Fire and Hemlock Reconsidered:
If you are not familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’s novel: ‘Fire and Hemlock’ this article may make very little sense to you. Furthermore, if you have not read that particular book, this article is riddled with spoilers. So if that sort of thing is likely to ruin a story for you, then, please do not read this article until you have found and read the book. It is not the typical puff piece review intended to convince people to read the book, and will quite possibly do any efforts in that direction more harm than good.
In common with many other fans, on first reading I found the ending of Jones’s 1985 novel ‘Fire and Hemlock’ abrupt and unsatisfying. In fact, I said as much in an apa to which I belonged at the time and in which a discussion was taking place.
This, by the way, is a recurring scenario. Almost any time you get two or more fans of Jones’s work together at any place or time, at some point they are going to start hashing over the ending of ‘Fire and Hemlock’. It poses the perennial question that we are forced to ask ourselves. That’s it? What just happened? What the hell is going on here?
“How would you have ended it?” Nat Case asked me, in response to some of my grousing. Well, that’s certainly telling me to put my money where my mouth is. But, after some consideration, I did, in fact, get a handle on my underlying problem with the ending. A handle which finally satisfied me at least. Whether others will be as satisfied is debatable.
My first step, was to reread the Coda and try to pinpoint just where, from my viewpoint, the ending started veering off the track. I gradually found myself coming around to the conclusion that Jones, in fact, has ended the adventure satisfactorily. But her characters, Polly and Thomas just haven’t realized that yet, nor what the ending they’ve now got means. What Jones needed to have done was to have stuck with them long enough for them to finish reasoning their way from point E to point G.
I find that I am with Polly all through her summation of the circumstances which have defined their relationship to the present. But her reasoning has ended in a blind alley. (Very much as her opponent, the deathless Laurel intended.) Then, having reasoned herself into this impasse, she, and the whole book, suddenly take a sidestep into a bog of imaginative wordplay, and that is what, to me, rings false. This is an easy mistake for Polly to have made, considering Thomas’s and her background. But I still think she is mistaken. The reader, however, blindly accepts that Polly’s estimation of the present circumstances is correct — because, up to that point, Polly’s estimations have always been correct in such matters.
But there is no longer any real guarantee that Polly is correct about their situation, as it stands, now. And I think that, this time, Polly’s estimation of circumstances is not correct. And the reason that Polly’s viewpoint is no longer necessarily correct is because Laurel has finished with her. Polly’s uncanny accuracy in such matters, to date, has almost entirely been due to Laurel.
This last statement needs further definition. Polly, in her character of Hero (of Tan Coul’s band), has the magical gift of “knowing” things. Of knowing what is real, of knowing what is needed. And why does Hero have this gift? Why, because Thomas Lynn has declared it to be so! (Before witnesses, in Bristol.)
In accordance with Laurel’s “gift” to Thomas, whatever Thomas Lynn states, is true. Or, rather, it becomes true and comes back to bite him. In this case, what Thomas proclaimed became true and went on to bite Laurel.
Perhaps the question is more properly “why did Thomas ever say such a thing in the first place?”
Obviously, because it appeared, to him, to be nothing less than the case. Polly is a perceptive child, but ever since he pulled Polly out of the reading of Laurel’s bogus will, at Sebastian’s mother’s funeral Polly has come up with tales which (from where he is standing) have a unnerving habit of becoming true.
In this he is misled. He seems, at that point, not to have realized that Polly’s tales only come true when he has agreed to them. And, where “heroes’ business” is concerned, she and Thomas do seem to have stayed on what is remarkably close to the same wavelength throughout their association. (Polly was able to recognize and pick out the other heroes of his band from a photograph, after all.) But Thomas has very actively entered into this game, and without his willing participation, it would have remained no more than a game. Polly’s “epic”, written at age 14, Thomas summarily dismissed as sentimental rubbish, with the result that almost nothing of that work of Polly’s imagination ever broke through into Here Now.
Mind you, I am not speaking of the ancient cycle in which Thomas is already trapped when Polly meets him. This is the cycle to which Laurel and the King are bound. Polly and Thomas have no control over it. (Not even Laurel and the King have much in the way of control over that cycle.) But the “hero tales” were Polly and Thomas’s own creation between them. And over those creations their influence is every bit as great, if rather inexpert, as that which Laurel and Morton Leroy have over Thomas and Polly in turn.*
As a side note; Does it occur to anyone other than me that the deathless Laurel is operating under considerable limitations? Within her range, true, she is supremely powerful. (She is also pitilessly resourceful whenever her power, or the cycle is threatened.) But her range is extremely narrow. And has it occurred to anyone else out there, just how small the area is that she hunts in? The characters in this story are only those persons unlucky enough to actually live near Hunsdon House, or to stumble directly into her path.
