SPOILER ALERT: THE WHOLE POINT OF THIS POST IS TO ANALYZE THE MUCH-DEBATED ENDING OF DIANNA WYNNE JONES’ FIRE AND HEMLOCK.
My adoration of this book is all the more remarkable given that I was at first so thoroughly disappointed in the ending.
You know that feeling, when something builds so powerfully and then just kind of cuts off without any…significance? And you’re thinking, That’s it? What did I just read? Did the author not know how to end her story?
In the wee hours of the morning, I took to Google. Perchance Wikipedia could explain. It turns out “Fire and Hemlock ending“ is a top search term. Apparently, in the two decades since it was first published, I am not the first reader to seek clarification.
Well, I am here to assure all future seekers that DWJ knew exactly what she was doing. Every word in the finale had significance. I have solved the ending of Fire and Hemlock.
You are welcome.
(This section is long, so you could skip it. But it covers the clues that explain the end.)
The heart of this story is the relationship between a girl and a man. They meet accidentally and under potentially supernatural circumstances when she is ten years old. He is presented to us, through her ten-year-old eyes, as bespectacled, wearing his colorless hair in an elderly fashion, and resembling a tortoise.
The girl is Polly, a name meaning “many.” The man is Mr. Thomas Lynn, a variation of Tam Lin, who was to be tithed to Hell by the Queen of Fairies, but was saved when his lover refused to let go of him no matter how beastly the fairies made him.
After Polly stumbles into a funeral at a house in her neighborhood while looking for a friend, Mr. Lynn rescues her. Outside, they hold hands and walk together through the garden. Mr. Lynn asks Polly what she likes to do best.
Make up things like heroes with other people and then pretend to be them, she says.
Right then and there, she makes up that Mr. Lynn is a hero named Tan Coul. She is his assistant, a “learner hero,” whose name is Hero and who sometimes disguises herself as a boy.
Eventually, they return to the house. The funeral has concluded. Mr. Lynn has been bequeathed six pictures and is told to choose from the ones stacked against a particular wall. The pictures against the other wall are too valuable for him to take any. For reasons of her own, while Mr. Lynn is otherwise occupied, Polly switches pictures around so that some of the good, valuable ones are in the group from which Mr. Lynn is allowed to choose. He then proceeds to choose the exact pictures she preferred.
Afterward, Mr. Lynn walks Polly home to her grandmother. Before they part, he gives her one of the pictures.
Subsequently, Mr. Lynn starts up a correspondence with Polly in which he writes letters fleshing out their hero stories. He also invites her to come visit him at his flat in London. Over the next few years, they write back and forth, see each other occasionally, and Mr. Lynn starts sending Polly books to read.
Unbeknownst to Polly, Tom Lynn (like Tam Lin before him) has been chosen as the Fairy Queen’s next tithe to Hell. He is to be sacrificed nine years from the day of their first meeting. But Polly (like Tam Lin’s lover Janet) has the power to hold onto Tom. So long as she does, the Fairy Queen cannot take him. Where Janet held onto Tam Lin with her arms, Polly holds onto Tom Lynn with her heart and mind and the power of her imagination.
Polly herself does not know any of this (and it is interesting to ponder just exactly when Mr. Lynn figures it all out). But the Fairy Queen’s minions begin to appear in Polly’s life as menacing people warning her to stay away from Mr. Lynn. Polly defies them and never tells Mr. Lynn or anyone else about her interactions with them.
For the first few years after they meet, things go along more or less satisfactorily. The audience is drawn into the strange but compelling relationship between Polly and Mr. Lynn, conducted mostly via correspondence as they are rarely in each other’s presence.
The only hiccup is that when Polly and Mr. Lynn are together, strange supernatural things happen. Eventually, we learn that this is because Mr. Lynn also has something in common with another of the Fairy Queen’s past victims, Thomas the Rhymer: he has been cursed. Thomas the Rhymer was cursed with always having to tell the truth. Our Thomas (Mr. Lynn) has been cursed to have the things he imagines come true, but “then come back and hit him.”
Polly has somehow become entangled in that curse, perhaps because it attached to Mr. Lynn via the pictures he took from the funeral house, one of which she now possesses.
