Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Tell me if I missed yours!

44 thoughts on “Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

  1. It took me two or three tries to “get” this book, and I’m still confused by the ending! It makes a wonderful companion to Pamela Dean’s work, doesn’t it? I wrote it up here.

    • I added your link. 🙂 I am actually mostly clear on the ending, though I’m still not sure what the ripply magic stuff in the pool was. And yeah, Pamela Dean’s book goes beautifully with it! I always wish I had more retellings of Tam Lin to read when I’m through with Dean’s Tam Lin.

    • You should read it again. I am in strong support of people rereading Diana Wynne Jones as often as possible. It wasn’t the case with Fire and Hemlock, but with most of her books I’ve had to read them twice before growing to love them. Fire and Hemlock is her best one, I think – a bit confusing in spots, but well worth the effort.

    • I had the loveliest day sitting out in the sunshine reading Fire and Hemlock and then Tam Lin – now I am sad I’ve finished them and will have to wait until I am in the mood for them again.

  2. Did you read “Sophie’s World”? That was what I liked so much about it…the fact that she had an unknown correspondent that was directing her reading (although, really, he would explain the various philosophers in fairly uncomplicated terms.) I think I like the idea of an unusual correspondent even more than the idea of getting books to read.

    • I did indeed like Sophie’s World – you probably put me on to it. I should read it again. I bought it for 50 cents at the same garage sale where I got my ergonomic desk chair. Mumsy, though, you remember, Tom didn’t just send books, he sent letters and stories that he’d written. Excellent correspondent!

  3. Oh, dear, I don’t think I can read this book, because then I’ll start thinking about that time when I was thirteen and I tried to write a book. I have a hard enough time with books where the characters have embarrassing experiences – if they remind me of my own embarrassing experiences it’s about a billion times worse.

    • Oh no! I shouldn’t have mentioned it! You have to read this book. It’s one of my five desert island books. That bit’s terrible but it’s obviously very true to life if it induces such cringes, and the rest of the book makes up for it.

  4. Oh yes, that part is sooooooo cringeworthy. I can hardly stand to read it either. [I’m not convinced that sentence is grammatically correct, but I can’t think how else to put it.]

    I, too, wrote sentimental drivel at that age; and although the manuscript is no more, the embarrassment endures – even though no-one read it but me.

    In fact, I don’t think I’ve attempted fiction since!

    The letter is harsh, I agree. But if you think about the conversation Polly’s grandmother had had with Tom before he left (which we find out about near the end of the book), I think that has a bearing on it too.

    Another point: Leroy comes from the Old French ‘le roy’, Modern French ‘le roi’ – ‘king’. Also, is the similarity between the names Laurel and Lorelei pure coincidence?

    • Oo, that’s a good point about Tom’s conversation with Granny. I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m sure that did play into his abruptness. Okay, I retract what I said about him being mean. That part of the book still gives me shuddery misery and makes me want to go through all my stuff and make sure I haven’t saved any stories I wrote at that age, but I guess Tom isn’t a meanie.

      I always think Laurel/Lorelai too. For some reason I managed to miss Leroy = king, in spite of several years of French lessons. Oh dear.

  5. I have both this and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin on my TBR pile, and am unfamiliar with the original story except for a passing acquaintance in Charles Vess’s The Book of Ballads… do you think it matters which one I read first?

    But it’s good to hear that you liked it (them), for whenever I do get around to reading it (them).

  6. You so make me want to read this again! I generally wait for Jones’ books to ripen into a certain degree of forgetted-ness before I go back to them. The problem with that is I forget some of the reasons I loved them so much!

    The garbage man was one of the creepiest things in the book Have you ever seen a dust devil? They are mini-tornadoes; which sounds like someone is trying to pull your leg until you see one. The two I saw as a kid were in town, and they grabbed up wrappers and leaves. Scary. I immediately thought of them when I read the description of the garbage man.

    *Now* I think it shows Jones’ power as a writer, how badly it hurts the reader as well as Sophie when Tom squashes her writing. I wonder if it happened to her in real life? As I teenager I couldn’t get past the shock. It’s a genuine betrayal of trust. It’s also one of the things that lifted the book out of the kid book realm and into the realm of the character novel. Suddenly Tom isn’t just the misty benefactor, the magical uncle–he is real enough to be mean and complicated. If Jones hadn’t showed that, together Sophie’s changing perceptions as she grew up (I like what you say about that!), there wouldn’t have been the possibility of an equal relationship. That’s probably why the ending seemed right when I was grown-up, but flummoxed me as a teen. I’m really looking forward to your review of Pamela Dean alongside this one!

    • For me, while Polly grows older, Tom grows younger. Perhaps only in Polly’s (and our) perceptions; but this is a world where the faerie lies alongside the everyday, and I always felt they do truly draw closer in age. Perhaps it’s to do with Tom getting further out of Laurel’s influence – I can’t say escaping her reach, exactly, but he did somehow break her hold on his everyday life if not his ultimate destiny.

      It’s interesting a couple of you find Tom’s letter mean. I didn’t read it that way – I think he’s absolutely right, although he could have been more diplomatic. It *is* sentimental drivel, and totally illustrates for me that phase of Polly’s growing older. Between the true-seeing child and the true-seeing adult, comes the teenage girl where things get mixed up and ultimately all go horribly wrong. The fact that we all relate to that phase so well, and cringe when we think of it, only reinforces that for me.