And, even most importantly, she is not at all imaginative, herself. Indeed, considering her “gifts”, to True Thomas — to be unable to speak anything but the truth, and to Thomas Lynn — to have anything he says become true and pursue him — the indication seems to be that Laurel places about the same value upon the works of human imagination as the most rabid of fundies. (Of course, there’s a strong argument to be made that Laurel is the most rabid of fundies — and with good reason!) Laurel clearly doesn’t approve of any of her subordinates having ideas. Indeed, this disapproval may have some bearing upon her preference for preying primarily upon musicians. Music — instrumental music, that is, and Laurel’s offerings tend to be instrumentalists — doesn’t really deal in ideas, it deals in emotions.
And what can we say about Laurel’s chosen offerings? Leslie, who seems very much in the fine, traditional, feckless mode, although witty, can hardly be accused of any overabundance of ideas. His father, at least, had just enough smarts (and a wife and a child, of whom he was fond) to eventually realize what was what and haggle his way out. Thomas was a good deal too young and — probably — hormone-ridden to have any idea of what he was being pulled into when Laurel got her hands on him in exchange for his brother. (He was all of, what? Sixteen?) And he’s been struggling to get out from under her rule since before the funeral, nearly ten years before the story’s cumulation.
Moreover, it never occurs to Laurel to suspect that any of her offerings’ actions could actually pose a danger to the cycle. After all, once they have come into her possession, they do not ever escape, unless she agrees to it, and she makes the laws that they live by from the point at which they come under her rule.
Polly — thanks to her secondhand gift — instinctively figures things out just in time. But she never is granted the luxury of enough time to stop and ponder the implications of what she has only just realized. She only grasps that, where Janet could save Tam Lin merely by holding on to him, if Thomas is to be saved, she, Polly, must cut him loose to save himself. What Polly has only dimly realized — because she hasn’t yet had the time or the opportunity to think about it — is that once Laurel’s rules betray her, she changes them.
The moment that Morton Leroy spins off into the abyss, all bets are off. The rules to which we have all been constrained throughout the story, no longer apply. Or, at least, they no longer apply to Tom and Polly. Laurel has withdrawn her gifts. Thomas no longer creates the truth by declaring it, and Polly no longer invariably “knows” what is real. (Laurel, of course, is perfectly capable of letting Polly continue to believe that she does, thereby leading Polly to cheat herself all over again.)
Polly also hasn’t quite realized that Thomas is now safe from Laurel, without needing any further action or inactions on her part. Or, at any rate, he is now safe from anything Laurel might have thrown at him, because she no longer will. He no longer exists to her. Laurel will no longer protect him, either. Now that Tom’s life is no longer sacrosanct, (being no longer required by her) his skill at the wheel may see him lying dead on the M5 before another month is out.
It is entirely appropriate to the structure of the story that Morton Leroy brings about his own downfall by not letting Laurel’s safeguards take care of matters themselves. He has a very up close and personal interest in Thomas Lynn’s life. But, where Laurel is content to saddle Thomas with one of her “gifts” and let him off his leash until she chooses to whistle him back to heel, Leroy can’t resist keeping tabs on him. (“In Laurel’s name”, he implies, which I say is a fib.) So when he sees Laurel’s “gift” go into action, he freaks out. (Does it occur to anyone that Morton Leroy also has a problem dealing with the workings of human imagination?) The only thing Leroy can think of to do is to try to end the association between Thomas and Polly, and it is these attempts that provoke much of the book’s chain of incidents, cumulating in Leroy’s final effort to murder Polly at the Middleton Fair.
This final act of meddling results in sufficient injury to Thomas (thereby breaking Laurel’s law) to enable Thomas to force the issue — by invoking the incident — into bringing Leroy and himself face-to-face in a form of duel arcane, rather than helplessly going out as the appointed sacrifice. A duel is not a sacrifice, for all that the end result of both is the paying of the tiend. The laws governing duels are not at all the same. From that point, it is up to Thomas to save himself, if he can, and before he can do so, he must surrender to Laurel all of the gifts which she has given him. And Polly’s instinctive arcane “knowledge” is one of those gifts.
