|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!
|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.
|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.