Oct 27, 2008

Fire and Hemlock

by Diana Wynne Jones

A story within a story within a story. That's my broad impression of Fire and Hemlock. I first read this book years ago as a teen, and puzzled through the entire thing. I knew it was a reworked fairy tale, but had no idea which one. This despite the quotes from Thomas the Rymer and the ballad of Tam Lin heading every chapter. I wasn't familiar with the ballad until later when I read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. Now I realize (thanks to some comments at Things Mean A Lot) that Fire and Hemlock is also a retelling of Tam Lin.

The book opens with its main character, Polly, musing over some confusing memories. They began when she was ten years old, dressed up in black for Halloween and accidentally intruded upon a funeral. A kind man named Thomas Lynn helped her sneak out again (but not undetected) and she engaged him in her game of "Let's Pretend"- creating alternative identities for them both as heroes-in-training. Thus began a lifelong friendship. Lynn was a musician and frequently traveled, but for years they wrote letters back and forth full of invented stories about their hero alter egos, and he constantly sent her books. Polly values Lynn's friendship- her own father is often absent- but neither her mum or grandmother approve of him. More disturbing, some people from the funeral house are spying on her, and then aspects of the stories she and Lynn have made up begin appearing in the real world. Polly begins to realize something unusual is going on, but she can't figure out what, and when she finally does, it may just be too late...

The story was definitely less opaque to me this time, although I still don't quite understand the significance of the hemlock picture (I've read that hemlock is poisonous, but does it have some mythical properties too?) and the closing scene is very confusing, even after reading it several times I'm still not sure what happened there. It's all set in England, and I enjoyed the sense of place and occasional foreign (to me) British words. All of the characters are interesting: Polly's stern and wise grandmother, suspicious and unhappy mother, bossy extroverted friend Nina, the dignified kindly Lynn himself, and many many others. When reading the part where Polly performs in a pantomime, I immediately recalled a similar scene from another British writer- a little boy's ballet performance as a cygnet in Thursday's Children by Rumer Godden. I've got to write about her books soon. They're among some of my favorites too.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 341 pages, 1985

More opinions at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Jenny's Books 
Book Nut


  1. I'm not familiar with Rumer Godden, so I look forward to your posts about her books.

    For more on Fire & Hemlock's structure, the ending, etc., you can always check out this site. The Diana Wynne Jones essay they link to at the end helped me make sense of a lot of things in the book!

  2. Thanks for the link, Nymeth! I recognized many of the references in the story, but totally missed Cupid and Psyche, and the Odyssey (which I've never read). I didn't read the entire Jones essay linked to on the bottom of that post- text too small, but I'm printing it out to peruse at leisure later on.

  3. I've just started reading Diana Wynne Jones, and this one's on my list (thanks to a recommendation from Nymeth, in fact!). It sounds pretty dense, though, which is good to know going in, so I'm not expecting fluffy fantasy - thanks for the review!

  4. I read the Jones essay. That answered a lot of my questions! I didn't realize how very carefully constructed the story was. I almost wish I'd read it before the book this time, and will file it away to do so next time. Although the scene at the end is still a muddle to me.

  5. Anonymous10/29/2008

    This is one of my total favorite books in the world. Along with Thursday's Children, actually. Hey, I should reread that.

    *goes off to reread that*

  6. I've never read Rumer Godden, but I know *of* her because Bruce and Demi named a kid after her. Har.

    I've got a Diana Wynne Jones book I bought for my son. He never read it, so I really ought to do so myself.


Comments are screened due to spam.