Leroy’s maneuverings were nearly all made without Laurel’s knowledge, and certainly without her approval. The one fatal possibility, so far as he was concerned, was that Laurel might discover his actions. When Polly’s growing awareness of Thomas’s true situation brings her to the point of overreaching herself, (egged on by Sebastian) and taking the battle into Laurel’s camp, she is utterly routed. Fortunately for Leroy, Laurel gives Polly no chance to speak of his involvement. Laurel simply, ruthlessly, and efficiently manipulates Polly into cheating herself, and dismisses her. Laurel seems to have been willing enough to let Leroy do the final mopping up afterwards, which he did, no doubt with outstanding gratitude, leaving as little trace of his interference as possible. (“Edited by L. Perry”, indeed!)
If Morton Leroy had left things alone, Thomas might well have been lost, Polly or no Polly. For that matter, if things had been left as Laurel arranged them from the point of routing Polly, Thomas would very likely have paid the tiend without further argument. But Morton Leroy had taken his son Sebastian (for whom he has some genuine feelings) into his confidence. Sebastian, all too aware of his own value as a future pawn, and, seeing the effect Polly has had on his father’s peace of mind, rounds her up and drags her back into the circle to serve as his own ace in the hole. Leroy, having, as stated above, some genuine feeling for Sebastian, is actually quite pleased by this show of resourcefulness. Laurel, on the other hand, is furious. It makes it impossible for her to fully uphold her end of the “bargain” with Polly; i.e., that Polly would forget Tom if Laurel would leave her alone. Laurel is a twisty opponent, but she will keep her bargains to the letter.
Thanks to all of this meddling, Polly’s buried memories begin to bump up against their imposed restraints, and her gift starts to work itself loose from the constraints laid upon it. And not a moment too soon. (One really wonders how Leroy had the seriously bad judgment which allowed her to retain possession of that book, however much edited. Perhaps this was a part of the same impulse to brag which unwisely led him to taunt her by showing himself during the episode in Bristol.)
The deathless Laurel, however, continues to piously follow the laws into which she herself is securely bound. In this cycle, Leroy has paid the tiend himself. Therefore, Thomas is now safe. Insofar as I can decipher, Thomas is free of Laurel forever. (In the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin was successfully claimed by Janet, and belonged to Janet at the end of the song. Thomas Lynn, on the other hand, having saved himself, now belongs to himself.) Even under the somewhat muddled understanding of the rules which Polly has been operating under, Thomas is free for the next nine years.
In that regard, we have from Laurel’s own lips that — since Sebastian is young — she may not even be needing lightweight Leslie. Nine years hence she certainly will need no more than an average offering, whether that be Leslie or Sebastian. Thomas Lynn’s great strength (and corresponding unruliness) was considered to be necessary for the renewal of a king whose life force had gone without replacement for a whole generation. It will not be required by a King who is ten years Thomas Lynn’s junior. In nine years more, Leslie, (if Laurel so decides, and who she already holds) will do quite nicely. Beyond that cycle, well, Laurel has very strict standards to which she adheres when choosing her offerings. She wants them young, handsome, fair rather than dark — if given a choice in the matter — and she prefers them musical. Can anyone conceive of Laurel having the slightest interest in a Thomas Lynn who has reached the age of 50-something?
No, I think that Polly and Thomas have a far more difficult row to hoe ahead of them than can be found in any sophomoric word-games. They have yet to discover whether either of them actually still exists outside of Laurel’s domain. And how much of who the person that either one of them believes they are is real.
They also have a rather nasty piece of unfinished business standing between them. Polly is quite right in that respect. A grown man who attaches himself to a lonely child and wraps her life around his own to save himself has done nothing laudable. Tom is no pedophile, and has tried very hard not to let her be harmed by the association, which does certainly count in his favor. In that regard, in even the most cursory comparison with the original Tam Lin, he shines as a paragon of virtue — again, the amoral Leslie is far more in the traditional mode. But even in the face of clear evidence that she was being harmed, he was not able to give her up of his own volition. And he has had enormous influence on her development, and it is yet to be seen if this has been ultimately for the good.
Polly, on her side, and due entirely to their association, has grown to depend upon always “knowing” what is true, and of always being right, and does not realize that this confidence is no longer warranted. Which suggests that she may be riding for a jarring fall. Those double memories which plague her are unlikely to be easy to adjust to living with, either.
