Diane Wynne Jones’ Fire & Hemlock

It’s a good solid book with memorable characters and an engrossing plot which got read in one rather long sitting on a cold, rainy afternoon late in October. SE real pots of Earl Grey tea and a number of the Kinrowan Estate Kitchen’s excellent scones were devoured in the reading of Fire & Hemlock.

In the original ballad Janet goes to Carterhaugh to pick roses, despite the dire warnings against doing so. There she encounters Tam Lin, and they argue. She returns to her family home, where her father observes that she is rather knocked up, but she refuses to say who her lover is. She returns to the woods to speak with Tam Lin again, and he reveals his human heritage and the threat against his life, including how she can save him.

She does this, and angers the Queen of Faeries in the process. True love wins, he’s converted to human form forever, and the Queen doesn’t get to make his guts into something not very useful. One assumes they lived happily ever after, screwed their brains out, and had lots of red-haired bairns. Are you shocked by this statement? Don’t be, as it is likely a good guess that that Child version of Tam Lin was a sanitized version of the original ballad as were the Grimm Fairy Tales when English language translators got through with those in the Victorian Era.

The core story has Polly as the mortal woman who must rescue Tam Lin (named Thomas Lynn here) from servitude to the Queen of Air and Darkness. (Yes, she’s the Dark Sidhe — not that you’ll find me believing any sidhe are good when it comes to their dealings with us mortals!) The twist is that Polly has had her memories of Thomas blocked — but now some years later she remembers he exists, though everyone else says he doesn’t. And all of this takes place within the setting of a small college, a brilliant de vision by Dean as it makes the story a contemporary one.

Adding to the updating of the ballad is that Polly is coming of age as a woman — and leaving for this college at the same time. What has happened in the years since she knew Thomas? Why has he been excised from her memory and that of the world at large? And why is it that Polly thinks she’s responsible for what has come to be? And how can she correct a wrong if she doesn’t remember it? And the setting of the tale at a small private college is inspired as it creates a setting that is both intimate and foreign to Polly.

I’m not telling more as sayin’ anything beyond what I’ve said already would spoil Fire & Hemlock. Find a comfortable chair with good lighting, and read it.

(Methuen Children’s Books, 1985)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related. My drink, or so my wife Brigid, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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