Introduction and then to Fire & Hemlock

Beck Laxton blaxton at zentropypartners.com
Wed Sep 15 13:57:07 EDT 2004


Hello there. I'm de-lurking of necessity, because I've missed a digest:
number 874, if some kind person could send it to me...? 

I've been lurking in an odd way, reading the digests from the very beginning
as well as the current ones - well, the beginning of what's online, that is:
did you start before 1999? I'm a little peeved to have missed the start, DWJ
having been my very favourite author for many years now. I'm a great fan of
buying secondhand, and she's the only person I buy new, *and in hardback
too*. 

I think the first book of hers I read was 'Dogsbody', and that must have
been about twenty years ago, because I remember my Dad reading it too - and
being very impressed. I still think that being able to put yourself into the
mind of a dog *and* of a star is rather wonderful. Unlike many of the people
here, I *think* (after a few hundred digests when I binged, it all became a
bit of a blur), I don't include 'Charmed Life' among my favourites: in fact,
I think it's one of my least favourites (though with DWJ that still puts her
above most authors). But I conform to a trend in having my absolute
favourite, like many people's, as 'Fire and Hemlock', which has been in my
top ten books since I read it and vies for first place with 'Vanity Fair'. 

For me, the frustrating thing about lists like this is that although I love
hearing what other people have to say, I just don't seem to be very good at
talking about books myself - so much for a degree in English. Huh. However,
I was chewing over some fairly recent (in the last year?) posts about 'Fire
and Hemlock' and - hurrah! - Had A Thought. 

A lot of people seem to share my frustration that what should feel like a
happy ending doesn't, and I think there are a couple of reasons for this. 

One is that, as someone here pointed out (don't ask me who, or when -
sorry!), DWJ rarely lets her heroes save the world. Individual salvation is
as much as they achieve, which is nicely realistic. (To digress, I suppose
Jamie in Homeward Bounders saves the world but not himself. And I like the
way in which Vivian, Jonathan and Sam contribute absolutely nothing to the
'saving' of Time City - it's all Faber John and the Time Lady and perfectly
well organised without our heroes.) F&H takes this a stage further: all
Polly and Tom have managed is to save Tom. They forgot to do anything about
Leslie (doesn't Polly kick herself for not telling Nina, at least?), and
they didn't manage to do much damage to Laurel beyond the temporary
inconvenience. 

This is very much what happens in the ballad, and in other ballads like it:
you might manage to win a bargain with the Queen of Elfland or a similar
deity, but the best you can hope for is to come out of it unscathed, and
even that doesn't happen often. 

I'm sorry this is turning into an enormous post...

Anyway. I started remembering the first time I heard the ballad - Tam Lin,
rather than 'Thomas the Rhymer', as that's the main influence on the plot.
It was on an album by Frankie Armstrong, a folksinger with an incredible
voice: very loud and powerful: I think she uses a technique called open
throat. She sings it unaccompanied, and it's remarkable. And she sings the
traditional version, as I know it. You get the build up as Tam Lin is
changed into different things and the climax of their final victory:

And at last they have changed him all in her arms
It was to a naked man
And she's flung her mantle over him,
Crying, "Me love I've won, I've won"
Oh crying, "Me love I've won."

But it doesn't stop there: the ballad ends with the Queen of Elfland's
curse: 

And outten spoke the Queen of Elfenland
>From the bush wherein she stood
"I should have tore out your eyes Tam Lin
And put in two eyes of wood, of wood
Put in two eyes of wood."

It's a harsh, shocking ending that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
Perhaps it's meant to remind you that, well, they've been lucky this time
but the threat is always there. (There are other ballads that end in a
similar way, but naturally I can't name them just now. Gosh, I'm senile.)

But it struck me that this is exactly what happens in F&H. Tom and Polly win
his freedom, and Laurel disappears with some last nasty comment, and then -
going one step further than the ballad - they're left there, bruised and
dripping, trying to puzzle it out and work out whether they really *have*
won. 

Well, that's quite enough for a newbie, I think. Does anyone think there's
anything in this? 

Beck Laxton
London and Cambridge

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