For that matter, how long is it going to take Thomas to adjust to the fact that flights of fancy on his part will no longer boil up from under some rock and come after him? Will he even live long enough to do so, now that Laurel’s protection has been withdrawn? Physical recklessness has, to this point, been more of a practice with him than even the most elementary forms of caution. Polly and Thomas each have to move beyond living in Laurel’s shadow, by her laws and dependent upon her gifts. They have not ever done so. It is a valid question to ask whether either of them is ultimately going to be able to survive in Here Now, let alone thrive and prosper.
In fact, they have a task of truly heroic proportions set ahead of them. These two exceptional people must learn what it is to live in Here Now, where exceptions are rarely made, and to live here upon the same terms as everyone else. They can no longer escape into Nowhere, even briefly. That green, pleasant road is closed to them, forever. If the wonder and adventure which has been so much a factor in their association, are necessary ingredients to their continued enjoyment of each other’s company, they must now learn to provide their own.
They must also learn to relate to each other as two adults. They have never had to do that, either. And that is actually the easy part. The big danger, as we can readily see, is that “reality”, as the world counts it, has had painfully little to do with any of their interaction to date, and they are essentially starting out from considerably less than zero. They’ve got their work cut out for them. And, frankly, I don’t know whether the two of them are up to it. Perhaps it is just as well that Polly has shown herself willing to face the prospect of giving Thomas up forever. She may yet have to.
Back in ’85, when the book first came out, It sparked a good deal of discussion among my local circle. Some degree of dissatisfaction with the ending as it stands seemed to be general. The overall feeling was that the situation was too serious to be wriggled out of with no more than the aforementioned sophomoric word game.
At least one of my friends, however, was dissatisfied on a far more easily accessible level. She was highly offended that, in the resolution, there was no punishment dealt out to Laurel. This seems an odd concept, to be sure, particularly considering who and what Laurel is, but that’s what really bugged her. Eventually I commented that having to go on being Laurel to the end of time might just about qualify.
All this being said, I will have to admit that I heartily dislike the ballad of Tam Lin — which no doubt shades my own perception of the story. (My viewpoint largely stems from the conviction that two wrongs do not make a right.) I have little respect for the characters in the ballad and do not understand the fascination that it seems to have for literary types. Still, over the past 20+ years a number of retellings have been spun off from it, and some of these have been very good stories indeed. And ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is one of the best of them. For my own part, and from another direction, I’ve also always rather admired the conclusion (if nothing more) of Joan Vinge’s interpretation of this particular source material. In that iteration, after all the shouting is over, what Janet discovers that she has won by all her efforts is — a young knight. Exactly like all the ones back in her father’s Hall. Any one of whom she might have had for the asking.
No, I’d say that the Fair Folk have never shown to any disadvantage in dealings with cold irony.
But, I will also have to say that, given the narrowness of the deathless Laurel’s hunting range, if Polly and Thomas do get together, and do somehow manage to make a go of it, it might be just as well for the two of them to consider immigrating to Canada.
Or to hope that they will be blessed only with daughters.
*As an afterword to the above article; Several years later, in one of the periodic discussions of this work on the Diana Wynne Jones List, one of the members pointed out the subtle detail which in all my readings, I had consistently missed. And which demonstrates just how thoroughly Laurel’s tweaking of the rules for that duel had — horrifyingly — balanced the odds in Leroy’s favor.
In Laurel’s exhortation, she informs Thomas that in the combat he may use anything which is truly his. She then assures Leroy of his right to use the exact equivalent to whatever Thomas uses in return. The little sting in the tail of that particular setup would have destroyed Thomas, had Polly not figured out her task and rejected him utterly. (Along with the long-term loan of her own fairy “gift”. Thus rendering unto Laurel that which was rightfully Laurel’s.)
For if Polly had allowed Thomas to use her as a weapon in his battle, then Morton Leroy would have been permitted to call upon Laurel herself in his own defense.
And Thomas fully intended to use Polly. They came that close to disaster.
Indeed, the equivalency between Polly and Laurel was so exact that by cutting Thomas and his gifts loose and shoving him away to face his enemy on his own, Polly managed to also break Leroy’s connections to Laurel. The result of this severing was immediate, Leroy, in his weakened state, was no match to Thomas, and the abyss claimed him. In the aftermath of this confrontation, it is small wonder that Polly does not immediately realize that although she was absolutely required to shove Thomas away to save him, she is not required to continue shoving him away to keep him safe. He is finally his own man. He is free.
He is free to choose her.