Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
US hardcover, Greenwillow

To kick off Witch Week, we’re taking a look at Fire and Hemlock (1984), a book in which today’s date plays a very important role. It begins (after a brief prologue) when ten-year-old Polly accidentally stumbles into an ominous Halloween funeral at a nearby manor, and makes a life-changing connection to a man named Tom Lynn; and it ends on the same date nine years later, after Polly has learned much more about Tom and the sinister significance of that event. Not a retelling, but a sort of variation on themes introduced in the ballads of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” it brilliantly but unobtrusively mines the depths of folklore and myth while telling a very modern story, one in which the act of storytelling itself is central.

I believe Fire and Hemlock to be Diana Wynne Jones’s masterpiece — and Ana, who shares my high opinion of it, is here today to share her story about how she first encountered this marvelous and multi-faceted book. Ana is a UK-based reader and blogger. She works for a large public library system and has a particular interest in reader’s development work with young people. She writes about fantasy, children’s literature, non-fiction, cult TV and more at Things Mean a Lot and also contributes to Lady Business. Welcome, Ana!

Fire and Hemlock is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, and one of those books I know would have been hugely important to me no matter when I discovered them. But as it happens, the circumstances in which I came across it for the first time made it even more special. Fire and Hemlock was also my first Diana Wynne Jones, and although normally I’d be inclined to suggest that starting with an author’s best work is setting yourself up for future disappointment, there was no such risk in this case. First, because as much as Fire and Hemlock may be my favourite, it’s not like the rest of DWJ’s work isn’t amazing; secondly, because Jenny’s Law applies: DWJ is always better on a reread. Suddenly I knew they existed, all these marvellous books I could read and then read again; suddenly my world had grown in small but meaningful ways.
botanical illustration plant
Poison Hemlock (source: Botanical.com)

I remember the day I got my copy of Fire and Hemlock well: it was the end of the summer when I was nineteen, and I was about to start my second year of college but still living at home. My literary diet that year had consisted of copious amounts of Discworld and Sandman, two series I still love. They shaped my sensibility, and I’m immensely grateful for that — but at the time they were the limits of what I knew, and I wanted more. That summer I’d also been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, which as I’ve mentioned before did more to raise me and form my tastes than any other single source I can think of. That was where I came across Diana Wynne Jones’s name for the first time.

When I was a teenager, my life was empty of a lot of things I almost take for granted now. This was before blogging and ease of access to endless sources of recommendations; before I had access to a public library service, let alone worked for one; before the post-Harry Potter market boom that started to make the kinds of books I wanted to read widely available in my country; before there were any sizeable bricks and mortar bookshops in the town where I lived. This was a time when even shopping for books online was a challenge — there were no magical words such as “Free Worldwide Delivery”, and not having a credit card made things incredibly difficult. (I remember, for example, that to gain access to the last few Harry Potter books without having to wait at least six months for a translation I had to ask a friend who had permission to use his parents’ credit card online to order me a copy along with his. At the time Amazon was not an increasingly evil monopoly — it was, for someone like me, something that gave me unprecedented possibilities.)
The day I bought Fire and Hemlock, I had gone with my parents to take my brother to the airport. He was, if I remember correctly, going to a scientific congress in Poland, his first big one, and all day I was filled with a vague longing for travelling adventures of my own. I hadn’t been anywhere much, not yet, and as much as I was happy for him I also wanted it to be me. My brother was going to be gone for less than a week, but I went along to the airport because I’d extracted a promise from my parents to stop at the Big Bookshop in the large city with the airport on our way back. The Big Bookshop wasn’t actually that big by most standards, but at the time it, too, represented possibilities beyond what was ordinarily within my reach. I kept hoping it would eventually surprise me with a wonderful find — and that one day, it did.
Tam Lin illustration
The White Steed, from Tam Lin by L.J. LeRolland

I found Fire and Hemlock, along with The Homeward Bounders, inside a bargain box of slightly tatty books in English. They were, I believe, €2 each — an astonishing thing in and of itself, before second-hand bookshops and library sales had become part of my world (books were expensive, easily more than €15 each, and thus had to be rationed). I recognised Diana’s name from Neil Gaiman’s blog and immediately pounced on them. And suddenly there it was: a small everyday miracle, a book I’d love more than I could possibly imagine, an unprecedented set of possibilities. There’s something about the mood of Fire and Hemlock that perfectly matches how I felt that summer. I desperately wanted my world to grow; Polly gave me that, in a way. Diana Wynne Jones’s reworking of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” was, among many other things, a story that saw me. It was about a bookish girl who vaguely wanted more, who learned that magic has sharp edges, who in the end fought for what she wanted to keep. It was, beyond any doubt, a narrative centred on this girl’s experiences. That mattered to me in ways I couldn’t yet pinpoint.

