|Hemlock and after
||[Jul. 23rd, 2014|02:42 pm]
This post has been simmering nicely for over a week, while I nibbled at it; but on Sunday afternoon I found my way into it, and very nearly reached the end. I reached, in fact, an end, but not quite the end I wanted. So I took a step back, intending to read through from the beginning, hit the wrong key and - yes - deleted my entire afternoon's work. This was infuriating, but I can't claim it was inappropriate: I'm trying to write about Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock, and I find myself like Polly, at the start of the book, trying to remember what it is I have forgotten.
It's a long time since I last read Fire and Hemlock. A rapid trawl through my book diary suggests that it's not since 1987, which must be when I first read it, because that's when it came out in paperback. But here too I feel I've forgotten something crucial - I can't believe that I've only read it once. It's one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones books - no, it's one of my favourite books full stop. One of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a book about growing up reading: it would be interesting to read it in parallel with Jo Walton's Among Others - both books about girls who grow up reading, who learn to build relationships through their reading, and who engage with magic hidden within the everyday world, magic which can almost, but not quite, be explained away, if you are wrong-headed enough to try it. Interesting, but a distraction.
Embarking on this re-read, I didn't remember all the details - in fact, I had forgotten great chunks of plot - but I remembered the conclusion very clearly (partly because I am one of the many readers who was puzzled by it). It doesn't matter. There's a long tradition of literature which doesn't avoid the spoiler but embraces it, which relies on audience familiarity with a story to create anticipation, to set its own story in context: Fire and Hemlock is absolutely in that tradition. Diana Wynne Jones makes sure her readers know she is building on earlier stories: not only does she preface each chapter with fragments of the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, the dénouement is set in motion when Polly finally takes up the Oxford Book of Ballads, where the first two ballads she finds are indeed the two which tell her everything she needs to know about Tom and Laurel. And if the reader doesn't already know those stories, they can pick up the same book and read them there, too. But all the clues are in the book you are already reading. For example, when Polly first meets Tom at the funeral, the reading of the will names the characters: the dead woman is Mrs Mabel Tatiana Leroy Perry - Queen Mab, Titania, le Roi - the monarch -, a peri. Her "daughter", Laurel, is Eudora Mabel Lorelei Perry Lynn: Queen Mab, the Lorelei who lures men onto the rocks, a peri, and the wife - ex-wife - of Tam Lin. Eudora (according to the internet) is a Greek goddess of heavy rain, and the name means 'good gift'. Laurel's gift to Tom is the double-edged promise that he will always speak truly: what he says will come true.
Tom's gift is truth; Polly's is imagination. Fact and fiction are not opposed, but entwined. Ten year old Polly provides Tom with the outline of himself as hero; he turns her imagining into a coherent - and truthful - narrative. Polly selects the paintings which are valuable, not just in financial terms, but because they have power in the story she has not yet invented (the explanation that the pictures are Tom's bequest from the will is unconvincing, odd enough to signal that they are important, present because the author wants them in the story). Polly gives the hero three companions, but she also identifies them in the photograph of Tom's real-life colleagues in the orchestra. She creates, but she also discerns. Her inventions reflect her age, and her influences, both of which change as she grows older, and Tom sends her books which will guide her towards the narrative he needs from her, while his rare comments on what she writes encourage her to write better, to free herself from the influence of other writers and to draw on observation and on her own imagination - to create truthfully.
