Fire & Hemlock ending

JOdel at JOdel at
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, that’s 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, there’s a strong argument to be made that Laurel IS the 
most rabid of fundies.) Laurel clearly doesn’t 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 -- doesn’t 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 he’s 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 hasn’t yet 
had the time or the opportunity to think about it, is that once Laurel’s 
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 Laurel’s 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 don’t 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, I’ve also always rather admired the 
conclusion (if nothing more) of Joan Vinge’s 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 father’s 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 Laurel’s 
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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