Fire & Hemlock ending
JOdel at aol.com
JOdel at aol.com
Sun Aug 29 21:46:43 EDT 1999
I had already submitted this to the owner as an article, but the discussion
had run into the subject and the text fit into the body of an e-mail posting
so I figured, what the hey...
This is the posting that bounced. Let's see if it gets through this time.
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The original piece (there has been rewriting) was run through one of my apas
a few years ago. This occasion was provided by an ongoing discussion which
was in progress on a number of subjects, among them, Diana Wynne Jones's Fire
and Hemlock. I had expressed my own dissatisfaction with the ending. Another
member responded with the question of how did I think it OUGHT to have ended.
The result of his query was the following;
Fire & Hemlock: Reconsidered
"How would you have ended it?" Nat Case asks me. Well, thats certainly
telling me to put my money where my mouth is. But, after some consideration,
I have, in fact, gotten a handle on the ending's underlying problem. One
which satisfies me at least. Whether others will be as satisfied is debatable.
My first step, was to reread the Coda and try to pinpoint just where the
ending went wrong for me. I gradually found myself coming around to the
conclusion that Jones, in fact, HAS ended the adventure satisfactorily. Polly
and Thomas just haven't realized it yet. What Jones needed to have done was
to have stuck with them long enough for them to finish reasoning their way
from point E to point G.
I find that I am with Polly all through her summation of the circumstances
which have defined their relationship to the present. And her reasoning has
ended in a blind alley. Then, having reasoned herself into this impasse, she,
and the whole book, suddenly take a sidestep into a bog of imaginative
wordplay, which is what, to me, rings false. It's an easy mistake for Polly
to have made, considering their background. But it is a mistake.
The reader, however, accepts that Polly's estimation of the present
circumstances is correct -- because Polly has always BEEN correct in such
matters. -- But there is no real guarantee that she is correct NOW. And I
think that, this time, Polly's estimation of circumstances is NOT correct.
Polly's viewpoint is no longer correct because Laurel is finished with her!
Polly's uncanny accuracy in such matters to date has been wholey thanks to
This statement needs further examination. Polly, in her character of Hero (of
Tan Coul's band) has the magical gift of "knowing" things. Of knowing what is
real, of knowing what is needed. Why has she got this gift? _Because Thomas
Lynn has declared it to be so_ (before witnesses, in Bristol)! In accordance
with Laurel's "gift" to Thomas, whatever Thomas states is true. Or, rather,
it becomes true and bites him. In this case, what Thomas proclaimed became
true and bit Laurel.
And just why did Thomas ever come to say such a thing? Obviously, because it
appeared, to him, to be nothing less than the truth. Ever since he pulled
Polly out of the reading of Laurel's bogus will, she has come up with tales
which (from where he is standing) have a horrifying way of turning out to be
real. He is misled. He seems, at that point, not to have realized that
Polly's tales only come true once he has agreed to them. And, where "heroes'
business" is concerned, she and Thomas do seem to have stayed on the same
wave length to a remarkable degree. (Polly was able to recognize the other
heroes from a photograph, after all.) But Thomas has very actively entered
into this game, and without his participation, it would have remained no more
than that. Her epic, written at 14, Thomas dismissed as sentimental rubbish.
Consequently, very little of that piece of work ever broke through into Here
Mind you, I am not speaking of the ancient cycle in which he is trapped when
Polly meets him. This is the cycle to which Laurel and the King are bound.
Polly and Thomas have no control over it. (Not even Laurel and the King have
much.) But the "hero" tales were their own creation between them.
Does it occur to anyone other than me that the deathless Laurel is operating
under considerable limitations? Within her range, she is supremely powerful.
(She is also pitilessly resourceful whenever her power, or the cycle is
threatened.) But her range is extremely narrow. And has it occurred to anyone
out there, just how small the field is she that she hunts in? The characters
in this story are only those unlucky enough to actually live near her house,
or to stumble directly into her path. And, most important, she is not at all
imaginative. Indeed, considering her "gifts", to True Thomas -- to be unable
to speak anything but the truth, and to Thomas Lynn -- to have anything he
says become true and pursue him -- the indications are that Laurel places
about the same value upon the works of human imagination as the most rabid of
fundies. (Of course, theres a strong argument to be made that Laurel IS the
most rabid of fundies.) Laurel clearly doesnt approve of her subordinates
having ideas. Indeed, this disapproval may have some bearing upon her
preference for preying upon musicians. Music -- instrumental music, that is,
and Laurel's offerings tend to be instrumentalists -- doesnt really deal in
ideas, it deals in emotions.
