Books · Fantasy

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

I read this for the first time in 1999 or 2000, and have read it at least once a year since. I first read a borrowed copy in high school, and immediately set out to buy my own copy at Kino. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer, the two ballads this book was based on. It didn’t matter; I was still hooked. This is the first book by Diana Wynne Jones I read with a female protagonist, and it was the first book I read that made me think, girls, too, could be heroes. This book got me into role-playing, which eventually evolved into my interest in Dungeons & Dragons. Fire & Hemlock is also responsible for my grabbing Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin the moment I saw it highlighted at Kino’s YA section, which had Terri Windling’s wonderful introduction, which helped me realise that fairy tale retellings and mythic fiction are my “thing” when it comes to reading. I owe so much to this book!

One of my favourite things about this book is that it is as much about books and reading as it is about anything else. I remember wishing that I knew someone like Thomas Lynn, who would send me books that I had to read before I grew up. I related to Polly’s book binges, and that time when she read non-stop during her holidays and didn’t resurface until after three weeks. One of my favourite quotes was by Tom – “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.” It’s true, too!

Polly is definitely the hero of the story, but Fire & Hemlock is cast with a wonderful group of supporting characters. I love how all the characters seem very real, and that I could think of at least one person who reminded me of them. I love the dynamics between Polly, Nina, and Fiona. And between Polly, Granny and Ivy. Even Reg and Joanna and Mary Fields, who appear for only a few short moments in the story, I could imagine very clearly. I love how I could see how the relationship between Polly and Thomas developed and changed as time passes. I enjoy all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but in this one I think there more depth and complexity in the characters than in her other works.

When I first read it, I didn’t know anything about Tam Lin. I have re-read it many times since, but this is the first time I’ve re-read it after a succession of other retellings, and reading the actual ballad between each book. And I noticed one thing I was too dense to notice before – in the ballad, Janet saves Tam Lin by holding on to him and never letting go. In other words, by being clingy. Of course, this task was a lot more difficult than it sounds, and I doubt that I would have succeeded in holding on if I were Janet. But in Fire & Hemlock, Polly had to let go of Tom in order to save him. I recognised the similarities between the relationships in the story – Laurel and Tom, Ivy and Reg, Ivy and David, Polly and Tom. It was that Ivy, Laurel and Polly all clung to tightly to their loved ones for their relationships to be deemed healthy. In the end, Polly had to do what Laurel and Ivy couldn’t do to save the one she loves. I thought it was a brilliant twist to the original.

Unlike Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci or Howl’s Moving Castle books (which were my introduction to her work), Fire & Hemlock is set in the real world. This turned out be what I loved best about it. The fantastic and the real merged so seamlessly throughout the story that they are hard to tell apart. I especially loved this bit when Polly was realising just how much of her memories could be false – “Real life, which yesterday had seemed safe and dullish and ordinary, was not real at all.”

Obviously, I love this book very much. It’s one of my favourite Tam Lin stories, and my favourite novel by Diana Wynne Jones. It may not be as funny as the Chrestomanci novels, but it definitely wins when it comes to the plot and characters!

As I mentioned before, I re-read this book at least once a year. This year, it was discovering Nymeth’s blog post about it that made me want to read it again. Then I discovered that my copy was missing – I was really frantic, you know. I’ve already lost my copy once in college, and bought a second copy last year. And now, losing it again! I spent a couple of weeks asking Kit (the children’s and YA merchandiser) and our sales rep if they could help me get another copy, as Kino have been out of stock since March. I was dismayed to find out that our supplier won’t have the version I lost any longer, since a version with a new cover is coming out. During this time I kept myself happy with other Tam Lin retellings, and a couple of days ago I found my copy! It was hidden (buried, actually, since there were piles of other books on top of the two mentioned) under very huge copies of Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree and Nicole Krauss’s A History of Love. Hmm. Have I mentioned before that I dislike trade paperbacks?

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