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

Hallie O'Donovan hallieod at
Tue May 18 17:07:52 EDT 2004

On Tuesday, May 18, 2004, at 09:00 PM, Dorian E. Gray wrote:

> 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.

I've always been in general overall agreement with you about the ending 
of F&H, though in some places I just see it from a slightly different 
angle, and even more so (agreement) now.  But there are also a few more 
points of slight disagreement, and as you asked for arguments ....  
(Also had a day of internet chaos and tech support hell, which 
completely did my head in!  So if anything sounds even faintly snappish, 
it's not - only totally interested and relishing the discussion!)
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> spoiler space...
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> 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.

Not sure that that's the only reason why Laurel's annoyed, or that it's 
the one thing that breaks the contract.  Part of it is surely just that 
Laurel's the queen of the roost - she doesn't want *any* signs of 
initiative from her underlings.  (With some reason, admittedly, as Leroy 
messes things up for her so by trying to kill 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.

Not so sure about the giving of the soul bit - can you convince me?
> 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.

Yeah, and he surely comes to understand the rules of this contest, as 
does Seb, right?  And they know that Tom and his friends don't.
> 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
> way.

But how - other than the nasty bit of spying - has Polly been keeping 
Tom caged?  If anything, he might have been seen as caging her by 
'using' her, which he (again painfully) had to renounce by going off to 
Australia, acting as if she was just too young, etc.
> 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
> consort.

Don't agree with that one!  I think Tom was pretty universally 
acknowledged to be the most difficult and therefore the most valuable 
life of any of them.  And Laurel wants only the best for herself, right?
> 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.

Well, except for getting away from Laurel, which was huge, surely?  In 
fact, it says it in the end - the horse was 'all the wild strength he 
had summoned up to get loose from Laurel.'  I'm not sure I think this is 
just dissmissable as irrelevant quite so readily.
> 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.

Nice point - and it surely matches *her* development into a hero - as 
she goes off saying the reasons which aren't the ones why she's trying 
to rescue Tom, and then says something about its being the only way to 
stop murder being done.  Although, well, it is important to be able to 
fight for yourself also, isn't it?  And I still think Tom can.  But 
ringing all kinds of Maree bells now - with her being the tough little 
fighter who is SO selfless when push comes to shove, that she ends up 
costing someone else a huge desire.  Not that it doesn't make for a 
better story. :)
> 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.

Oh, but that would have been too simple - Tom *always* wanted to be with 
Polly - I don't think Polly could have evaded Laurel's rules just by 
having Tom choose.

> 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.

This is what I've said I see as the logic part - the way you can't have 
an immovable object and an irresistible force in the same system - 
Laurel's 'system' (or chilly rules) collapse because of the logical 
incompatibility of Tom and Polly not being able to be together anywhere 
*and* not being able to be together nowhere.
> 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.

Yeah, what she said!
> 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
> post.

None of it's remotely like wanderings!  In fact, make that 2 !s


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