One of the best books I read this year was Fire and Hemlock, a children’s fantasy written by Diana Wynne Jones. I spent some time after reading it trying to nail down exactly why I liked it so much. This wasn’t easy, as Fire and Hemlock is a slippery book. It accomplishes very difficult writerly tricks in a deceptively easy-going way, while its simpler pleasures disguise deep pits in which readers may fall to their doom. After thinking carefully, though, I’ve landed on at least one aspect of the novel that sets Fire and Hemlock apart–that it captures the texture of myth and folklore without being made solvable by it.
I used to love Neil Gaiman. When I was a child I read Coraline, and its universe of buttons sewn into eyes and monstrous mothers scared the hell out of me. Some years later I read American Gods, and was taken aback not only by its plot twists and ambitious mythos, but by its constant stream of unexpected mythological cameos. A scam artist could be Odin, king of the Norse gods. A humble cat could be a much reduced Bast. Even Czernobog in all his anger could become something else when that anger cooled. As someone who grew up reading books in the library about mythology and “the unknown,” a novel like this was like opening a mixed bag of candy and finding that every single one you pulled from the bag was your favorite.
There are plenty of these kinds of stories, and I’m fond of them. Roger Zelazny’s A Night in Lonesome October pits figures from horror literature against each other in a dangerous game where nobody knows who is on whose team. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula is a non-stop festival of vampire fiction and shocking Victorian pulp. (Neil Gaiman is, of course, a huge fan of these two novels.) Even Gaiman’s teacher Alan Moore got in on the fun with his famous mix-up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. More recently we’ve seen the genre of “mythpunk” and the popularity of fairy tale retellings, with great writers like Catherynne Valente and musicals/concept albums like Hadestown leading the charge.
Some years later I finally got around to reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. To read Sandman was to realize that an author who had impressed the hell out of you with a bag of tricks you had never seen before had simply reused those tricks from an earlier performance. Sandman is probably superior to American Gods; it is certainly more acclaimed, and indisputably one of the most important works in the history of American comics. What I remember, though, was that the Where’s Waldo game of “spot the myth” wasn’t doing as much for me anymore.
Basing your story on a legend or a tale is no longer enough for me. Myths are aesthetic objects with plenty of appeal on their own, but they’re also part of a greater cultural context. Fairy tales present fun opportunities for enterprising writers, but are so well-known now that to follow in their footsteps (especially those of the most famous) can become staid. Gaiman’s work for me, in hindsight, is at its worst when reduced to playing a game of spot-the-reference bingo. Unexpected familiarity can be exciting, but too much familiarity breeds contempt, kills mystery and deadens stories.
Fire and Hemlock is itself a myth retelling: a combination of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. It isn’t shy about this. Each chapter starts with a line from either, and just in case we didn’t get it (this is a children’s book, after all) the main character Polly explains to us in the last few chapters exactly what is going on. Just like in the Rhymer, the hero Thomas is granted a cruel gift by a malicious fairy queen; just like in Tam Lin, Thomas is chosen as the queen’s sacrifice. With the truth revealed, the tracks are laid for the finale.
Yet nothing in Fire and Hemlock feels inevitable. Infamously, the novel’s final scenes are the densest and most confusing in the entire novel, a shift into another register that befuddles even if it makes intuitive sense. Jones’s novels often resolve with the pleasurable sensation of a key fitting into a lock; by contrast, the ending of Fire and Hemlock is a long jump off a cliff into fathomless black. Not to mention that the relationship between the two main characters is complicated even further in the final scenes (and it’s a complicated and problematic relationship, to begin with!) The Thomas we meet is an artist and a decent man, but also an adult who is using a preteen girl to his own benefit. Rather than the whirlwind declarations of love that wrap up earlier Jones classics like Howls’ Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock climaxes with a harsh (and true, and earned) declaration of hate.
Even when Fire and Hemlock lays its narrative cards on the table, it preserves its sense of mystery. This is partially because there is more to the novel than just Thomas; the author has confessed elsewhere that she carefully wove T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets into the novel as well, including its climax. But I think there’s something more to it than that. The Fairie world of the story is not simply a replication of the legends, but something far weirder, the bleeding of story into truth and vice-versa. Fire and Hemlock doesn’t fully match up to the bones of either Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer, either; as Polly’s grandmother tells us, the tale-tellers were mistaken in some of the details. So while Fire and Hemlock is technically a myth retelling, it resists the easy summary that at times threatens to constrain even other great writers like Valente.
Fire and Hemlock is stacked with references to the modern world, too: everything from The Lord of the Rings to The Doors to even The Golden Bough makes an appearance. Yet their presence is never just for show. They give us insight into how Polly grows as a reader and as a person, they represent the passage of time as her life steadily becomes more complicated, and they set off the very real domestic drama that consumes her family–an element that is just important to the book as the weirder stuff. By comparison, when Neil Gaiman takes care to sneak a sequel to G.K. Chesterson’s The Man Who Was Thursday into a panel of Sandman, that’s all it is–a one-off joke. A one-off joke that makes my brain tingle with pleasurable recognition, but that’s all it is.
Fire and Hemlock is the opposite of Doctor Who’s Tardis, not a novel that is bigger on the inside than the outside but a novel far larger than its contents. As a reader I feel humbled by what this book accomplishes. As a writer I’m still thinking of how to apply what I’ve learned here to my own work. How do you capture the arc of myth without being limited by it? How do you retain the numinous when dealing with tales everybody knows? The answers are somewhere in here, so if you haven’t already I suggest you read it.
Postscript: If you want to learn more, I recommend this episode of the great podcast Backlisted! Be aware it spoils the whole book, though.