Re-read: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

cover_of_fire_and_hemlockInspired by this Guardian blog post, I chose Fire and Hemlock as my third Diana Wynne Jones re-read.

This story is a Tam Lin re-telling, and although I am interested in the ballad and interpretations of it, and this book is one of my favourite DWJs, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the relationship between Polly (Jones’s Janet) and Thomas Lynn.

OK, if you haven’t read Fire and Hemlock, there will be spoilers in this post, so click the Read More button at your own risk.

Polly is a child when she meets Tom. She’s about ten and he’s a divorced adult man. The book opens with Polly being nineteen and remembering Tom, whom she had forgotten for years. Did he even exist? She isn’t sure at first, but later she realises that the man she met when she was ten was not as old as all that. It was simply that she was a child and at ten everyone over twenty seems ancient. Even so, even if he were twenty-two (according to this timeline he is twenty-four), he was still a grown man and she was most certainly a child.

OK, so nothing untoward happens between Polly and Tom when she is ten and he’s  in his twenties. However, I think Tom immediately recognises in Polly a quality that he hopes will help save him from his future doom. He sends Polly books that hint at the fix he’s in and that suggest what she has to do to help so it’s obvious that he sees her in the role of Janet, Tam Lin’s lover who had his child and saved him from being sacrificed to hell. Is that accurate? It’s how I read it, how I’ve always read it, but I kind of hope that someone will tell me that I’ve got it wrong because this interpretation makes Tom seem totally creepy. I mean, she’s a child for crying out loud! Of course, Tom is in a desperate situation and perhaps that clouds his judgement. Also, he might be thinking in a purely calculative way, simply anticipating a time when Polly may help him, without actually feeling any sexual attraction for her. I tell myself this, but then I remember that scene in which he runs his hand over Mary Fields’s hair  and I am seriously creeped out because it’s obvious that he has a preference and Polly and Mary (as well as Laurel) are it.

But. OK. Polly may have the fair hair that he favours, but this may merely have caused him to notice her more than he would have if she’d been a red-head. I don’t actually think that Tom is a paedophile, but ‘grooming’ Polly to be the one who saves him reminds me of the sort of grooming paedophiles do. Did this occur to DWJ, I wonder?

The other thing that used to make me dislike Tom is Polly saying he looks like a tortoise. This made me think of Anthony Edwards [left], the actor who was in ER and whom I find really icky (for no good reason, mind you). Sorry, but if a tortoise were to turn into a man it would look like Anthony Edwards. Gross. (Actually, I like tortoises and think they’re adorable, but only as tortoises and even as ninja turtles, but I’m not sold on men who look like tortoises.)

Anyway, during this recent re-read, I started imagining Tom Lynn looking like someone else – no one famous, just an anaesthetist I used to know when I was a nurse in England. The bloke, whose name escapes me, was the same general shape and colour as Anthony Edward, but he did not have the actor’s annoying face and expression.  So, I am no longer filled with disgust at the mere thought of Thomas Lynn. However, I still don’t like the character one bit, I just can’t.

He seems totally ineffectual and wishy-washy. And then there’s that laugh of his, like a yelp or a gasp. How ‘attractive’.

However, I do think Thomas Lynn is how he is for a reason. This is DWJ and her stories and characters always make sense. It’s just that I can’t wholly work out what’s happening in this story and I find the whole desperately-hoping-Polly-will-help-but-not-wanting-to-use-her hard to follow. I don’t think I understand how Polly manages to rescue him either. Oh dear, maybe it will take another re-read to work everything out.

What struck me very hard this time, which I seem to have forgotten totally, is how horrible Polly’s parents are to her. Her mother, Ivy, is especially vile, blaming Polly for the breakup of her marriage, and then again when things don’t work out with her new lover, David.

Like her name, Ivy is clingy and suffocating, and I noticed, for the first time, that the names of the female characters are significant. Polly is a nickname for Mary and means ‘wished-for child’, which is exactly what she is, at least from Thomas Lynn’s perspective. Another meaning given for Mary is ‘rebelliousness’  and this accurately describes Polly’s actions. Hmm … there’s of course Mary Fields – is she meant to be the anti-Polly? She is the Mary who it’s alright for Thomas Lynn to be with in terms of age, but she isn’t the right one in terms of saving him. Near the end of the story, she is very angry when Polly phones to ask her about Thomas Lynn. It seems that Tom, in his efforts to avoid using Polly, uses Mary instead. Incidentally, another meaning listed for Mary is ‘bitterness’.

Then there is Laurel. The name is from the tree, whose leaves were made into the wreaths that crowned the victorious in Ancient Greece and Rome. In Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne was changed into a laurel tree to escape the attentions of the god Apollo. The name Laurel is also associated with the German Lorelei, a steep rock on the banks of the River Rhine, and there are tales that link the rock to a beautiful, golden-haired siren whose song attracts sailors, causing them to steer their ships into the rock and to a watery death.

Laurel, in Fire and Hemlock, is of course usually victorious over men. Those whom she singles out are doomed, sacrificed to hell in return for her eternal life. Daphne’s chastity and her eventual fate (being turned into a tree – a rather heavy-handed response of the father the river god, to her pleas, if you ask me) may not reflect who Laurel is and what happens to her, but in the ballad, the fairy queen regrets not having turned Tamlin into a tree. Therefore, DWJ’s choice of name may be a roundabout reference to her source material.

As I was re-reading Fire and Hemlock, I thought that I should make a list of all the books that are mentioned in it. However, it only occurred to me when I was more than halfway through and so I didn’t. Then I wondered whether anyone had already made a list that I could look up, but I couldn’t find anything online. But then, a few days after I finished reading the book, someone posted in the Diana Wynne Jones Appreciation Society (on Facebook) that she had made the list! That made me almost believe I was like Tom Lynn/Thomas the Rhymer, and that what I said/thought had come true! The list is here, on Goodreads.

I think I enjoyed this reading of Fire and Hemlock more than I have past ones. I think I understood more of it, but, as I’ve mentioned, still not all of it. It may seem strange that a book I don’t ‘get’ and have never enjoyed much is one of my favourites by DWJ, but there you go, that’s DWJ for you. It’s never plain and simple, or explicable with her books.

I don’t know when I will attempt another re-read of Fire and Hemlock, and I don’t know which DWJ book I will read next. I am not in the mood for any at the moment so will wait and see.

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