Many years later, when I read DWJ’s Reflections On the Magic of Writing, I came across an essay she wrote on writing Fire and Hemlock and on her growing desire “to have a real female hero.” It was a long, convoluted journey from that summer to where I am today, aware of feminism and representation issues and of how not really seeing ourselves in stories affects how girls like me make sense of the world. I wasn’t yet read to articulate any of this back then, but I recognised something in Fire and Hemlock. In many of Diana Wynne Jones’s stories (and Ursula Le Guin’s, another discovery from around the same time), girls get to be messily, gloriously human. I needed that desperately, and I’m glad I had these stories to keep me company during the years it took me to work out why.

Thank you, Ana, for starting off our week so beautifully with your journey of discovery. If other readers have a story about your first encounter with Diana Wynne Jones, I’d love to hear it (mine is here). If you haven’t yet read her, I hope that this week you’ll find a place to start. 

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at an early but very accomplished book, Power of Three, which again considers how the power of words and language can be used for both good and evil. And watch for the Witch Week giveaway, which starts at midnight tonight.

Witch Week 2014: Preview and Master Post

Diana Wynne Jones blog event


…Witch Week, when there is so much magic around in the world that all sorts of peculiar things happen… — Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Welcome to Witch Week at the Emerald City Book Review, where for the first time I’m hosting what I hope will become an annual event celebrating our favorite fantasy books and authors. This year, we’re focusing on one of the best fantasy authors of all time, who is also the originator (as far as I know) of the term “Witch Week” — British writer Diana Wynne Jones. What will be happening?

Guest Posts: From October 31 through November 4, there will be a different guest blogger each day commenting on some favorite DWJ titles. You won’t want to miss any of these!

Readalong: On November 5, bring your thoughts about the book Witch Week to our readalong post, or just visit to see what other readers have to say.

author blog event Wikimedia
Diana Wynne Jones

Giveaway: From November 1 through 5, in sync with the Literary Blog Hop, enter a giveaway for a copy of artist Emma Jane Falconer’s unique DWJ zine, a $10 Powell’s gift certificate, and (US/Canada only) the new Tor edition of Deep Secret. You’ll get extra points for leaving a comment on any of the announcement posts, including this one!

Link up your own posts: Use the linky below, or just leave a comment or send me an email at withawhy99 [at] gmail [dot] com to let me know of any related posts you’ve done on your own blog at any time (does not have to be from this week). I’ll do a roundup on the final day of the week, November 6.

However you choose to participate, I hope you enjoy Witch Week! This is a new venture for me, so your comments and suggestions are much appreciated. Happy reading!

Witch Week starts in one week!

One week from today, I’ll be hosting Witch Week, a celebration of fantasy fiction and of one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. If you haven’t already, please check out the announcement post and consider signing up. Then come back to ECBR on October 30 for a preview, giveaway details, and more before the fun really starts on Halloween.

The six books we’ll be focusing on during the week

I’m busy getting everything in place for next week, but in the meantime here are links to my own earlier posts about DWJ and just a few of her marvelous books:

And here are some of my favorite reviews and other musings from the lovely bloggers who will be contributing guest posts next week:

Are you joining us? What are you looking forward to during the week?

A Traveller in Time: Hild

Nicola Griffith, Hild (2013)


Hilda historical Whitby fiction

Hild is not a novel for everyone. If you are put off by the thought of a dense, slow-moving narrative largely preoccupied with political machinations in a remote period of British history, populated by a large cast of characters whose every other name seems to begin with Os- or Aeth- or Ed-, you might want to look elsewhere. But readers for whom this sounds like an intriguing challenge rather than a form of literary torture will be rewarded by a rich and immersive experience of that alien land, the past, and by the chance to encounter an unforgettable central character.

Who is Hild? She is based on a real person, the daughter of a displaced king in seventh-century Northumbria. She became known to history as Saint Hilda, founder of the important abbey of Whitby, a teacher of bishops and advisor of kings. In nearly 600 pages, the novel only deals with her early years, bringing her just over the threshold of womanhood. Only a few fragments of fact-cum-legend remain about this period of Hild’s life, tiny seeds that in Griffith’s imagination have blossomed into a comprehensive vision of an extraordinary girl growing up in a dangerous and revolutionary time, when petty kings fought for territory with ruthless brutality, and a strange new religion became another weapon in their wars.

