I tried to come up with my ten favourite YA novels that feature myths and fairytales in this fashion, but couldn’t - there are simply too many. So instead, I’ve decided to write about one book in particular: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. A modern fantasy written in 1986, it combines strands of myth and folk-tale in an assured, powerful and complex way.
Fire and Hemlock is a book that very much celebrates the love of reading. (Indeed, the word ‘book’ is used twelve times in the opening three pages.) At the start, a nineteen-year-old girl named Polly is preparing to return to university. The book she is reading triggers the sudden discovery that she, like the man in the story she has just encountered, has two sets of memories; as she accesses the long-forgotten ‘hidden’ set, she remembers the strange friendship she once had with a cellist, Tom Lynn, whom she met at a funeral at the age of ten. Suddenly remembering the five years that followed, Polly struggles to uncover the mystery behind Tom’s sudden disappearance from her life. Then she sets out to rescue him from a fate that she manages to piece together from the books Tom has sent her throughout her childhood.
The plot is a puzzle, but so too is the way the book is constructed from other, older stories. Jones used two 16th century Scottish folktales as the basis for the main story: Tam Lin and The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer. Extracts from both appear at the start of each chapter of Fire and Hemlock. Tam Lin is recast as Tom Lynn, while Polly is his rescuer, Janet. Polly does not realise this until very late in the narrative:
‘Polly’s fingers shook as she opened it to the list of contents. The first two ballads were ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ and ‘Tam Lin’. Of course, when she was twelve, she had not known that Tam was simply a North Country form of the name Tom.’^
In Polly, Jones seeks to create a ‘real female hero’; and casts her in ‘a whole series of heroic roles […] Gerda in The Snow Queen, Snow White, Britomart, St. George, Pierrot, Pandora, Andromache’*. By alluding to so many different literary characters, she is able to build on
the reader’s picture of Polly and her heroic qualities by capitalising on associations the reader may already have. Using these reference points also gives Jones the opportunity to question preconceived notions of gender: she deliberately portrays both Polly’s tomboyish and feminine sides, creating a more rounded picture of what a ‘real female hero’ might be.
In addition to the Scottish folktales, Jones uses another ancient story in Fire and Hemlock: the story of Odysseus from Greek mythology. Again, it’s reworked delicately and used in different ways. The character of Odysseus is reflected in both Polly and Tom, enabling Jones to continue to explore the notion of a ‘real female hero’. The characters of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, Telemachus, his son, Calypso, Circe and Polyphemus all appear in some way in Fire and Hemlock. Jones also adopts part of the The Odyssey’s structure, beginning and ending in the present day, and telling a large part of the narrative in the form of flashbacks, as Homer does.
There are many, many more allusions. The Norwegian folk-tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon is referenced several times. The Three Musketeers plays an important role. Jones also used T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as a way of organising the whole of the book.
When I first read Fire and Hemlock I never knew any of this, and of course it was not necessary to know what literary ‘underlays’ Jones was using in order to fall in love with it. But it made for a very exciting moment when I did find out. Just as Polly goes on a voyage of literary discovery, rereading stories and books and letters to find clues that will help her to rescue Tom, so can the reader keep coming back to Fire and Hemlock to trace further similarities between it and the myths and folktales that went before it.
About Julia Gray:
Julia Gray was born in London and still lives there today. Julia’s two loves are words and music – both separately and together. As well as having written an impressive debut novel, The Otherlife, Julia is a singer-songwriter – bringing together her two loves! Julia studied Classics at UCL and has a diploma in Children’s Literature and an MA in Creative Writing.
^ Quote taken from Fire and Hemlock. This is to illustrate a point and not used in a way to seek or exploit any monetary value of the work.
* Jones, Diana Wynne, ‘The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey’ The Lion and The Unicorn, 13 (1989) 129-140.