While Polly is a child, she wields equal or greater power in influencing the direction of their stories. Mr. Lynn gives in to Polly’s versions in most respects, the exception being her insistence that Tan Coul have a wife, which Mr. Lynn firmly refuses to endorse. Mirroring her desire to give Tan Coul a wife, Polly asks Tom hopefully if he will marry his friend Ann, a fellow musician. Mr. Lynn again refuses.
In those early years, Polly never questions that Mr. Lynn is appropriately matched with other adults, and that their relationship is one of hero and assistant. Mr. Lynn writes more frequently to her than she does to him and his letters are longer.
As Polly ages, the situation grows more complicated. Polly’s teenaged girlfriends begin to have relationships with boys. A product of a broken home, Polly is uniquely predisposed to take the stories she imagines about herself and Mr. Lynn in a new direction. She starts calling him Tom. The vision we see of him through her eyes changes: his face becomes smoother; his chin has golden hairs; his skin is nicely tanned from the sun; his hair is fair. Polly writes more frequent and longer letters to Tom, while he is busy touring the world with his musical quartet. His responses are brief to the point of being terse.
At one point, Polly sends Tom a story she wrote about their alter egos in which Tan Coul is wounded on the shoulder and Hero has to dress the wound.
She strips off Tan Coul’s armor and sees “the smooth, powerful muscles rippling under the silken skin of his back.”
Tom writes back two words: “sentimental drivel.” Later, he sends a letter telling her to go to the beach and take a look at what men’s backs actually look like.
In another exchange, Polly suggests that the mysterious talisman their alter egos have been searching for, called the Obah Cypt, is really a very dangerous ring that must be destroyed. Tom writes back:
No, it’s not a ring. You stole that from Tolkien. Use your own ideas.
He follows up a few days later with a slightly longer letter that tells her:
Forgive criticism, but you used to have much better ideas on your own.
Has Polly lost her better ideas due to the normal and expected direction of a teenage girl’s fancies? Because of what is going on with her parents?
Or is there something even more dysfunctional happening?
Either way, the balance of power that existed in the beginning is gone. Polly no longer wields the same influence in directing their stories—and she is no longer hoping for Tom to find an adult love interest.
By the time she is fifteen or sixteen, Polly has moved dangerously close to outright competition for Tom’s affection, eliciting uncomfortable commentary from one of his adult girlfriends. Eventually, Polly uses magic to spy on Tom and finds him spending intimate time with a beautiful woman Polly knows only as Laurel but who is actually the Fairy Queen.
Polly has now held on too tightly.
She has forced Tom to push her away—and provoked the intervention of the Fairy Queen. Taking advantage of Polly’s teenaged embarrassment over Tom’s rejection, the Queen gets Polly to agree to have all memory of him wiped from her mind.
With Polly no longer holding on, Tom slips further into the Queen’s clutches.
On Polly’s end, bereft of her memories of Tom and the identity she forged around their relationship, her life becomes a shapeless, formless blur, dull and unmemorable.
When she is nineteen, just before Tom is gone forever, Polly manages to recover her memories, and sets out to find him. When she succeeds, for the first time, Polly sees Tom as he really is: a handsome, talented young man who turned the eyes of the Fairy Queen. We also, for the first time, hear Tom’s explanation of their relationship:
“What else could I do?” Tom demanded. “I had to keep getting in touch, and sending you things, because you were my only chance, but I didn’t have to like what I was doing…”
We learn something else damning: Years before, Tom figured out from a clue in one of Polly’s letters that the Fairy King, whose modern name is Morton Leroy, threatened to harm Polly if she continued her relationship with Tom.
After figuring it out, Tom nevertheless continued the relationship.
He also admits, implicitly if not expressly, to having anticipated the evolution of Polly’s feelings for him. He turned the head of the Fairy Queen, after all. Clearly, he understood the effect he would eventually have on the young girl from the broken home on whom he showered such attention.
At this point, having seen their history so thoroughly rewritten, do we (or Polly) have any basis to believe Tom’s participation in their relationship was about anything more than saving himself from the Fairy Queen?
DOES TOM CARE ABOUT POLLY?
(This is a total tangent, but it happens to involve my favorite scene in any book, ever. Skip to the next section if you just want to know the end.)
Most of the evidence is ambiguous.
