Fire & Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Collins, London, 2000
I own this one. It is my second book for the Once Upon A Time V reading challenge. Having just learned of Diana Wynne Jones and her wonderful books last year, I was sad to hear she had died in March. There have been many wonderful posts about her and her work on author sites and book blogs. She will be greatly missed. I am glad she left us such a fine collection of books.
Fire & Hemlock is a story about memory. At nineteen, Polly Whittacker is packing to return to college and wondering about a book she thought she read years ago. Her memory of the stories and authors seem to be different from what is before her eyes. There is also a picture hanging over her bed that seems to be different in ways she cannot describe.
As she begins to think back, she realizes that at some point four years in the past her memories changed. That discovery begins to bring her past to the surface. She remembers a different life, a life that included heroic adventures and interesting people, particularly a man named Thomas Lynn.
This is really a story within a story, based on the ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Fire & Hemlock references many other works including The Three Musketeers, The Lord of the Rings and The Golden Bough. For that alone it is worth the read but it is really Wynne Jones’s ability to write fantasy that melds so seamlessly with everyday life that made it work for me. And the writing is beautiful.
The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were for an instant, floating, green and growing. Then the sunbeam traveled on, and there was just a dry oblong of concrete again. Mr Lynn saw it too. Polly could tell from the way he stopped talking. From page 30.
Diana Wynne Jones understood stories and magic and the way they intersect. She also knew that fairy stories contain certain truths.
Later they were standing looking at the Thames somewhere while Polly ate a choc-ice – she spent most of the day eating something – and Mr Lynn asked her if she had liked the books he had sent for Christmas.
Polly did her best to be tactful. It was not easy, because the choc-ice had just fallen apart and she was trying to balance a sheet of chocolate on her tongue while she sucked at the dripping ice cream underneath. “King Arthur’s all right,” she said liquidly.
“You don’t like fairy stories. Have you read them?” said Mr Lynn. Polly was forced to shake her head. “Please read them,” said Mr Lynn. “Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories. Each one has a true, strange fact hidden in it, you know, which you can find if you look.” From page 171.
Diana Wynne Jones once wrote that she wished “to write a book in which modern life and heroic mythical events approached one another so closely that they were nearly impossible to separate.” She accomplished this with Fire & Hemlock, a book I’m sure I will reread many times, if only for the scene where Polly and Tom Lynne spin the huge vases outside Hunsdon House and read HERE and NOW and WHERE and NO.
I think the reason that the heroic ideal had, as it were, retreated to children’s books is that children do, by nature, status and instinct, live more in the heroic mode than the rest of humanity. They naturally have the right naïve, straightforward approach. And in every playground there are actual giants to overcome and the moral issues are usually clearer than they are, say, in politics.
Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey’, The Lion and the Unicorn, v.13:no.1 (June 1989) discussed at Two Sides to Nowhere.