Though baptized at thirteen as part of the general conversion of her uncle King Edwin’s court, the Hild of the novel sees the Christ as “just a god like any other.” This new god displaces Woden more through political expediency — he has powerful mortal allies in kings, bishops and archbishops, and the pope — than through any kind of inner moral transformation. Two more novels are projected to continue the story, and I am very curious to see how Hild will develop into the woman revered as a crucial figure in the development of Christianity. Will Christ come to mean anything more to her than just the god who happened to come out on top in the religion war?

It’s quite an ambitious task, this attempt to get into the minds of our hybrid pagan-Christian ancestors, and while she may make some missteps Griffith largely convinces us through the sheer vitality and piercing precision of her language. Passages of lyrical beauty bring the natural and sensual world to life, making us feel that we see through Hild’s eyes into a world unimaginably different from ours yet strangely familiar. Here’s her response to hearing a new kind of music, brought by one of the Christian deacons with his choir:

The music, when it came with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.

She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.

It was cool music, inhuman, the song stars might sing. Endless, pouring, pure. Were it water, it would turn any bird who drank it white.

The music soared. Hild soared with it.

In a wonderful article in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books, Nicola Griffith wrote, “For me a good novel is one that draws me in and puts me right there, right then, with the characters: I walk where they walk, feel what they feel. I live their lives, just for a little while, and come back increased.” I certainly feel increased by having had the opportunity to live with and through Hild for a time, and I can’t wait to walk with her again.

For those who just can’t get enough of Hild’s world, Nicola Griffith blogs about her research and associated matters here.


My First Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost

Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Robertson Davies first novel

When I was in college, my campus bookstore had a tempting array of current fiction on the way to the textbooks. Among these were several strikingly designed Penguin paperbacks by an author named Robertson Davies. After looking at them for years I finally bought one: Davies’s first novel, Tempest-Tost, about an amateur production of Shakespeare’s play in a provincial Canadian town.

And how glad I was that I did! With a sure comic touch, Davies assembles his cast of characters and lets them make fools of themselves, occasionally learning something in the process, in the best Shakespearean tradition. The pompous English professor who simply must play Prospero with his own special touch; the drama club president, preoccupied with impressing her social superiors; the suddenly stage-struck mathematics teacher whose staid and comfortable life is shaken up by his venture into theatrical circles; the gloriously unconventional church organist with a passion for Henry Purcell; the young assistant director bound by painful ties to his invalid mother; all these and more entertain and divert us with their own comedy alongside the one they are preparing for the stage.

In this early work, Davies sometimes lets the seams of his novelistic construction show. He can’t resist including some incidents and bits of dialogue that don’t quite fit — as when he puts one of his favorite sayings (“chastity means having the body in the soul’s keeping”) in the unlikely mouth of the ingenue Griselda, or shoehorns in a scene that shows off his knowledge of the value of some forgotten old books. An actor, director, and playwright himself, Davies is somewhat given to staginess and long passages of dialogue that seem out of place in this brief work of fiction.

Robertson Davies trilogy novels

All of these rough spots would be smoothed out in future novels, where Davies really came into his own as a fiction writer. The comic sense and eccentric characters, as well the evidence of his formidable learning and eclectic interests, remain — but his storytelling becomes more accomplished and compelling, resulting in a most satisfying reading experience. For a sample of his narrative power at its height, I recommend Fifth Business (first of the Deptford Trilogy, about the surprisingly interwoven destinies of three boys from a small Canadian town); my personal favorite, What’s Bred in the Bone (a wonderful exploration of the art world, among other things); or his final novel, The Cunning Man (conceived as the memoir of a physician who was “holistic” before it was trendy).

Rereading Tempest-Tost just now after an interval of many years, I was struck by the opening scene — a motherless young girl, living in a large estate, with a faithful ex-military family retainer and a lovely older sister she describes as “brainless,” engaged in a somewhat shady activity. The activity is wine-making instead of concocting poisons, and the girl’s family is still comfortably wealthy instead of living on the edge of insolvency, but is this set-up not reminiscent of that of the Flavia de Luce mysteries? The two girls even both have unusual names that start with F (here, Fredegonde).

In another somewhat awkward move, Davies abandons Freddy after the opening chapter and his story goes into quite a different direction — but still, it made me wonder whether fellow Canadian author Alan Bradley was consciously or unconsciously inspired by this scene. It would not be a bad thing for more writers to read and be inspired by Davies’s example of intelligent, emotionally resonant fiction, or for more readers to discover its pleasures.

Robertson Davies Booker shortlistDavies never won the Booker Prize, though he was shortlisted for What’s Bred in the Bone  in 1986. At the time surprise was expressed in the UK at the presence of two Canadians on the list, the other being Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale. Davies said dryly, “The English are just a little late in discovering what the rest of the world has known for some time.” (Alas, both lost to third-time nominee Kingsley Amis.)

