Saturday, 24 November 2007

Introducing Two Sides BookBlogs: 1: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Life has got a little crazy lately, and despite having several blessays (to use Stephen Fry’s wonderful term) in progress for Two Sides, I haven’t had much chance to work on them recently. In the meantime though, I’ve come up with an idea which can hopefully keep my hand in on all things Two Sides in a more casual way – bookblog posts, where basically I waffle for a bit about a particular book, kind of part review, part rough-and-ready blessay. And what better book to kick off with than the one for which this blog is named: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

She found her mind dwelling on Nowhere, as she and Tom used to imagine
it. You slipped between Here and Now to the hidden Now and Here.

Fire and Hemlock tells the story of Polly Whittacker and her strange entanglement with faerie and a man marked by its queen for ritual sacrifice. It begins with the nineteen-year-old Polly packing to return to university, and coming across a book she had almost forgotten. Reading it sets off a Proustian rush of memories of strange events which had seemingly been cut out of her mind. They tell the story of her relationship with a man, Tom Lynn, whom she met at a funeral at the big house near her grandmother's which she accidentally gatecrashed when she was ten. He asked her to help him pick six pictures, his bequest in the will, and then takes her home to her Grandmother. Unbeknownst to him, Polly mixed up the pictures so that Tom selected six he was not supposed to have, including a large photograph, called Fire and Hemlock, which he then gives to Polly. Over the next few years Polly and Tom develop a strong friendship and create heroic alter-egos, telling each other stories of their exploits. This make-believe subsequently expands to include three friends of Tom's, with whom he forms a string quartet. However, as time goes on, strange and supernatural events start to happen, all of which bear a strange resemblence to stories Tom and Polly have told each other, and to the pictures that they picked at the funeral, and they are increasingly threatened by the denizens of Hunsdon House, Laurel, Morton Leroy and his son Seb. Eventually, frustrated at not understanding what's really going on, and at Tom's increasing distance, Polly conducts a piece of magical spying, which allows Laurel to lay an enchantment on her, removing Tom and everything connected with him from her memories. Four years later though, the memories return, just in time for Polly to save Tom from his fate.

Diana Wynne Jones wrote Fire and Hemlock 'out of a desire to have a real female hero'[1], and 'to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate'[1]. One of my earlier posts here discussed how Fire and Hemlock is a reworking of the traditional ballad of Tam Lin, but as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out herself in her essay on the writing process of Fire and Hemlock ('The Heroic Ideal - a personal Odyssey', published in v.13:no.1 of The Lion and the Unicorn, June 1989, see the bottom of this post for links), the mythic underpinnings are much more various. Along with Tam Lin, Jones combines another old ballad, that of Thomas the Rhymer, who is also stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies, and it is from this ballad that the conceit of Tom and Polly's 'gift' (that of things they make up coming true and then turning round and hitting them) comes. Quotations from both ballads head up each chapter, and Polly has to read them in order to find out what's going on and what she has to do (along with other traditional tales using the fairy lover motif, such as East of the Sun and West of the Moon), for fundamentally, Fire and Hemlock is built on this motif. Tom was seduced by the Queen of the Fairies, Laurel, as a young man, and stolen away from the real world. Polly, as his mortal lover, has to free him from her clutches in order to win his life back for him. The other two main myths underpinning the story are the Odyssey and Cupid and Psyche, both of which also cover fairy lover ground - in the Odyssey Odysseus has to free himself from Circe to return home to Penelope (among other things!), and of course Psyche is the mortal lover of the otherworldly Cupid (to whom Tom Lynn's resemblance might not seem all that obvious, but as Jones pointed out to her editor: 'who is mostly blind and goes to work with a bow?'[1]). Overlaying the whole thing are reflections and echoes of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which 'combines static meditation with movement in an extraordinary way, to become a quest of the mind away from the Nothing of spiritual death (Hemlock), towards the Fire which is imagination and redemption - the Nowhere.'[1]. And finally, the allusions and references are bolstered by the literary quest that Tom sends Polly on, trying to tell her in the only way he can what is happening, anchoring their story in a long literary and mythic tradition - The Golden Bough and The Three Musketeers being the two most prominent examples.

Fire and Hemlock is therefore a complex, multi-layered work, the kind of book which reveals more and more of itself with each subsequent reading. But it also works on the surface as a coming-of-age novel, following Polly through her troubled adolescence, and as a love story, as Polly finds Tom again as an adult, now with the maturity to understand him and to love him (in contrast to the possessive love shown by Laurel and by Polly's own mother, which can never lead to happiness). The real achievement of this book is the blending of the layers and the realism of each - the descriptions of Polly's everyday life merge seamlessly with the supernatural events, and both feel equally vivid to the reader. There are no clear boundaries between the different realities, Here Now, Now Here and Nowhere, showing, as Jones intended, how close the heroic is to the everyday, but also lending the whole book an air of uncertainty, of surreality, where anything is possible, but still follows its own distinct logic.

Fire and Hemlock satisfies on both an intellectual and emotional level, and it precisely because of this that it has long been my favourite book - it resonates with my soul and it appeals to my mind. I love intertextuality, mythology, transformations of traditional tales, and Fire and Hemlock has all of this in abundance. But I also love the idea of faerie, co-existing with the reality we know and bleeding through - I love tales of crossing boundaries, ever since I first went through the wardrobe into Narnia. I identify with Polly very strongly - as a child she lives almost more in her imagination than in real life, just as I did. And I'll admit it, I'm desperately in love with Tom. My relationship with this book parallels Polly's story uncannily. I first read it when I was about 12 or 13, and liked it, but didn't fully understand it. I then came across it accidentally when packing to return to university, believe it or not, started reading and fell in love with it. It wasn't until I was an adult that it really spoke to me. People talk about the book, the one which sums up your entire world view, encapsulates the way you think, and cliched as it may sound, for me, Fire and Hemlock is that book.

[1] Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey’, The Lion and the Unicorn, v.13:no.1 (June 1989)

Edit to add: I've found The Heroic Ideal online - 7 gif files at the following URLs. Enjoy!