Tag Archives: medieval culture

Book Review Saturday – ‘Fire and Hemlock’

In honour of the fact that Diana Wynne Jones’ final novel, the posthumous ‘The Islands of Chaldea‘ (co-written with, and completed by, her sister Ursula) is being published this week, I decided that today’s book review was going to focus on the novel which is, in my opinion, the finest of Wynne Jones’ amazing canon. That book is ‘Fire and Hemlock.’

Image: leafsreviews.wordpress.com

Image: leafsreviews.wordpress.com

Some years ago, I was at an academic conference which focused on the retelling of stories – in other words, the differences between versions of tales over time, or between translations from one language into another, or when a tale is used as a basis for another story entirely. The best paper by far at that conference was given by a woman who compared the medieval Scottish ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ to ‘Fire and Hemlock.’ Her paper made such an impression on me that I immediately noted the name of the book and resolved to track it down. I couldn’t believe that, as a huge DWJ fan, I’d never heard of ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and – even better – it sounded amazing.

In short – it is.

Diana Wynne Jones was, as far as I know, married to a prominent medievalist. It makes sense, then, that her work would be informed by a sensitivity to that era and its literature, but this book displays that sensitivity more than any other. It is deeply influenced by ‘Tam Lin’, and also by ‘Thomas the Rhymer‘, and by any number of medieval romances in which a knight errant finds himself in Fairyland, is seduced by the powerful and jealous Queen and kept there as a prize, only to be won back by the bravery of a human woman prepared to sacrifice everything for him. That basic plot is the spine of ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ but a reader doesn’t need to be aware of the book’s influences to enjoy the story. ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is so much more than a retelling of a dusty old tale. It is a book unlike any other I’ve read, and it has a unique power.

The novel introduces us to Polly Whittacker, at nineteen, who is packing up her stuff in order to leave for college – or, at least, she’s supposed to be packing her stuff. Really, she’s reading a story entitled ‘Two-Timer’ in a book called Time Out of Mind, about a character with the power to go back into their own childhood and change the way their life works out. In the course of taking a break from her book, her eye falls on a picture she loved as a child, but which she is no longer terribly fond of. It’s entitled ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ and she wonders why it meant so much to her, once. She also wonders why she feels a lot like the character in her book, as though she has half-remembered memories of a life, a different life, one that she feels sure she’s lived through simultaneously with her own. All these thoughts coalesce as she gazes at the image, and she has a sudden moment of realisation. Out of the blue, she remembers gatecrashing a funeral at the age of ten, at which she met a charismatic man named Thomas Lynn.

But Thomas Lynn is a man whom nobody else remembers. A man who, it seems, may never have existed at all. So why does Polly remember him so clearly, now that she has resurrected the memory?

Well. That all depends on what world she’s living in.

Artist: Emma Jane Falconer. Colour risograph print. Image sourced: wemakezines.ning.com

Artist: Emma Jane Falconer. Colour risograph print.
Image sourced: wemakezines.ning.com

The plot of the book is rich, intertextual, and complex. It is, as I’ve said, based around the core concepts found in its medieval analogues – a person lost to one world, found by the love of a person willing to go to any lengths to get them back – but there is also an element of ‘quantum’ going on here. The idea of ‘other worlds’, existing side by side or in layers of reality, is found too; the book explores the idea that if a person decides to tell their own story differently, they can change the world in which they live. Stories and words shape reality, literally as well as figuratively. One of the central images from the book is that of a pair of large stone vases in the grounds of the large house in which the aforementioned funeral was held; both of them are adorned with the word ‘Nowhere’, but in such a way that a viewer can never see the whole word all at once. Each vase rotates on its base, one freely and one rather more stiffly, and when they are rotated, different combinations of the letters are revealed.  Wynne Jones uses these words in so many ways to suggest the layers of reality in her novel – ‘Now Here’, ‘No Where,’ ‘Nowhere,’ ‘Here Now’ – and the book, accordingly, has a dreamy feel at times, a hazy sense of reality slipping away and being remade as you read. It’s remarkable.

I love books in which the characters’ names are important. Thomas (or Tom) Lynn is clearly ‘Tam Lin’, the stolen hero; his dangerous ex-wife Laurel is named for the astringent, powerfully flavoured plant which, interestingly, is known as Laurus nobilis in the Latin. When one realises that she is an analogue to the powerful, seductive and exquisitely dangerous Fairy Queens of lore, this name becomes even more meaningful. Polly Whittacker, whose name conjurs up images of the ‘white acre’ (with its nuances of purity and the land), is unquestionably the heroine whose humanity is the key to salvation.There are loads of other nerdy connections that can be drawn between characters and their names, and the placenames Wynne Jones chooses, and if one has a knowledge of the texts she’s referencing it only adds to the richness of the book.

I loved the way Wynne Jones handles Polly’s relationship with Thomas Lynn. I can’t say too much, because I would hate to give away even a crumb of the brilliance of it, but let’s just say: it’s out of the ordinary. It’s unexpected. It’s wonderful.

And then, that ending. That ending. About which I’m giving away exactly nothing. It will leave you breathless with admiration and lost for words, and also – quite possibly – scratching your head in confusion, but that is why I love it so much.

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. However, as it was originally published in 1985, I found it hard to come by when I bought the copy I now own. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but if you are ever lucky enough to come across it, I strongly recommend you give it a try.

For what better way to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones than by keeping her words alive?