We’re in a different world now, where Canadian authors like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, and Bradley himself garner wide readership and honors, but Davies was their forerunner, and deserves all the recognition we can posthumously give him. Whichever book you start with, I hope you’ll agree.


Lost in Translation: Le Grand Meaulnes

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)


Alain-Fournier French novel

It’s been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer’s art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There’s the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there’s how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.

But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.

Given these limitations, how do we appreciate a novel that we are reading in a language not its own? I felt I could only judge Le Grand Meaulnes for its basic ideas and structure, which are no more than its bones, and that I was missing the most vital, intangible element, its animating spark of life. The result was a rather frustrating experience, like trying to see a scene of magical beauty through a thick distorting glass.

To summarize the “bones”: A young man, the Meaulnes of the title, wanders by accident into a mysterious domain where costumed revelers, many of them children, are preparing for the son of the house to return with his bride. Their celebration is abruptly ended without the expected wedding, but not before Meaulnes has met and fallen in love with the daughter of the house. He returns to school without knowing where the domain is, and spends the next months and years trying to find it and his lost love; he also becomes involved in the affairs of the other unhappy couple, which tragically intersect with his own.

All of this is narrated not by Augustin Meaulnes himself, but by a younger boy who was enchanted by “le grand Meaulnes” when he entered the country school run by his father. As he tells the story sometimes in his own voice, sometimes by piecing together his friend’s journals, letters, or narratives, he stands as the reader’s surrogate, trying to comprehend events that he cannot fully participate in, and make a whole out of fragments of experience.

The translation I read was by Frank Davison; a more recent one by Robin Buss exists, but I didn’t have access to it in full. I found a couple of examples, however, which provided some instructive contrasts. The Davison translation struck me as rather stiff and formal; the Buss translation appears to dispense with some of the elaborate language but in the process becomes more pedestrian and everyday. Which of these is more true to the French original I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that they are two different attempts at solving an impossible problem.

The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life. (Davison

The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life. (Buss translation)

* * *

Meaulnes was in haste to find someone to give him a lift, in haste to be off. He had now a deep-seated dread of being left alone in the domain and shown up for a fraud. (Davison translation)

He was in a hurry to leave. Deep inside him, he was worried that he might find himself alone on the estate and his deception be revealed. (Buss translation)

I confess to not finding either of these treatments very artistically satisfying. With more evocative language, I might have been more easily captivated by the story of Meaulnes and his strange, restless journeying; as it was, I often felt a bit baffled. It was hard for me to become interested in the romantic yearning of Meaulnes and Yvonne, who exchange fewer than a dozen sentences from the time they meet to the time they marry, and the complicated mystification which parts them in the last section seemed to me unnecessary, when with some logic and patience the problem could be solved without all the agony. It’s all very French, I suppose — which is why if it were in French it might make more sense.

It seemed to me as I read that a cinematic “translation” might actually be more appropriate. (At least two films have been made of the novel, that I know of, though I have not seen either of them.) The heart-stopping beauty of the landscape, the relationships forged more through glance and gesture than through speech, the dreamlike nature of the lost domain and of the quest to find it again, all seem good candidates for a visual treatment. If the author had been born a bit later, or had not been killed so young in the First World War, he might even have found an artistic affinity to film-making himself.

On the other hand, at times the emotional fervor of the author breaks through the clumsiness of the English words, and one can catch a glimpse of what has become lost in translation.

She was asleep, so still and silent that she seemed not to be breathing. He thought: that’s how birds must sleep. For some time he stood looking at her sleeping, childlike face, so perfectly tranquil that it seemed a pity it should ever be disturbed. 

 * * *

At each step, with this burden on my breast, I find it more difficult to breathe. Holding close the inert, heavy body, I bend over her head and take a deep breath, drawing into my mouth some strands of golden hair; dead hair that has a taste of earth. This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure …

“But how can a man who has once strayed into heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth?” Meaulnes cries at one point. Le Grand Meaulnes is an attempt to express something almost inexpressible, to give us a picture of the deepest longings of the human heart. Even though translation may dim its full radiance, its scenes and images still resonate.

It has been suggested that The Great Gatsby owes something of its genesis to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its parallel, pitch-perfect title construction (the French could not be literally translated without sounding like “The Great Moan”) and the use of a passive narrator on the sidelines of a great love story. Perhaps this is an instance of what I mentioned at the beginning, a “translation” that takes some of the essence of a work but re-creates it anew for a new language, culture, and sensibility. There’s no direct evidence of this — no record of Fitzgerald having read or spoke of Alain-Fournier — but now that I’ve met Meaulnes, I’ll be very interested to take another look at Gatsby.

Classics Club List #39
An appreciation by David Mitchell