The day the Fairy Queen steals Polly’s memories, Tom kisses Polly goodbye. He aims for her forehead, but Polly tilts her head and the kiss lands sideways beside her mouth. Rather than pulling away, Tom tries to move her into a better position.
DWJ leaves unsaid: A better position for which one? Her forehead or her lips? But did anyone seriously picture anything other than Tom trying to pull Polly closer to kiss her on the lips?
There are two ways to interpret this scene.
In one, in their last moments together before Polly is going to forget him forever, Tom reveals his true feelings.
In the other, the scene has nothing to do with affection for Polly. Tom is just doing what he has always done: trying to leave an imprint on her so deep that it survives the Queen’s magic. When Polly presents her lips, he takes advantage, intending to give her a kiss that she, quite literally, won’t forget—not because he loves her, but because he is desperate to keep her holding onto him.
I think you will get the most out of the story and the ending if you can see how both interpretations could be true at the same time.
The truth between two people always cuts both ways, DWJ tells us.
We also know that Tom made a bargain with the Fairy Queen to get her to agree not to hurt Polly, a bargain he breaks when he acknowledges Polly on the train after she gets her memories back. But we don’t know when he made this bargain. Was it before or after Polly rendered herself useless by letting go of her memories of him?
In any case, I believe there is a single scene—and not one more (until the end)—where we see a glimpse of Tom’s true feelings untainted by his ulterior motives.
It is the scene at the Middleton Fair, where Tom is finally forced to reject Polly’s affections. Despite that surface rejection, on two different levels (Nowhere and Now Here), Tom actually reveals the depth of his feelings for Polly.
On the Now Here level, Tom’s shoulder is wounded and Polly has to help him. He jeeringly asks her to describe what his back looks like. Polly tells him it is tanned and muscular. At that moment, the other adults arrive on the scene. They cluster around, questioning Tom and Polly about what has happened, urgently discussing what to do next. Instead of responding to any of it, Tom is focused on something else:
“From playing the cello in Australia,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What’s he on about?” said Ed.
“Nothing,” Polly said. “There was a portcullis and it fell on him.”
Tom is so badly wounded that an ambulance is needed. He has to go to the hospital. He and his quartet have just been offered their first recording contract, and may have to cancel it due to Tom’s injury. The other adults are clamoring about. Yet Tom is fixated on the conversation he is having with Polly about her description of Tan Coul’s back in a story she once sent him.
The Nowhere level is even more revealing.
On its surface, this conversation is about Polly’s substitution of sentimental drivel for a realistic description of Tan Coul’s back. Reread it, keeping in mind that when Polly tried to give Tan Coul a wife and a boy assistant, Tom’s imagination rejected that storyline. The wife and boy still manifested into the real world, but they belonged to someone else instead. But when Polly gave Tan Coul’s silken, muscularly rippling back an injury that she gets to dress and care for, did Tom’s imagination reject that storyline?
“Tom, this looks awful!”
“But how about the bit round the edges?” Tom asked almost jeeringly.
“Brown—and you’ve got muscles,” Polly said. “I don’t know what to do!”
People’s feet appeared, trampling round them in the grass. Ed said, “Hell’s bells! That’s what the noise was!” Ann threw herself down on her knees beside Polly, demanding to know what had happened. Sam took hold of Polly’s elbow and pulled her to her fee. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“It was—“ Polly began, but Tom interrupted her. “From playing the cello in Australia,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What’s he on about?” said Ed.
“Nothing,” Polly said. “There was a portcullis and it fell on him.”
When Polly points out that Tom’s back has muscles, she is not merely insisting that he was wrong about the proper way for a writer to describe a man’s back. She is accusing him of being false when he purported to reject that storyline. Polly understands that for a wound on Tan Coul’s muscular back to have manifested in the real world, Tom has to have, on some level, indulged his own imagination in that story.
When Tom says it’s from playing the cello in Australia, that’s all, he is not ignoring everything else going on merely to continue debating literary prose. He is trying to deny that he has imagined a storyline line in which Polly dresses wounds on his silken, muscular back.
Does Polly believe him?
That DWJ was able to convey so much with so little and on more than one level is why she is a brilliant writer.
