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

Posted October 31, 2014 by Lory in events, reviews / 17 Comments

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.

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17 responses to “Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)

  1. Oh yes, I'd certainly agree that Fire and Hemlock is SWJ's masterpiece. It's an amazing book. I think I'll re-read it (again) this week…

    I no longer remember where and how I ran into F&H. I know that I was an established DWJ fan by then, but whether it was in high school or college I'm not sure. I used to scour every library for her books and then read them over and over. I don't think I was able to actually buy a copy of F&H until a visit to the UK in 1996, where I cleaned out the DWJ shelf in Oxford's Blackwell's bookshop.

    My first DWJ book was young enough that it is not very exciting. In 6th grade, around 1984, I found "Witch's Business" on my school's library bookshelf. The library was in a trailer, and I remember exactly where the book was on the shelf and what it looked like–I must have read it several times. Then I got Howl's Moving Castle from the public library, and spent the rest of my life reading as much DWJ as I could find. I feel very lucky to have found her so young.

    • Great story! I vividly remember how excited I was when I finally found Witch's Business at a branch library in Seattle — as Ana mentions, this was before it was so easy to get a hold of books via the internet. But the thrill of discovery never wanes.

  2. I love this story! I wish I had such a clear memory of reading F&H for the first time. I know that my library didn't, at the time, have a copy, so I must have gotten it when Greenwillow put it back into print in the early 2000s. When I finally did get it, it felt like I had waited untold ages to read it, and it was every bit as good as I'd imagined.

    • I actually have no memory of reading Fire and Hemlock for the first time, nor do I know how many times I've read it. Every time I read it I see something new, though.

  3. I came to DWJ quite late, in 2006, a whole two years after I'd left Bristol — where Diana lived! I read The Merlin Conspiracy first and was then hooked, reading Fire and Hemlock soon afterwards. I got a sweet letter from Diana, who'd said 'hi' to a couple of friends who happened to live two doors away from her. I'd sent her a few Arthurian journals that I'd edited, and it's my guess she picked up a couple of ideas from one of them that contributed to The Islands of Chaldea (as I explain in my review https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/chaldea/).

    That's by the by — F&H is probably the finest of her many fine novels, I'd agree.

  4. This is the only Diana Winn Jones I've read and I remember how deliciously engrossing it was.

    Most people mention being teenagers when they discovered Jones, but I discovered DWJ later…after reading these posts, I'm actually glad that I've just now discovered her because now I have all this undiscovered reading!

  5. I discovered DWJ (and most of my other faves) from the Witchbaby mailinglist, which I guess was to me what Neil Gaiman's blog was to you. I read Fire & Hemlock for the first time in my late teens, having read all the published Chrestomanci and Howl books (at the time) and not knowing which to start next. It immediately became my favourite by DWJ, and one of my favourite books ever. If I recall, it's rereading Fire & Hemlock and searching for other reviews that led me to your blog in the first place 😀 And I relate to the whole books-being-hard-to-find bit; thankfully for us, Singapore is close enough and there's at least one girl in my year at school with an upcoming trip there. Before we had our own Kinokuniya, we pooled our resources and get whoever's going to Singapore to buy books that we'd share.

    Only two among us (the ones passing around books at school) loved F&H, but we loved it to bits. I conspired to get my own copy, which I then lost after lending it to too many people. And bought a new one again – by then we had a decent bookstore in my city, yay. Back then, I didn't think about representation or having girl!heroes but it definitely affected me strongly in that sense, and helped shape the person I am now. And it may have indirectly led me to my current job, trying to be some sort of Thomas Lynn (without the creepiness) and giving people the right books at the right time.

    • Giving people the right books is so important! How many people besides me made a list of all the books mentioned in F&H? (There's one in the zine offered in the giveaway, by the way.)

    • I did make a list 😀 I even made a Christmas wishlist consisting of only those books once – my friends mostly ignored it, but one of my colleagues (the one in charge of our mythology section) gave me The Golden Bough. There's still a lot I haven't read in the list, though.

  6. I love this post, Ana! We do take the availability of books for granted these days, don't we? It wasn't the case when I was a kid either.
    This book definitely gets better (and clearer) on reread. And I will say that prefacing my F&H reread with readings of both Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer was an amazing experience.

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