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011 Image: theguardian.com

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011
Image: theguardian.com

Have a storyful weekend!

Human Nature

Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure I altogether like this ‘holiday’, having been on the receiving end of one too many pranks as a younger person (in case I haven’t revealed this already, I’m extremely gullible), but if you’re celebrating – and not making a fool out of somebody else – then have a ball.

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.Image: 123rf.com

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.
Image: 123rf.com

It’s a Bank Holiday weekend here, craftily arranged by my husband and I in order to help us celebrate our anniversary (of course). It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the country is languishing in a chocolate-fuelled stupor this morning… We had a wonderful day yesterday for Easter Sunday; we spent it with two of our best friends and their young baby, where we all went on an Easter Egg Hunt. It was, of course, more fun for the adults than the child, and sadly, the adults ate all the chocolate, too. (In our defence, the baby isn’t able to eat solids yet. Honest!)

I’m not sure if it was our time with our friends that sparked today’s blog-thoughts off in my mind, or the TV programmes we watched when we got home (both dramas involving past eras), or some twisty combination of both, but in any case – today I’m thinking about human nature, and how people don’t really change over time.

What's this? Just a blog, medieval-style.Image: abdn.ac.uk

What’s this? Just a blog, medieval-style.
Image: abdn.ac.uk

We spent our day celebrating an ancient feast with our friends, a feast which most people would connect with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. But – as most people are aware – the feast of ‘Easter’ (named, even, after the goddess Eostre) is a lot older than the Christian faith. It has more to do with the time of year and the fecundity of the season, the return to earth of the flowers and creatures and crops that are necessary to sustain life, than it does with the much younger faith of Christianity. I am a Christian, but I am also a trained medievalist, so the feast of Easter has two layers of meaning for me. Our celebrations yesterday got me thinking about how people carry out rituals – the giving of chocolate, the symbolism of rabbits and ‘Easter bunnies’, the tradition of ‘April Fools’ – without really thinking about what they mean and where they come from, or even knowing how old the traditions are. It got me thinking about how people are the same from generation to generation. The things we do sometimes change, as do the circumstances in which we have to live our lives. But people – the essence of what makes us human beings – stays the same.

When I worked as a tutor, I was responsible for teaching my students about medieval language, literature and culture in Britain (mostly), but also in Ireland and Europe. I often started a class by asking the students to read a section of Chaucer, for instance, or an extract from Beowulf or one of the Old English elegies. Perhaps, if I was feeling particularly playful, I would give them a piece of poetry like this one (don’t worry, a translation follows!):

Mec feonda sum   feore besnythede
Woruldstrenga binom   waette sithan
dyfthe on waetra   dyde eft thonan,
sette on sunan,   thaer ic swithe beleas
herum tham the ic haefde.

(An enemy stole my life, and took away all my worldly strength; they wet me, dipping me in water, then took me out once more. I was left in the sun then, where I swiftly lost all the hair I had.)

My students would labour intensely over an extract of poetry like that, trying to work it out, looking at it like it had huge significance, doing their best to be intelligent. So, when I told them ‘it’s a joke’, they sometimes weren’t too impressed with me. The poem is an extract from Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English joke-verses. Some of them are crude, some of them scandalous, some of them groan-worthy, and some of them are still mystifying. This one, the narrative voice of which goes on to tell us that a knife cut away all its impurities, and that it was folded and pierced through with holes and bedecked with brown dye before being guarded between boards, decorated with gold and trusted with the Word of God, is telling us that it’s a book – more specifically, a Bible. You have to know, of course, that in the Middle Ages books were made of animal hide, which would be soaked to soften and loosen the hair, dried in the sun, and scraped with a blade to make it perfectly smooth… and once you know the answer, the whole riddle begins to click into place.

Each of the riddles presents the reader (or listener) with confusing images designed to make something everyday seem completely alien – all in the name of a big punchline, giving everyone who’s been sweating to work it out an ‘Aha!’ moment, where they can slap their thighs, laugh with one another and pretend that they’d unravelled it long before their neighbour had. So, in a way, my students’ efforts to understand the words mirror exactly the reaction that the original authors would have wanted. My students would (hopefully) learn from this that even though the sense of humour had changed a bit, the need or desire to laugh, to exercise the brain, to get one over on your fellows, to play a trick, were as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon world as they are to our own.

Human art, from any era, depicts a number of big themes; Love is one. Death another. Nearly everything else can be constructed out of some combination of these. Regret, Betrayal, Loss, Passion, Devotion, Adventure (which can be seen as the pursuit of one and the simultaneous avoidance of the other.) We no longer joust, and our sons no longer get sent to fight with the King, but plenty of young men and women still get sent to fight our modern wars. We no longer scare ourselves with stories of giants and headless horsemen; instead we use zombies and vampires (when we’re not falling in love with them, of course.) We love our children and our families, we want to protect our homes, we want the dignity of earning our own living, we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. None of these things are new to us. All of these things were known to our forebears too, all the way back to our earliest beginnings.

The past can sometimes seem very far away, and people who lived in previous eras can often feel like creatures of another world. But they’re not, at all. We are lucky to have the conveniences we do, which make the things our ancestors wanted – safety for our young, security for our crops, warmth for our homes, good health as long as we can get it – so much easier. So, it makes me glad that we still celebrate some of the old feast days, even if we don’t know why any more. It’s a precious connection to those who’ve gone before us, and a vital expression of human nature.

Anyway, on that note: Happy Easter!

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org