Fire and Hemlock again (LONG, and With Spoilers!)

Dorian E. Gray israfel at
Tue May 18 16:00:49 EDT 2004

Ika's recent question about why some of us love "Fire and Hemlock" set off
two things in my head.  One was a desire to reread it yet again (which I
have just done), and the other was a post I wrote about two and a half years
ago regarding the very complex ending of said book.

So, having reread the book, I went back to my old post, and found that I
have thought of several more things since I wrote it.  It was written, by
the way, off a question: "Why do Polly and Tom manage to cheat Laurel?", and
it was based on about 15 years of reading and rereading the book.

So now, for everyone's delectation, I present my old post, with my new
thoughts interspersed.  Those who have not yet read it, or do not care about
my thoughts, should hit the 'delete' key now.

For those who do wade through it, I'd love to hear your opinions and
arguments.  (For them as missed my first thoughts, and wish to make direct
comparisons, you can find them in the archives, posted by Sally Odgers (I
wrote it for a different list and she reposted it here) on Jan. 12th, 2002.)
spoiler space...
That should be far enough, I hope.

Okay, if you recall, after Polly does her bit of magical spying, Laurel
manages to force her to say she'll forget Tom - I think the exact words are
"All right, I'll forget him, just leave me alone!" Which implies a bargain
of sorts: Polly will forget Tom (and she does - Laurel enforces the
forgetting, I think!), but Laurel must leave Polly alone from now on (which
she does...)

I said before that I thought Laurel was probably encouraging Seb in his
pursuit of Polly, but I'm not so sure about that now, having just reread the
book: Morton is very pleased with Seb's taking up with Polly ("Well, now,
Sebastian, this *is* clever of you"), but Laurel appears annoyed.  I now
think that in fact, Laurel was holding to the bargain and is annoyed because
she's being forced into a position where it's no longer possible for her to
"leave Polly alone".  And *that's* what breaks the contract and makes it
possible for Polly to remember Tom.

So, anyway, Polly forgets Tom, but as she says herself, "I never said for
how long, and that isn't the same as giving him up" - I think this *is*
still very important.  If she had said she'd give him up, or that she'd
never contact him again, or such, she might never have been able to remember
or help save him.

Something else that escaped me before is the importance of paying attention
to what people say.  Not what you think it means.  What they actually say.
For instance, Laurel says to Tom, "the picture *was* yours".  But as Polly
realises, it is his no longer, and has not been for 9 years; he gave it to
her.  And I think the Fire and Hemlock picture actually holds Tom's soul in
some way.  And given that it was amongst the pictures that Tom was not
supposed to take away, right at the beginning, that seems to imply that
first, Tom took back his soul from Laurel, and then that he almost
immediately gave it to Polly.  Which probably gives Polly some advantage in
what comes next.

And I think Tom's next line is important too; he says that he never agreed
to the bargain that gave Laurel Tom in exchange for his brother.  I'm not
sure how important personal consent is to Laurel, but I suspect it must
count for something.

So then Laurel comes up with the concrete pool thing.  The rule is that
either man (Tom and Morton) may call upon anything that is truly his to aid
him.  The twist in the rule is the same as the twist in the gift that Laurel
originally gave Tom - remember, anything he makes up will come true, but
will then come back and hit him.  So in this contest, any aid he calls upon
will turn and hit him - push him further into the "pit".  Therefore, if any
aid will damn him (I think this is the "tithe to hell" bit from "Tam Lin"),
the only way to save him is to deny him all aid, and the only way to do that
is to take away the one thing that he was absolutely positive was truly
his - Polly's support.  And given that he probably now realises that he gave
Polly his soul when he gave her the picture, he has even more reason to
think/hope that she will support him.

I'm also noticing now that Morton does not reach for any support when
they're in the pool.  It's not just that he knows that Laurel will not
support him, because she's not truly his (quite the reverse, in fact!).  He
knows that all he has to do is stand still and wait for Tom to doom himself.

So, Polly goes in after him, and takes away her support.  Tells him she
wants nothing to do with him and she isn't going to save him. And means it.
She has to mean it, otherwise it won't work.  But again, look at what she
*says*.  There's more than one reason for not wanting to see someone again;
and in this case, it's not, I think, what Laurel subsequently is going to
use it to mean - Polly is not saying that she hates Tom.  She's saying that
she fears that if she sees him again, Laurel will be able to get her claws
back into him.  She never wants to see him again, because that way he'll be
safe.  And in Tom's despair, Morton is doomed.

It's quite a neat reversal of Janet hanging onto Tam in the poem, really,
and a nice nod to "if you love someone, set them free" - as Polly herself
thinks, if you love someone enough to let them go, you have to
let them go forever.