And what can we say about her chosen offerings? Leslie, who seems very much
in the fine, traditional, feckless mode, although witty, can hardly be
accused of any overabundance of ideas. His father, at least, had just enough
smarts (and a wife and a child, of whom he was fond) to eventually realize
what was going on and bargain his way out of it. Thomas was a good deal too
young and -- probably -- hormone-ridden to have any idea of what he was being
pulled into when Laurel got her hands on him in exchange for his brother. (He
was all of, what? Sixteen?) And hes been struggling to get out from under
her rule since before the funeral.
Moreover, it never occurs to Laurel to suspect that any of her offerings'
actions COULD pose a danger to the cycle. After all, once they have come into
her possession, they do not ever escape, unless she agrees to it. And she
makes the laws that they live by from that point on.
Polly -- thanks to her secondhand gift -- figures this out just in time. But
she never has the chance to stop and ponder the implications of what she has
just realized. She only grasps that, where Janet could save Tam Lin merely by
holding on to him, if Thomas is to be saved, she, Polly, must set him loose
to save himself. What Polly has only dimly realized -- because she hasnt yet
had the time or the opportunity to think about it, is that once Laurels
rules betray her, she changes them.
The moment that Morton Leroy spins off into the abyss, all bets are off. The
rules to which we have been constrained throughout the story, no longer
operate. Thomas no longer creates the truth by declaring it, and Polly no
longer invariably "knows" what is real. (Laurel, of course, is perfectly
capable of letting Polly continue to _think_ that she does, thereby leading
Polly to cheat herself all over again.) Polly also hasn't quite realized that
Thomas is now safe, without any further input from her. (Or, at any rate, he
is safe from Laurel. Now that his life is no longer sacrosanct --being no
longer required -- his skill at the wheel may see him lying dead on the M5
before another month is out.)
It is entirely appropriate that Morton Leroy brings about his own downfall by
not letting Laurel's safeguards take care of themselves. He has a very up
close and personal interest in Thomas Lynn's life. But, where Laurel is
content to saddle Thomas with one of her "gifts" and let him off his leash
until she chooses to whistle him back to heel, Leroy can't resist keeping
tabs on him. (In Laurel's name, _he_ implies, which _I_ say is a fib.) When
he sees Laurel's "gift" go into action, he freaks out. (Does it occur to
anyone that he also has a problem about dealing with the products of
imagination?) The only thing he can think of to do is to try to end all
association between Thomas and Polly, which provokes the book's whole chain
of incidents, cumulating in Leroy's attempt to murder Polly at the Middleton
Fair. This meddling results in sufficient injury to Thomas (thereby breaking
Laurel's law) to enable Thomas -- by invoking this incident -- to force the
issue into actually bringing Leroy and himself face-to-face in a duel arcane,
rather than going out as a helpless sacrifice. From that point, it is up to
Thomas to save himself. Duels are not sacrifices. The laws governing them are
not the same. And before he can do so, he must return to Laurel all of the
gifts which she has ever given him.
Leroy's maneuverings were made without Laurel's knowledge. The one fatal
possibility, so far as he was concerned, was that Laurel might discover his
actions. When Polly's growing awareness brings her to the point of
overreaching herself, (egged on by Sebastian) and taking the battle into
Laurel's camp, she is utterly routed. Fortunately for Leroy, Laurel gives
Polly no chance to betray his involvement. Laurel simply, ruthlessly and
efficiently manipulates Polly into cheating herself, and dismisses her.
Laurel seems to have been willing enough to let Leroy do the final mopping
up afterwards, which he did, no doubt with outstanding gratitude, leaving as
little trace of his interference as possible. ("Edited by L. Perry", indeed!)
If Morton Leroy had left things alone, Thomas might well have been lost,
Polly or no Polly. For that matter, if things had been left as Laurel
arranged them from the point of routing Polly, Thomas would very likely have
paid the tiend without further argument. But Morton Leroy had taken his son
Sebastian (for whom he has some feelings) into his confidence. Sebastian, all
too aware of his own value as a future pawn, and, seeing the effect Polly has
had on his father's peace of mind, rounds her up and drags her back into the
circle to serve as his own ace in the hole. Leroy, having, as stated above,
some feeling for Sebastian, is actually pleased by this show of
resourcefulness. Laurel is furious.
Thanks to all of this meddling, Polly's buried memories begin to bump up
against their imposed restraints, and her gift starts to work itself loose
from them. And not a moment too soon. (One really wonders why Leroy ever
allowed her to retain possession of that book, however much edited. I suspect
he did so out of the same impulse to boast which led him to show himself
during the episode in Bristol.)
Laurel, however, continues to piously follow the laws to which she is
securely bound. In this cycle, Morton Leroy has paid the tiend himself.
Thomas is now safe. Insofar as I can decipher, he is free of Laurel forever.
