I had a lot of fun reading Fire and Hemlock, and if you like DWJ, don’t miss it. I won’t review it, but I’d like to make an easy reading guide with the products of what I've read and thought that will allow me to remember how things work. The mechanics are by no means simple, but I believe the book doesn’t need the exposure of its guts to be appreciated. Except perhaps for the ending. That can be a bit confusing.
(For DWJ's thoughts on her book, read her essay on heroics in Fire & Hemlock. I rehash much of what she says there.)
Let’s start with the underlying myths: 1) Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, 2)Hero and Leander, and 3) Cupid and Psyche.
Those three myths give how it should be read on the emotional level. It is a story with a female Hero in a personal relationship. Tam Lin gives the basic plot: a previous attachment with the Queen of the Fairies, solved by holding on to true love.
Cupid and Psyche suggest that the Hero will commit a fault (in this case, like in the myth, it’s spying. Too much holding on. That it is a departure from Tam Lin), and must afterwards seek her beloved; it introduces the theme of the seeker. Tom has Cupid’s attributes (think the bow from the cello and his deficient eyesight) and shows Laurel as Venus, the powerful source of his gifts. It’s also important to understand that, like Cupid’s allegory of profane and divine love, Polly’s journey is that of locating in herself the heroic bits and living up to their standard. That’s essentially why she can never withdraw what she says at the end, despite a priori being free from Laurel’s influence.
The story of Hero and Leander gives the rhythm of Tom and Polly’s relationship: they meet occasionally, then are separated, and it suggests that he must go to hell at the end, and that she’ll follow him there. It is also resonant with Orpheus, the musician, seeking his beloved in Hades, and eager curiosity making him lose her. But the genres are inverted and the timing is off: he’s the musician, but she’s the seeker, and the fault was done earlier in the plot. Here, her betrayal frees him. Orpheus doesn’t actually give plot points.
The structure and tone are from 1)The Odyssey, 2) TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, 3)1001 Nights.
The Odyssey gives its structure as heroic travel told in flashbacks. It also goes back to the hell theme- Odysseus must go to Hades after leaving Circe, the witch-goddess who murdered her husband.
TS Eliot is the underlying music that is either turned up or down when DWJ needs it. It gives the garden, the pond, the string quartet, and the final wordplay. It also gives the literal key to the resolution.
1001 nights introduces the idea of storytelling as lifesaving mean and the blur between reality and imagination (of which Eliot says “human kind/ Cannot bear much reality.”).
By now it should be obvious that Fire & Hemlock strongly relies on trinities. First, the trinity of the setting, based on the permutations of “here” and “now” from the vases.
- The “here-now”, where Tom is an adult cellist and Polly is a child who reads books and has friends.
- The “nowhere”, where Lauren rules and where the train leads. It’s clearly reminiscent of hell, including the persephonic episode where Polly refuses to eat and drink.
- “The “where now?”, inhabited by Hero, Tan Could, Tan Audel, Tan Hanivar and Tan Thare, the giant, the ironmonger, and everything they imagine together.
Each setting is build in with the others like interlocked spirals. You can imagine the DNA with three lines, but I would prefer to see it as a rotating jigsaw puzzle. Each of the three rotations shows a different pattern.
There are also trinities of characters. The one of the “here-now” is deceptively important. Fire and Hemlock is, unlike many fantasies, a book of personal relationships. The characterizations of Polly’s friends is given much attention. We have Nina (the dumb one), Polly, and Fiona (the clever one).
We also have the trinity of ages. It’s one often found, and is one that I particularly enjoy: Granny (wisdom), Ivy (the couch-dweller) and Polly (still the seeker)
In some aspects, Ivy could be replaced by Laurel. They are similar in Laurel’s mistrust of human imagination- Tom is punished with having what he imagines become true and come back to bite him. Therefore, he always tells the truth. Laurel confuses facts and fiction at will. It’s also what Ivy does. We could lump together Ivy and Laurel, have Polly still in the middle, and on the other end her father and his partner, who have outed imagination from their life.
Despite her rigged gifts, Laurel does keep her bargains, and that’s why Polly starts opportunely to remember her "where now?" life. Her pact with Laurel was to forget, but she was to be left alone, and Laurel can’t keep her part because of Seb and Leroy. Then, the problem of identity: Laurel is the queen of the fairies, Venus, Circe, Calypso, Hades. But who are Polly and Tom? The truth is that they’re constantly switching roles: each has his mythic personification, but they’re not fixed. And hence the name Polly, “many”.
And now we come to the ending. This is how I think it can be understood: first, as the literal illustration of Eliot.
“To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.[...]
And where you are is where you are not.”
She’s in nowhere: she must apply the poem and do the opposite of what she should do, that’s to say, as per the Ballad of Tam Lin, holding on. But that is based on wordgames and is too unsatisfying an ending for any story with emotional resonance. Let’s look at it a bit more.
We see just what we already knew: that Laurel rigs her games. The same way that she inverted her gift to Thomas, she builds a duel based on weakness. The less you have, the more you win. Thomas doesn’t understand it in time (though Ann does) and Polly must strip him of what he has. Only then he can gather his inner strength, and, as the epigraph to Eliot says,
“The way upward and the way downward are the same.”
We can think of the pond as an allegory of imagination: the cello, Laurel's gift (personified in the horse) and Polly bring Tom closer to it, but if he disappears in there he can never come back to the "here now". Or we can blame the fact that he sinks not on the rules of the duel but on his gift from Laurel, that turns what he summons against him. If it was, he’s lucky not to have brought Polly on his behalf, because Leroy might have called on Laurel herself.
And do Tom and Polly end up together, despite the fact that she has to keep meaning what she said? Sure. It just means that she has to keep loving Tom enough to let him go, or she’ll lose him. It’s the same curse under which any sane relationship operates.
You see, I loved the ballad of Tam Lin. Janet is so cool. But it is the story of a woman pregnant by a married man (unhappily married to the Queen of the Fairies, but still) holding on to him despite him being utterly horrible to her (he turns into monsters. That’s a tough ordeal in any relationship). That accounts for the fact that the Queen gets the ominous last words: there is no happy ending in store for Janet and Tam Lin on those premises. That’s also why Tam Lin is such a handy ballad to invert.
DWJ knows that, and she introduces a prop: the Fairy King. In other words, The Queen cheated too! Leroy is the way out for Tom because he hurt him, both textually and in the context of the ballad. If he hadn’t, Tom couldn’t be a moral hero and Polly couldn’t operate the crucial change from holding on to letting go. And Tom is a moral hero; that’s the meaning of him saying “I did my best” at the end, and the interest of the character of Leslie, who has no morals and serves as a counterpoint.
And let’s think of how exactly Polly rejects Tom. She tells him the exact truth; and that’s important, because their relationship previously had been based on fusing reality and imagination. DWJ has already said with Ivy and Laurel that that won’t work. At the end of the book, they leave the “nowhere” and the “here now?” and start to live in reality. It doesn’t mean that they renounce imagination forever, but it does mean that they won’t be swallowed up by it. That’s why book-reading fades away from the narration when Polly grows into adulthood. And thus Diana says: the story is over and we’ve come home (meta! and a bit of the Odyssey in it too); if you want to be in love, keep your facts straight, and go beyond holding on- don’t cling. But she never goes so far as to write that down; she hardly ever writes anything explicitly. That frequently gives a particular brand of what-the-hell to certain passages of her books, but it also makes for the intuitive grasp characteristic of childhood that I really like. I do think that Fire & Hemlock is satisfactorily ended.
There probably is a lot more to see, but I'm practically sleeping on my computer. Perhaps another day.