ap Hari, son of Harry), here is probably a reference to peri, an exotic alternative name for a fairy. Lynn of course was her married name, while Leroy is the surname of her new husband, Morton; Leroy is from French le roi, the king, referring to Seb’s father as an Oberon type of Fairy King. (The other father-figure in Polly’s life is her own weak-willed dad Reg, whose name also harks back to Latin rex, regis “king”. It’s all rather Golden Bough, isn’t it? Jones of course dwells on this at length later the the book.)
Lorelei naturally got anglicised as Laurel. The bay laurel is used in cooking, but it is advisable not to eat the whole leaves as they can damage internal organs, so I suppose this is appropriate for Polly’s adversary. Another bane of Polly’s life is her mother Ivy, poison perhaps by name and certainly poison by nature, though as this is Britain the parasitic ivy alluded to is the smothering kind. Another little etymological puzzle, the enigmatic Mary Fields: what’s her role? She is of course a natural rival for Tom’s affections with Polly Whittacker (= “white acre”).
The novel has three real-life locations, London, Oxford and Bristol, all three of which are places where DWJ lived and which reflect on the part-autobiographical nature of Fire and Hemlock. Somewhere in the middle of this triangle must be Middleton (hence its name, perhaps). Nearby Stow-on-the-Water is a mash-up of two real places in the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water (a largish village, characterised by lots of pedestrian bridges over the river and presumably liable to flooding) and Stow-on-the-Wold (which exactly matches up with the description of the fictional Stow except the market cross is more recent than the Saxon period). In Jones’ fictional England topography and atmosphere are similar to but not the same as the real England of the mid-80s, and are her attempt to transfer the world of the Scottish Border ballads to the southern Britain that she knew well.
Oxford gets a relatively short space in the novel; while Jones went to St Anne’s College, Polly in the novel goes to St Margaret’s. St Margaret’s is the novel’s version of the real-life Lady Margaret Hall (another college founded for women students), and this college’s coat-of-arms is instructive. First of all it features a portcullis (the gate features in the incident in a Ghost Castle at the fair), and secondly the motto is Souvent me souviens (“I often remember”), highly appropriate for one of the overarching themes of the novel. Possibly coincidentally there is an early years school in Headington, Oxford called Hunsdon House, which may have inspired Laurel’s supernatural mansion: did Diana’s children attend this school when she lived there?
Like many others I’ve had to reread the ending quite a few times and, yes, it is very obscure what has actually happened, and how. Polly realises that the only way she can save Tom from dying is to lose him, but somehow she and Tom are together in the final chapter. I can only surmise that we have to add together the two insights that Polly gives us: (1) Tom has been using her to try to save himself from his fate; and (2) Polly says she doesn’t want to see him again. In a way nearly everybody is using somebody else (even Polly’s Granny, who has been trying to find out what happened to her own loved one in the past), and also in a way, we all use others, strangers as well as friends; the point being that we put others first before ourselves if we truly love them. When Polly declares she doesn’t want to see Tom again, presumably she means the selfish Tom who tried to save himself, whom we contrast with Polly who is prepared to give up her happiness to save Tom.
Jones’ lovely wordplays on Now and Here and Nowhere, which we first meet on stone vases in the grounds of Hunsdon House, are clearly a facet of Jones’ favourite themes of parallel worlds and existences, related in this case to the different paths referenced in the ballads. This may be easier to fathom than the book’s title. Commentaries have pointed out the significances of these two story elements: fire standing for life, in particular creative energy, hemlock standing for death, the two representing the quick (the living) and the dead. In the finale hemlock plants are described as growing next to the pool, the portal to death. Jones spent some of her childhood years in Wales, so she would have been familiar with the Welsh word tân, which means “fire”. Hence the hero names of the members of the quartet (which of themselves seem otherwise quite arbitrary). So some of the underlying symbolism (the flooding in Stow, the depressing rainy British weather, the ripples of the Hunsdon House pool) can be seen as reflecting the antithesis of the literary and creative sparks that Polly and her friends exhibit. Perhaps the Tam Lin of the ballads reminded Jones of Welsh tân ‘fire’ and Welsh llyn ‘lake’ and from these she took her cues.
The use of musical terms in the novel might help in interpreting the ending. Fire and Hemlock really is about the power of words to change reality, and Jones, like many another fantasy-writer, also uses words to subvert what passes for reality. So, though Eliot’s Four Quartets poems are implicitly referred to, and Tom is part of a string quartet in Fire and Hemlock, the addition of a fifth player, Polly, is what changes the dynamics of everything. That is reflected in the divisions of the book: four parts (like the movements of a string quartet composition) but with the addition of a tail-piece, the Coda, an envoi to the work. This coda is Polly herself, and it marks the real division in her life, from being the tomboy (I use the word deliberately) that Tom has used for his own purposes to the young woman who has shouldered the responsibilities of being an adult.
The choice of words for tempi in the different parts is very deliberate. Allegro vivace: both words mean ‘lively’, with allegro also implying brisk/quick; this is Fire as Life. Andante cantabile: at a walking pace (not slow, really) but also sung (there’s a lot in this section about the books Tom sends Polly, including The Oxford Book of Ballads). Allegro con fuoco: ‘with fire’; how more explicit can Jones be? The third movement, traditionally a rather sedate minuet, morphed into a faster more playful scherzo by the 19th century, but here it has morphed even more. Presto molto agitato: final movements were invariably very fast, and so this part of the book urgently rushes like a headstrong horse to its climactic scene at Hunsdon House.
A coda is something tagged on, and in music it is usually the final section of a movement. In this novel it stands outside the formal scheme, a fifth not-movement. Marked scherzando, its musical meaning (‘playful’) refers also to Jones’ intention for this section: it is a play on words, a pun, a joke (this is what scherzo literally translates as in Italian). She is trying to say that at the last Polly’s words are a verbal sleight-of-hand, a word-magician’s way of misdirecting Laurel as to her real intentions. And like any good magician Jones doesn’t quite reveal how she has done the trick.
Repost of review first published 4th October 2012; Bristol’s Colston Hall (where the quartet perform towards the end of the novel) is now, after the toppling of the statue of philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston in 2020 by #BLM protestors, renamed Bristol Beacon.