Fire and Hemlock (SPOILERS)

Ika blake at
Fri May 28 09:30:27 EDT 2004

Bounce, again: this is fun! Sorry for long delay in posting, btw - I'm
just a very slow thinker. I should also say that I *still* haven't managed
to reread F&H, so I'll probably still be talking in quite general terms.
Apologies also for the cut-and-pasteyness of this post and many thanks to
everyone who responded - I'm just trying to whittle my response down to a
manageable size by not exclaiming over every interesting thing that was

Firstly, I wanted to get back on this "rigid separation" thing, because I
think I phrased myself badly, so I'll have another go, starting in
response to Dorian:

> I honestly don't understand why you think things *should* be only one
> thing
> (if I'm interpreting you right).  Even in mundane life, things and people
> are many things at once: <snip> A coffee mug is a
> useful
> receptacle and a piece of clutter and something that needs to be washed
> and
> a reminder of the person who gave it to me and a whole lot more...and so
> on.

Yes, but those things can co-exist quite happily, without me having to
rethink my entire sets of assumptions about the world (or change my
behaviour vis-a-vis the coffee cup). If, on the other hand, I was about to
take your coffee cup and wash it up and you told me not to because the
coffee dregs in it were, in fact, the soul of your ex-lover, who was
imprisoned by the fairy queen who lived up the road, I would have to make
some fairly big and consequential decisions about what I believed to be
the truth of the matter - about what I thought the *story* I was in was.
(crudely: do I ring a psychiatrist or a witch?)

Now, a story can *present* something as being two things at once within
the terms of the story, but where I think the story becomes flawed is when
the story asks you to make two contradictory sets of assumptions at once
*in order to understand the story itself*. That is, I can accept that in
F&H the giant/lunatic is both/either giant and/or lunatic, and that
Nowhere and Now Here are coextensive and alternative versions of the same
thing; but I can't understand the way the narrative unfolds without being
able to make *some* assumptions about the relationship between Nowhere and
Now Here, and I think the novel muddles that *relationship* by presenting
different/ contradictory versions of it.

Hopefully some of the below will clarify this.

Katta wrote:

> To me, F&H is easy to accept because I've always liked the sort of stories
> where the world basically is a very weird place while it's still
> recognizably our world.
> Think of Uncle Ted in Deep Secret. He promptly refuses to believe in
> anything magic, despite the fact that it's going on all around him. Now,
> in
> Deep Secret, the story is told by Rupert, who knows damn well that this is
> a
> load of crap. But Polly in F&H *doesn't* know that. She has to deal with
> the
> fact that people around her do not believe in magic, and with the
> rational,
> drab explanations they come up with.

Aha! You see, I think this is key. For me, Polly *doesn't* ever deal with
the fact that the people around her do not believe in magic - she seems
simultaneously to take it for granted and not to notice it - and I really
want her to deal with it. Dorian cited Uncle Ted as well, but the
difference is that it's *stated* in Deep Secret, so we *know* that that's
how magic works/is kept secret in that world. I mean, I think it's
significant that one has to turn to a different book to explain how the
relationship between the magical and the mundane works in F&H...

Similarly with this, about Polly & Tom's relationship (Dorian responding
to me):

>> I think the obvious
>> problems with the age gap tend to be addressed in little detachable,
>> throwaway moments <snip> rather than being an organic part of the
changing dynamic between
>> them.
> Well, yes...but given that most of the story is told from Polly's POV and
> specifically as her memories, and she never really saw him all that often,
> I'm not sure how else that could have been handled.  And there are things
> like Polly hugging Tom's arm at the fair (and cringing about it later),
> and
> Fiona pointing out how Tom looked at Polly after the panto and how sick
> Mary
> looked.  I think there are a few hints, at least.

because I think we're at cross purposes there. I guess for me, Polly and
Tom more-or-less fall in love at first sight, as far as I'm concerned, and
the age gap is just part of the misdirection that keeps them apart,
paradoxically, long enough to get together properly. DWJ uses a similar
device (more satisfyingly, for my tastes) with both Howl/Sophie (HMC) and
Verrian/Mordian (Hexwood), but both Sophie and Verrian (unlike Polly)
actually *think* about the age gap and what it means to them.

Both with the Now Here/Nowhere relationship and with the Polly/Tom
romance, the technique DWJ uses - of being very oblique and allusive - for
me is a flaw in the book, since it prevents her from doing one of the
things that I think she's best at and that distinguish her from all other
YA writers: the matter-of-fact, straightforward use of emotion, and the
acceptance of things that run counter to our sense of reality (Monigan in
TotG, the "seven megalomaniac wizards" in AG, etc).

I keep thinking about the bit in F&H where Polly sees the photo of Tom and
says "However young did they get him?" and claps her hand over her mouth,
not having meant to say it aloud. That seems a clear indicator that Polly
is doing a lot more thinking than we actually see in the book - and given
that, as you say,

> most of the story is told from Polly's POV and
> specifically as her memories

that seems unfair to me. The whole book is framed as Polly trying to make
sense of what has happened - why are we not even getting all of what
Polly's thinking? That's kind of what I mean by -

>> that the novel seems to be arguing
>> *simultaneously* that our world is full of magic which is accessible and
>> unsurprising to any small girl who comes across it *and* that the
>> magical
>> dimension is entirely hidden and unexpected to ordinary people.

The key word is "unsurprising" for me. How does Polly work out what's
going on, and why do we never see her noticing that the Laurel story
demands a different version of reality from the one all her classmates
believe in? Doesn't that bother her? Or do we not see that part of her
thinking because it would be redundant - that is, we're supposed to be
able to work out on our own how magic functions in the F&H universe? And
if we are supposed to work it out on our own, then doesn't Polly's *lack*
of surprise suggest that magic is taken for granted in that world? But
everything else in the narrative shows that it isn't taken for granted -
or even believed in...

The final thing I wanted to say is that I'm also interested to hear how
people feel F&H fits into the rest of DWJ's oeuvre - I noticed in the same
poll on the front page of the list archives that it's not near the top of
"Quintessential DWJ". Me and my gf have always had the same opinion of
F&H: "it's a good book, but it's not a *DWJ* book". And, like I've said
before, I think it's really not playing to DWJ's strengths - the set-up or
the framing of the novel stops it from being able to do the things I think
she does best, the things that keep me reading her. And I like her best
when she's hitting on exactly the right metaphor for something real. Like
I said, I think the age gap serves the same narrative/emotional function
for Polly and Tom as it does for Mordian and Verrian or Sophie and Howl -
but I think it works *better*, both in terms of getting to the essence of
the emotional experience, and in terms of the narrative, when it's a
contrivance: when it's not a real, natural age gap, but a
magically-contrived one. I feel like when her books have that sort of
framework they're oddly freer to present a truer, more interesting account
of the consequences - like I think AG is more convincing than F&H as an
account of someone finding out that the world doesn't work the way they
thought it did, and that they are not who they think they are.

Eep! And now I must run and get the train (it's always when I'm going away
that I finally get motivated to post this discussion!) Have a nice Bank
Holiday, everyone in the UK, and thanks again.

Love, Ika

"Isto was not legal. This is confused. I could make melhor" - Diana Wynne
Jones on TV, as translated from the Portugese by babelfish
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