Aug-July 2004

8 09 2004

August 2004

We took an interesting new turn this month when we picked on a fantasy novel for young adults by Diana Wynne Jones, discussing Fire and Hemlock. Polly, a young woman, realises that her memories of the last ten years are not right. She has a set of straightforward memories, but isn’t there something else in there? The novel progresses in this flashback manner as Polly attempts to reconstruct her real memories – if indeed they are real and she’s not losing it. Broken families, the fragility of memory and realities which interact with our own, look like our own but are not – the book eschews the frequently used ‘omniscient narrator’ model of story-telling, so we are as confused as Polly is, we know as little as she does. I have never read one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels for younger readers and was pleasantly surprised to see that her storytelling is pretty much the same as in her adult novels – she treats both with respect and intelligence. One of our members (hand up, Beth!) told us all this was one of her favourite novels and one that she has re-read many times since she was a teenager – if that’s not a recommendation, then what is?

Beth says: This is a book that can be read on many levels. On one hand, it is the story of a child becoming a young adult. It deals with Polly’s experience of family break-up, friendships, hopes and ambitions, and eventually love. This side of the book is realistic enough to allow anyone, young reader or not, to empathise with Polly, and I suspect for many writers would be enough to create an entire book. However, Fire and Hemlock is also a rewriting of the myth of Faerie into late 20th century Britain; in particular the novel draws on the ballad of Tam Lin with Polly as a modern-day Janet. Many of the supernatural events in the book depend on an understanding of ritual and rules, just as in folk tales and legends. On yet a third level, the novel explores what it means to be a hero in both the traditional sense and in modern society. And so on.

Writing itself is a central theme of the novel. Tom tries to explain his situation through the books he buys her. As Polly and Tom write the stories of Tan Coul, the boundaries between reality and imagination begin to dissolve. Ultimately the novel asks ‘what is reality?’ and this question can also be looked at on many levels (e.g. the events Polly makes up are reality for others, Polly’s dual memories and not forgetting that Polly’s ‘real’ life is in itself a fiction created by DWJ!). Another, and related, key concept is Nowhere and Now Here, two versions of the same word which symbolise the relationship between Laurel’s world (Faerie, Nowhere, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or any of hundreds of names) and Polly’s (non-magical 20th century Gloucestershire, Now Here). This is not a dualism but an intertwining rather like Polly herself makes when creating her map of Nowhere from a map of the Cotswolds. The two vases at Hudson

Some people asked me to try and explain the ending…. Laurel demands a life every nine years (the ‘tithe to Hell’ as mentioned in Tam Lin). This, it is revealed, is not to give Laurel life (she is undying) but to prolong the life of Morton Leroy, her consort. Tom has had a reprieve for nine years as the last sacrifice had to be a woman (not explained if this was an actual sacrifice or just, as Polly thinks, Laurel pretending to be her own mother in order to inherit). Polly, like Janet, refuses to let go and Laurel is forced to let Tom and Morton Leroy fight.

Both men must obey the rules like everything in Faerie, but Laurel’s power allows her to twist them – although she cannot allow Morton to break the rules if Tom cannot. Both men can use anything integral to themselves to win, so Tom can use his cello (important for both Tan Coul and Tom), the horse that represents Tom and Polly’s first heroic adventure and his love for Polly. But Laurel’s twisting means that Tom’s strength helps Morton. The only way for him to win is for Polly to lose – to give up her love for Tom. When she does this, Morton is defeated and Tom is free. Laurel, however, does not suffer. She simply chooses Morton Leroy’s son Sebastian to be her new consort.
Am not TOO sure about the ‘coda’ section, but this is my interpretation. Tom and Polly have to give up their love in order for Tom to be free from Laurel, so they can be together Nowhere – literally nowhere, or possibly in Faerie, where they cannot go. However, because Nowhere and Now Here are interlinked for Polly and Tom, it is not ‘true Nowhere’ and therefore must be somewhere! There is no division into Nowhere and Now Here for them and this outmanoeuvres Laurel’s conditions. Tom and Polly can be together after all. Phew!

Joe says: Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children would probably appeal top anyone, young or old, male or female, who enjoyed Fire and Hemlock. A motherless family, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood and a new home on the forbidding moors; it is a lovely piece of English fantasy.

July 2004

One of the great writers of the genre furnished the book for July’s meeting – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. A peaceful federation of worlds sends an envoy to a world in an ice-age, a world they dub ‘Winter’. One of the many human societies spread across the worlds then isolated, they want to re-integrate them back into the stellar human culture. Naturally there are difficulties. This is all largely secondary however since the book is really about the way we all interpret other people, genders and cultures, as well as the ways and reasons by which Le Guin creates and incredibly rich, believable and well-crafted society – sometimes you almost feel the chill of the cold winds of Winter as you read it. The humans of Winter are a little different from the other variations of humans on other worlds – there is a single ‘gender’. Actually gender is an inaccurate term as they are neither male nor female, but take on characteristics of both at certain times in their reproductive cycle. This may sound like a simple idea, but actually it allows for a very complex set of meditations on gender roles and personal identifications – perfect subject matter for a good discussion!




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