I described this before as Polly cutting herself loose from Tom, but I don't
think now that that's quite right.  They are still, and always will be,
connected (at least as long as she has his soul hanging on her bedroom
wall!).  I think now that what she does is not cut herself loose from him,
or him from her.  All she does is free him.  Opens the cage.  Leaves it up
to him - and he has, for a long time, been leaning on her.  Holding her as
his hope.  She forces him to grow up and stand on his own two feet, in a

I also said before that I thought there were three reasons that Polly's
renunciation works.  The first was that Tom has been deprived of all aid,
but I suspected that Morton was still looking for help, and that that was
what pushes him under.  I don't think that now.  I don't think Morton was at
all looking for help in this contest, as I said above.  But as I also said
back then - if one side has no aid, the other side can't hope to "beat"
that.  That seems more likely to me now.  Or rather, if one side thought it
had aid, but has had that aid taken from it - *that's* what can't be beaten.
The despair, effectively.

The second reason I came up with was that it suits Laurel - if she can't
damn Tom, at least he's now going to be utterly miserable (and after all,
she doesn't much mind losing Morton; she still has Seb).  That still seems
to make a certain amount of sense.  Tom and Morton, and to a lesser extent
Seb and Polly, have major stakes in this nasty little game.  It's not that
important to Laurel; no matter what happens just now, she'll still have her

The third reason was more philosophical, if you will:  it's sort of that
only you can save yourself, no-one else can do it for you, and Tom can only
find the strength to save himself when he believes that he has no other
choice, that no-one else can or will do it.

And this one, I think is the killer.  On this one, I think I was dead in the
black.  Tom, due probably to all that Laurel influence in his early years,
has never really got the idea that he can do things on his own.  Throughout
the book, he does things with Polly's help - he doesn't even start the
quartet without consulting her, and after that, he sticks quite closely to
the other members of the quartet.  Even when the final showdown starts, he
consults Polly and the rest of the quartet.  He really doesn't ever seem to
have relied upon himself.  Until, at the point when it counts like it never
did before, he's forced to.

He has, of course, fought Laurel and Morton before - Laurel even comments on
it.  But almost always (at least in what we see directly), on behalf of
someone else.  Even in fighting free to become a professional cellist, I
think he's doing it more for music than for himself.  But mostly what we see
is him fighting them for Polly.  And I'm almost inclined to think that he's
*still* fighting for Polly.  He saves himself not so much for himself, but
because somewhere deep inside, even after her renunciation, he knows she'll
be upset if he doesn't take the chance she's given him.

So Tom wins and Morton gets dumped in the pit where he belongs. :-)

Now we have the problem of how Polly and Tom can still be together.  Polly
has just renounced him utterly, and if she goes back on that, he'll become a
legal target for Laurel once again - or at least, she thinks he will.  But
again, it's about what people say and what they mean.  She doesn't want to
see him again because she wants to see him safe from Laurel.  But she also
does want to see him again, because she loves him.

"If you love someone, set them free" - but that has, as Polly knows, to mean
free forever.  But Tom did not renounce Polly, and has no wish to.  And by
setting him free, Polly has granted him free choice, and he chooses her.
And Laurel, I think, can't do anything about it because their seeing one
another now has less to do with Polly's choice than it has to do with Tom's.

And then Polly says "If two people can't get together anywhere...".  And Tom
cops on and suggests "Nowhere".  This goes back to their old pretence games
(which became so very real!), where the place where the heroes were was
"sort of here but not-here", and they called it after the vases, "Now Here"
and "Nowhere".  In other words, because of Laurel's gift to Tom and the use
they made of it between them, they have, in a way, a private world, a place
that's almost Now Here but not quite, where they *can* be together.  And as
Polly points out, "if it's not true nowhere, it has to be true somewhere".
I.e. if their guess that they can circumvent Laurel by living in their
"fantasy world" is incorrect, then they must be free to be together in the
real world.  And I think Tom's free choice has weight here, too.

And I'm beginning to think that Tom has set Polly free, too.  For 5 years,
he used her as an anchor (and we all know, from reading "The Homeward
Bounders", what an anchor signifies!), and she let him - encouraged him.
Then she screwed everything up with that (really impressive!) bit of magic,
which caused her to be detatched from him, but possibly - probably - not him
from her.  And when she finally remembers, she feels more strongly than ever
before that she is his anchor.  But when she sets him free, he doesn't
*need* an anchor any more.  So she is now free to be whatever she wants to
be, and I think she realises this when she thinks about what Seb would have
said to hold her and sees that Tom is saying none of those things and
leaving her to choose, despite how much he must still want his anchor to
cling to.

And if Ika is still reading at this point, this amazing, complex, find new
stuff in it every time, ending to "Fire and Hemlock" is one of the many
things I love about it.

And I still understand what's going on more on an instinctive level than an
intellectual level, so I hope you'll all forgive any wanderings in this

Until the sky falls on our heads...

Dorian E. Gray
israfel at

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
-Wm. Shakespeare, "Macbeth".

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