(In the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin was successfully claimed by Janet, and
belonged to Janet at the end of the song. Thomas Lynn, on the other hand,
having saved himself, now belongs to himself.) Even under the somewhat
muddled rules which Polly understands, Thomas is free for the next nine
In that regard, we have from Laurel's own lips that, since Sebastian is
young, she may not even be needing lightweight Leslie. Nine years hence she
certainly will need no more than an average offering. Thomas Lynn's great
strength (and unruliness) was considered to be necessary for the renewal of a
king who had gone without replacement for a whole generation. It will not be
required by a King who is ten years younger than himself. In nine years more,
Leslie, (if Laurel so decides, and who she already holds) will do quite
nicely. Beyond that cycle, well, Laurel has very strict standards to which
she adheres when choosing her offerings. She wants them young, handsome, fair
rather than dark -- if given a choice in the matter, and she prefers them
musical. Can anyone conceive of Laurel having the slightest interest in even
so strong a life as Thomas Lynn's at the age of 50-something?
No, I think that Polly and Thomas have a far more difficult task ahead of
them than can be found in sophomoric word-games. They have yet to discover
whether either of them actually exists outside of Laurel's world. And how
much of who either one of them believes themself to be is actually real.
They also have a rather nasty piece of unfinished business standing between
them. A grown man who attaches himself to a lonely child and wraps her life
around his to save his own has done nothing laudable. Polly is quite right
about that. He has sincerely tried not to let her be harmed, which counts in
his favor. (In that regard, in even the most cursory comparison with Tam Lin,
he shines as a paragon of virtue -- again, Leslie is more in the traditional
mode.) But he has had enormous influence on her development, and it is yet to
be seen if this has been ultimately for the good.
Polly, on her side, and due entirely to that influence, has grown to depend
upon always knowing what is true, and of always being right, and clearly does
not realize that that security is no longer valid. Which suggests that she
may be riding for a jarring fall. Those double memories are unlikely to be
easy to adjust to living with, either.
For that matter, how long is it going to take Thomas to adjust to the fact
that flights of fancy on his part will not boil up out from under some rock
and come after him? Will he live long enough to do so, now that Laurel's
protection has been withdrawn? Physical recklessness has, to now, been more
of a habit with him than even elementary caution. Thomas and Polly each have
to move beyond living in Laurels shadow, by her laws and dependent upon her
gifts. They have never done so. It is a valid question to ask whether either
of them can actually survive in Here Now, let alone prosper.
In fact, they have a task of heroic proportions set for them. These two
_exceptional_ people must learn what it is to live in Here Now -- where
exceptions are rarely made -- upon the same terms as everyone else. They can
no longer escape into Nowhere, even briefly. That green, pleasant road is
closed to them, forever. If the wonder and adventure which has been so much a
factor in their association, are necessary ingredients to their continued
enjoyment of each other's company, they must learn to provide their own.
They must also learn to relate to each other as two adults. They have never
had to do that, either. And that is the easy part. The danger, as we can see,
is that "reality", as the world counts it, has had painfully little to do
with _any_ of their interaction to date, and they are essentially starting
out from less than zero. They've got their work cut out for them. And,
frankly, I dont know whether the two of them are up to it, either. Perhaps
it is just as well that Polly has shown herself willing to face the prospect
of giving Thomas up forever. She may yet have to.
Back in '78, when the book first came out, It sparked a good deal of
discussion. Some degree of dissatisfaction with the ending as it stands
seemed to be general. The overall feeling is that the situation was too
serious to be wriggled out of with no more than a sophomoric word game. One
of my friends, however was dissatisfied on a far more easily accessible
level. She was highly offended that, in the resolution, there was no
punishment dealt out to Laurel! An odd concept, to be sure, but that's what
bugged her. Eventually someone commented that having to go on being the
deathless Laurel to the end of time might just about do it.
I will have to admit that I do not like the ballad of Tam Lin. (This
viewpoint largely stems from the conviction that two wrongs do not make a
right.) I have little respect for the characters and do not understand the
fascination the ballad seems to have for literary types. Still, over the past
20+ years a number of retellings have spun off from it, and some of these
have been very good indeed. And Fire and Hemlock is one of the best. For my
own part, and from another direction, Ive also always rather admired the
conclusion (if nothing more) of Joan Vinges interpretation of this
particular ballad. In that iteration, after all the shouting is over, what
Janet discovers that she has won is -- a young knight. Exactly like the ones
back in her fathers Hall. No, I would have to say that the Fair Folk have
never been at any disadvantage in dealings with cold irony.
But, I will have to say that, given the narrowness of the deathless Laurels
hunting range, if Polly and Thomas do get together, and do somehow manage to
make a go of it, it might be just as well for the two of them to consider
immigrating to Canada.
Or to hope that they will be blessed only with daughters.
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