Tom is not the only adult to place adult demands on the child Polly. Her parents are not in the least parental. This is no surprise in a Diana Wynne Jones novel: parents are frequently absent, uninterested. Usually this is convenient for the plot, freeing the child protagonist to have adventures, to take action on their own behalf, but Polly reacts as a real child might do: she worries about her father's disappearance, and tries to soothe her mother's moods. Her mother's name is Ivy, and names in this book are significant: she is inevitably compared to that other evergreen, Laurel, but where Laurel takes and destroys her men, Ivy clings; Polly learns to let go. Ivy lives in a fantasy world, misreading what goes on to create the story she wants; Polly is learning to use imagination to tell a truthful story. Her father Reg lost his own father to Laurel, and grew up near what Granny calls 'That House'. Perhaps this is why he has learned to be slippery, ungraspable. Even so, somehow Reg and Ivy have managed to get together and produce a child, and there is a genuine unmagical shock for the adult reader (and I can't help it, chronology means I have only ever read Diana Wynne Jones as an adult) when the two of them combine to abandon her without resources on the streets of Bristol.
If Tom sees in Polly something that he needs, perhaps she sees the same in him: an adult who will be a constant, if distant, presence in her life, who cares enough about her to try to shape her mind, to introduce her to music, and eventually, when Granny points out the situation to him, to let go. He comes to the school sports day, and to the pantomime. Their relationship grows from Tom's perception that Polly has something he needs; he is an adult using a child for his own ends - in a sense, he is grooming her - but it is also shaped by what Polly needs from Tom. If they are to have a romantic relationship as adults, something has to change. Throughout the book, as Polly starts to recover her lost memories, the narrative is double: the reader is constantly reminded that nineteen year old Polly is tracing the story of her younger self, with the recurrence of phrases like "in those days" and the cycle of birthdays and Christmas. I assume this is why the tithe is paid every nine years rather than the traditional seven, to allow Polly to be young enough to act as she does at the start of the story and old enough at the end for her feelings for Tom to become a romantic love.
My copy of Fire and Hemlock is the Methuen Teens paperback; I very much like the cover, with its helpful inclusion of the hemlock plant echoing the shape of the tree, but the introduction of two figures in silhouette does hint at the possibility of reading it as a YA romance. But this is something that can only really develop after the end of the book - the coda suggests it may - while the main narrative is about Polly finding not Tom but herself.
This, for me, is the key that unlocks that puzzling ending. I am grateful to rushthatspeaks for two wonderful posts (the first here and the second here) about the structural part played by Eliot's Four Quartets. They add something significant to my understanding of the book, and I say that as someone who has never got on with Eliot, and I read it before I met Diana Wynne Jones's own talk about the Heroic Ideal, reprinted in Reflections, which confirms the analysis (and has interesting things to say about other formative elements of Fire and Hemlock). But there's something very recursive about Fire and Hemlock, something almost musical in the way the narrative line returns to the same motifs, though I'm not going to embark here on an examination of the rôle of music in the book, or we'll never be done (besides, what the Dumas Quartet plays is very far from being my music - leave that to someone better qualified!). For the ending to satisfy in this sense, it has to pick up something from within the book.
Or from everything within the book. Back in the garden where it began, Polly listens - as she has learned to do - to the music, and when she truly listens, not trying to interpret what it means, or what the musicians are thinking, but really listens, she knows what to do. She sees where the rules have been broken in the past, and using this she forces Laurel to make a bargain with her; and she sees, too, what that bargain is, understanding its rules where Tom does not: the only way to win is to lose, so she will have to lose. I described Laurel's gift of truth as 'double-edged', but now Polly thinks that "[t]he truth between two people always cuts two ways," and she tells Tom "You took me over as a child to save your own skin... You're not doing that again... I never want to see you again!" This is not the whole of the truth, but it is true, as it has to be for Polly to use it as a weapon.
And that is the end of the story. Polly saves Tom by losing him, she recognises how he has used her in the past, she declares that she too has a career to come. She grows up. What follows is a coda. Each section of the book has a title formed from the letters on the vases - but the Coda doesn't. That's finished, this is something else, when Janet at last holds Tam Lin in her arms, "a mother-naked man".
Which seems like the right place to stop. I finished reading Fire and Hemlock (in rather less time than it has taken me two write about it), picked up The Islands of Chaldea and gulped that down too. Then I registered for Newcastle University's Diana Wynne Jones conference, and forced myself to read something completely different.