      As you point out, trapunto, Tom is a real person too, and I guess he probably feels upset, and betrayed as well, by Polly’s changing and growing up and becoming a teenager – it complicates their relationship which before was much more clearly delineated as adult-child. What is he to do with that?


        Er, just, this is great. I love talking about Fire and Hemlock with other people that love it, and I do not have that many opportunities to do it.

        I have a visceral reaction to Tom’s “sentimental drivel” letter that makes it impossible for me to view it as just a regular part of the plot. But y’all are making me think about it from Tom’s point of view – you’re right, of course. They’re growing closer in age, and it must have been hellishly uncomfortable for Tom to get that story from Polly that suggested that she was leaning towards swooshily romanticizing hero work (and by extension, him). So I suppose that, along with Granny’s warning Tom off, made him sharper than he would ordinarily have been. Hmmm.

        trapunto – No, I’ve heard of dust devils but I’ve never seen one. It makes my eyes water even reading about them (contact lenses do not fare well with dust).

      • “While Polly grows older, Tom grows younger.” What a cool idea!

        Hm, I like the way you make your point, Parisreader. I am inclined to leave kids to discover they have been writing sentimental drivel for themselves. It’s painful enough even then. But maybe some of them need the shock treatment of being told, or they never figure it out? The amount of drivel in the world suggests a lot of people never do…

        “…impossible for me to view it as just a regular part of the plot.” Same with me, Jenny. I think that’s why it’s so fun to hear people talk about books I really like. They open them out. It’s like getting to spend more time in the story, and see new scenery that wasn’t there before. (And so terrible to be forced to hear people talk about books I hated. That’s like being taken on a long, carsick sightseeing drive in the back of a smelly car.) May I ask if your grad school plans pertain to literature?

      • trapunto, you have a point; it probably is better (and kinder) for the driveller to discover it for themselves. Although, Polly did come to see the justice of it very rapidly after the letter about pimply backs (yeuch!) whereas she otherwise might have gone on writing sentimentally, and thought it good, and shown it to other people… Hmm, I can see both sides.

        I’m now thinking about her earlier LOTR-like story – on that occasion Tom was no less blunt, but he was kinder. That makes me pretty sure his own state of mind comes into it.

      • trapunto – It does, yeah, I’m applying for creative writing. Fingers crossed. :/

        And I did write the most sentimental drivel when I was fourteen – actually, from what I recall (I destroyed it sensibly when I got older), it was a lot like Polly’s story about Tan Coul and Hero. It was embarrassing enough getting older and realizing what crap my old stories were – it would have been SO MUCH WORSE if someone had pointed it out to me. Ungently. Twice. Or no, three times, because he brings it up again at the carnival!

        I just went back and checked (I’m a dork), and it turns out Polly gets the sentimental drivel letter just before Granny tells off Tom. I think the letter is partly trying to make her aware of the kind of sticky sentimentality that Laurel uses against her later, and partly trying to steer her mind in another direction (away from the hurt/comfort tendencies she seems to be displaying). His motives have been complicated by her not being a little girl anymore, and his feeling responsible for her. Their last encounter was when her parents ditched her in Bristol. Messy motives.

    • O damsel of great courage, I salute you!

      [“I destroyed it sensibly when I got older.”] A locked metal strongbox will also do the trick nicely. Or a word processing file saved in a no-longer-retrievable format.

      You *do* know that you already know how to write, right? Really well? Just checking…

      • Thank you! So kind of you to say – now if only the schools were I’m applying share your opinion. 🙂

        Oh, yeah, I don’t trust locked strongboxes. Because then the stories are still around. Most of the awful tripe I wrote at age fourteen, I deleted from a computer that has now died and been recycled. So there’s no retrieving it (thank God). (I’m cringing, remembering it.) (I did not say the silken smooth skin of his back like Polly – but pretty nearly.)

  7. I’m going to have to add this one to my TBR–you know how I love the Tam Lin. I was just thinking recently about how I wanted to read more Tam LIns.

    Actually, maybe I just want to go and read that whole fairy tale novel series again.

      • Well, little madam, back in the long long ago days of the 1990s, a mysterious wide woman called Terri Windling discovered that there wasn’t quite enough magic left in the world. To combat that, along with Ellen Datlow she edited a series of anthologies of fairy tales reworked for modern tastes. She also edited a series of novels, again based on old tales, and from that series came Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and Patricia Wrede’s Snow White and Rose Red, among novels by others like Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, and Charles de Lint. But after a time, such thigs went out of fashion, and since, the tales have languished in obscurity, awaiting Romantics to awaken them once more.

      • Hm, your story intrigues. I didn’t realize Snow White and Rose Red was part of the same series of novels – when I was small I didn’t care for it, but it’s been years since I read it. I must find the other books in this series!

    • If you liked Howl’s Moving Castle, try Castle in the Air. It’s not exactly a sequel, but it’s set in the same world, and there are cameos from some of the characters from Howl’s Moving Castle. Plus, it’s charming. Archer’s Goon is really good, and The Homeward Bounders is bittersweetmazing. And yes, Fire and Hemlock is the very best one of all her books, and there are many, many good ones.

  8. I’ve read ‘Fire and hemlock’ a few times and i love it, i read it first when i was about 15 and still love it now. Oddly enough, considering the story, I thought it finished differently when i first read it. I did think I was imagining things but i heard the same thing from a couple of other people…

  9. Someone had the idea that maybe she re-released it a bit differently to mess with our heads…? Or possibly just a really good example of the power of suggestion… = )

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