The DWJ Project: Fire and Hemlock
This is the other book that had to be put up at the top of the reading order: The Lives of Christopher Chant because it’s the first one I read, and Fire and Hemlock because it is, as I’ve said before, the book that made me a writer. Since this month is the five-year anniversary of my first novel being published, the time seemed very right to re-visit it.
As with Lives (and a few others to come), I’m going to cheese out a bit on writing up broad commentary and just point you at my recommendation from 2004. This is, as I say there, a “Tam Lin” story (and a “Thomas the Rhymer” one, too); it’s because of this book that I picked up Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which in turn became one of the foundational inspirations of the first novel I ever finished writing. But it isn’t a straightforward retelling of either of those stories. It is, instead, its own riff on the idea, with its own twists and solution.
For many years, I would have told you I didn’t understand that solution. In some ways, I still don’t — I mean, I kind of do, but slim as this novel is, I never feel like I can quite hold the entire shape of it in my mind at once. Bits keep slipping through my grasp. This used to bother me a lot, and I blamed it on the fact that I first read the book when I was nine; having gotten a certain form of not-understanding into my head, I couldn’t let go of it and see what was there. Then I read this two-part post by rushthatspeaks, and that referenced an old essay by Diana Wynne Jones that I was able to find online (pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), and you know what? I no longer feel the slightest bit ashamed of not being able to comprehend this whole book at once. The layers that went into it boggle me: not just “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” but the Odyssey, and Cupid and Psyche, and a T.S. Eliot poem I’d never read that turns out to be quite important, not to mention all the trios I’d never consciously thought about, Nina/Polly/Fiona and Granny/Ivy/Polly and Laurel/Polly/Ivy. Re-reading it this time, I bent my brain in half mapping out similar trios among the men. The novel is worlds more complicated than I ever consciously noticed before.
(In case you didn’t guess, you shouldn’t read those essays without having read the book first. Spoilers, and a lot of stuff won’t make sense.)
I never thought of DWJ before as the sort of author who would do that kind of intricate weaving within a narrative (hah, the irony of deploying my usual textile-based narrative metaphors for this). I’ve always known she was an incredibly strong storyteller, but now I find myself wondering if I’ll spot anything as elaborately layered in her other books, or if Fire and Hemlock is going to stand apart from the others in that regard. I know it’s always felt different; only The Homeward Bounders ever seemed comparable to me. But as I go back for this project, I may find it has other cousins among her work.
Okay, behind the cut for more spoilery bits.
What struck me this time, because I read the books back-to-back, was Tom’s line at the very end — “At least I can ask now.” It made me notice for the first time the similarity between his situation and Tacroy’s; neither of them could really call their souls their own, and so neither could properly give themselves to the women they were in love with. Polly, of course, comes from a broken home, just as Christopher does, but that’s a running theme in a lot of DWJ’s books. What I’m curious to see now is how pervasive this other motif is with the men. I know it crops up again in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is next on my list; I won’t be surprised if I find it elsewhere, too.
I also found myself thinking about the Tom/Polly relationship, because I’ve been thinking more broadly of late about romances where one party (usually the man) is older, and furthermore they first encounter each other when the younger partner is still a child. For all the negative consequences of Polly working that magic to spy on Tom, I think it did her this one favor: it made it possible for their romance to work. I feel much more sanguine about Tom reaching out to her before they go in the gates of Hunsdon House because of those years Polly spent away from him, growing up and becoming her own person (even if it was on the basis of false memories) before coming back to him. I think that break was both beneficial and necessary, in that regard. In fact, this is the only story I can presently think of which is so up-front about the problems with their relationship, rather than trying to sweep it all under the rug of romance. Tom was using Polly, and that isn’t okay — which he himself admits. (That conversation again reminds me of Tacroy.) It makes the ending much less traditionally romantic, but far more moving, as far as I’m concerned.
But mostly I end up thinking, as I always do, about stories. The importance of the Tan Coul/Hero business for Polly, growing up in a broken home, and Tom, trying to escape Laurel’s clutches. The way it interweaves with Tom’s life, and the way the quartet accepts the fiction. (I love all three of them, especially Tan Hanivar nearly being run over and Polly’s “Bless you, Tan Audel!” moment on the train. But Tan Thare, too.) “Sentimental drivel,” and Polly’s two-stage reaction to it, the latter of which is what I think “murder your darlings” is really all about. I’m a gamer now, and so I think of it in those terms, too; I often explain RPGs to laypeople as “collaborative storytelling,” and it’s a close cousin to what Polly and Tom are doing here.
There are so many true-feeling moments in this book. The quartet’s rehearsal, which always speaks to my music-loving heart. The bleaching feeling of shame and pride that drives Polly out into the streets of Bristol. The way Tom comes into focus for me very gradually throughout the story, as Polly grows up and learns to actually see him, as something other than a tall, vague figure, and a big hand holding her own. Even if I can’t hold all the pieces together in my head at once, even if the story is too complicated for me to truly grok it at a level above my subconscious, I love it anyway, and I hope someday I write something half so good.