Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

My theme for this first season of books is retellings of folk and fairy tales. This is a common premise for fantasy novels, but folk and fairy tales appear in stories from a wide range of genres. In curating this series I’ve tried to choose examples that aren’t the obvious ones — stories from outside the fantasy section, tales from different cultures, as well as a few old favourites of my own. I hope you enjoy my selection! And I’d love to know which retellings you’ve enjoyed — feel free to leave recommendations in the comments.

6ce92d01a36496259736a396751444341587343“Suppose,” she said, “I really am like the man in the story, and something happened to change my past.”

It was intended simply as a soothing daydream, to bury the strange pointless worry that seemed to be growing in her. But suddenly, out of it leaped a white flash of conviction. It was just like the way those four — or more — figures used to leap into being behind the fire in that photograph. Polly glanced up at it, almost expecting to see them again. There were only men-shaped clumps of hedge. The flash of conviction had gone too. But it left Polly with a dreary, nagging suspicion in its place: that something had been different in the past, and if it had, it was because of something dreadful she had done herself.

When Polly was a child, her greatest friend was a man called Thomas Lynn. Together they made up stories, in which Tom was a giant-killing hero and Polly his sidekick, stories which had an uncanny knack of coming true. So why doesn’t Polly remember Tom, and why does no-one else remember him either? And why does she have an awful feeling that it’s all her fault? As Polly gradually remembers more and more about her life with Tom, we follow the story of their friendship.

Polly’s story starts when she is 10 years old, staying with her Granny while her parents are separating. One Hallowe’en, while trespassing with her friend, she accidentally gatecrashes a funeral in the large eerie house at the end of the street. She meets Tom, a tall, shy man, and they become friends. She also encounters Laurel, a beautiful bullying woman whom everybody obeys, Morton, a sinister man with dark shadows under his eyes, and Seb, a rude boy a bit older then Polly. When Tom is allowed to choose some pictures as part of his inheritance, Polly helps him and he gives her a photograph called ‘Fire and Hemlock’.

We follow Polly and Tom’s correspondence and friendship through the next few years, against the backdrop of dealing with her parents’ divorce and navigating the world of a teenager in England in the mid-1980s. As well as making up stories together, Tom sends her books, but perhaps he has an ulterior motive….

The story is based on two British folk tales: Tom is both Thomas the Rhymer, who is kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and released years later, unable to tell a lie, and Tam Lin, who belongs to the Fairy Queen after she saved his life, and is destined to become one of her sacrifices to Hell. Laurel is a convincingly creepy Fairy Queen (and do not be fooled by the twee description, the Queen of the Fairies in folklore is a scary lady!), appearing to be just a rich society lady but underneath holding everyone around her in her thrall. The fairytale elements are blended seamlessly into the story, giving the sense that all sorts of sinister fantastical things could be happening under the surface of everyday life — I really like the idea that the Fairy Kingdom could be a creepy house in a small town in Oxfordshire!

Polly is one of my favourite heroines, she’s bookish, sensible and just the right amount of whimsical. She’s also a normal, relatable teenager, who joins her school’s athletics club (albeit because it will help her be a hero). Her friendship with Tom could be seen as a little sinister in today’s less innocent society but I was reassured as I reread — it’s portrayed really well. In general the relationships between the characters are really three-dimensional: some are lovely but more are abusive or compulsive (especially if one of the people is Laurel), a theme I totally missed when I read this book as a child. One of the best themes is that “true courage is sticking to your convictions even when you feel silly and people are laughing at you” which I think is a wonderful idea!

For another retelling of Tam Lin, try ‘Tam Lin’ by Pamela Dean — set at an American midwestern college where the Fairy Queen is the head of classics and the entire classics department is enchanted!

2 thoughts on “Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. I love Diana Wynne Jones!

    I’d like to nominate “The Madness Season” by C. S. Friedman for a review in this series.
    (I’d also recommend her other novel “This Alien Shore”, but not “In Conquest Born”.)


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