Diana Wynne Jones: Fire & Hemlock

My editor mentioned to me in the Pub that Emma Bull’s quintessential urban fantasy novel, War for the Oaks, was finally getting the hardcover edition it so richly deserves.

Another novel that has deserved the same treatment is Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire & Hemlock, a novel so highly regarded that copies of the original 1975 Greenwillow hardcover fetch as much as US$ 300.00 from booksellers on the American Booksellers Exchange Web site. The edition reviewed here has no dust jacket, but instead has a library-style illustrated cover. It has nice, easily readable print on an off-white paper. It’s a good solid book with memorable characters and an engrossing plot which got read in one rather long sitting on a cold, rainy afternoon late in October. Three pots of Earl Grey tea and a number of me wife’s excellent scones were devoured in the reading of Fire & Hemlock. It certainly was as good as the aforementioned War for the Oaks.

(It has one of my favourite pieces of conversation in it when Tom Lynn says to our protagonist that ‘As Polly grows up, Tom Lynn sends her a number of books, many of which are intended to inform her indirectly of his pact with Laurel. He says at one point, regarding a book of fairy stories, “Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact in it, you know, which you can find if you look.’)

The blurb from the publisher that was included in the press packet says:

The fire and hemlock photograph above Polly’s bed sparks memories in her that don’t seem to exist any more. Halloween; nine years ago; she gatecrashed a funeral party at the big house and met Thomas Lynn for the first time. Despite the fact that he’s an adult, they struck up an immediate friendship, and began making up stories together – stories in which Tom is a great hero, and Polly is his assistant. The trouble is, these scary adventures have a nasty habit of coming true… But what has happened in the years between? Why has Tom been erased from Polly’s mind,and from the rest of the world as well? Gradually Polly uncovers the awful truth and, at Halloween nine years on, realises that Tom’s soul is forfeit to demonic powers unless she can save him.

It’s worth noting that this book is based on a well-known ballad. Just go listen to a CD of the original “Tam Lin” as performed by the electric folk group Fairport Convention on the album Liege and Lief, with Sandy Denny on lead vocal. Any number of other performers, including Steeleye Span, Frankie Armstrong with Blowzabella, Ewan MacColl, Pyewackett, Tempest, and the Watersons, have also recorded it.

In the original ballad Janet goes to Carterhaugh to pick roses, despite the dire warnings against doing so. There she encounters Tam Lin, and they argue. She returns to her family home, where her father observes that she is rather knocked up, but she refuses to say who her lover is. She returns to the woods to speak with Tam Lin again, and he reveals his human heritage and the threat against his life, including how she can save him. She does this, and angers the Queen of Faeries in the process. True love wins, he’s converted to human form forever, and the Queen doesn’t get to make his guts into something not very useful. One assumes they lived happily ever after they screwed their brains out, and had lots of red-haired bairns. Are you shocked by this statement? Don’t be, as it is likely a bleedin’ good guess that that Child version of Tam Lin was a sanitized version of the original ballad. (William Goldman would call the additions I made “the good parts version.” See his Princess Bride novel for a splendid example of a fairy tale being made whole.)

But that barely scratches the surface of this novel. By updating it to the present day, Wynne Jones has done a splendid job of taking this ancient ballad and making it fresh. Polly is as believable a character as many young women I’m known in the circles I travel in. And she reacts realistically to the strange things that happen during the course of this tale.

The core story has Polly as the mortal woman who must rescue Tam Lin (named Thomas Lynn here) from servitude to the Queen of Air and Darkness. (Yes, she’s the Dark Sidhe — not that you’ll find me believing any sidhe are good when it comes to their dealings with us mortals!) The twist is that Polly has had her memories of Thomas blocked — but now some years later she remembers he exists, though everyone else says he doesn’t. Adding to the updating of the ballad is that Polly is coming of age as a woman — and leaving for college at the same time. What has happened in the years since she knew Thomas? Why has he been excised from her memory and that of the world at large? And why is it that Polly thinks she’s responsible for what has come to be?

I’m not telling, as sayin’ anything beyond what I’ve said already would spoil Fire & Hemlock. Find a comfortable chair with good lighting, and read it. Then email me and we’ll have a conversation ’bout this truly great novel. But don’t tell anyone ’bout the story before they’ve read it!

(Methuen Children’s Books, 1985; Collins, 2000)

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