She based Fire and Hemlock, in part, on the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In that story, Cupid sets out to avenge the goddess Athena against perceived offenses by Pysche. But Cupid is accidentally pierced by his own arrow and falls in love with Psyche. Psyche grows to love him in return, but she does not know her lover’s true identity, because he is hiding it in an attempt to protect them both from Athena. Against his instructions, Psyche sets out to unmask him. When she does, she loses him.
It is from the scene at the Middleton Fair, just before Polly loses him, that we know Tom (who is nearly blind and goes to work with a bow) has been pierced by his own arrow.
Heading into their final confrontation with the Fairy Queen, armed with her understanding of how Janet saved Tam Lin, Polly is still thinking she needs to hold onto Tom to save him. Tom understands what Polly does not, yet: Polly never needed to put actual physical arms around Tom. She was already holding on, had been since she was ten, not with arms but with her imagination. It was when she tried to turn it into a literal embrace, when she (like Psyche before her) insisted on unmasking her beloved, that Tom (like Cupid) was forced to push her away.
Then again, even though he is telling her to go away and that she cannot help him, Polly sees that Tom does not try very hard to keep her from accompanying him to the final confrontation. Because Tom is still completely sure of Polly.
When at last they face the evil fairies, partially fulfilling her role as his savior, Polly realizes that the Fairy King, whose life force will be replenished by the Queen’s sacrifice of Tom, has committed an infraction. It is enough to persuade the Queen to grant Tom a chance to compete in a sort of magical duel against the King.
“Now, Morton, this is what I say. I shall give both of you a chance. Tom can use anything which is truly his. You can use the exact equivalent.”
Tom’s friend Ann, a half-blood fairy herself, objects. She understands what the Queen has said. Morton’s son Sebastion also understands and laughs at Polly.
The magical duel begins. Tom tries to use his cello. That does not help. He calls for a horse he and Polly imagined into existence. That also does not help.
Both Tom’s music and the horse are “truly his” as the Queen’s rules dictate. But both were manifested in the real world as products of Tom’s ability to imagine things into existence—with Polly’s help. As such, they are destined to “come back and hit him” as proscribed by the curse.
Tom begins to lose to the Fairy King.
Polly moves to help. When she does, Tom situation grows even more dire. He starts to topple into the dark abyss of Hell. There are two interconnected reasons why Polly’s support has made Tom even more vulnerable:
First, Polly is to Tom the equivalent of what the Queen is to the Fairy King. By drawing upon Polly, Tom allows the King to draw upon the power of the Queen, as per the rule set by the Queen. Second, and even more importantly, Polly’s identity, like the horse and the music, is partly a manifestation of Tom’s imagination. At some point, they have both imagined her as his savior and thereby manifested that identity into reality.
Just how much of Polly’s identity is the product of that storyline? DWJ does not leave it to us to guess:
Almost everything Polly did in those five years went back to Mr. Lynn somehow. The four years after that had been formless and humdrum years. Polly had done things, true, but it had all been without shape, as if she had been filleted away from her own motives and the things which gave her shape.
She hates her long hair until Mr. Lynn says he likes it. She dislikes coffee until his friend Ann gives her some to drink. She takes up athletics to practice being his assistant hero. She starts music lessons, even though she is not particularly good, because she wants to be able to discuss music with him. He dislikes her writing and suddenly all the parts that were her favorite now make her cringe.
Polly’s identity is not only a product of Tom’s imagination, she has let him control the storyline. She is both truly his and a product of the curse. As such, she is destined to “come back and hit him,” i.e. cause his defeat by the King.
So Polly tears herself away from Tom. She severs the connection between them and ceases to be his. She accomplishes it by doing something contrary to his utter certainty in her, by becoming something independent of her identity as his savior, by telling him that she never wants to see him again—and meaning it.
At first, she thinks she will have to harden her heart to do it. But then she realizes that her heart is already hard, because she has finally seen the truth of what Tom did to her.
You took me over as a child to save your own skin.
The truth between two people always cuts both ways.
When she severs the link between them, Tom cannot use her hold on him to fight the King. But as per the rule set by the Queen, if Tom is no longer drawing upon Polly, the King can no longer draw upon the Queen. As between the two of them, unaided by either of the women, Tom is stronger and the evil King is dispatched.
“I’VE GOT A CAREER TO COME TO”
As Polly severs the connection between herself and Tom, she tells him:
“I’ve got a career to come to.”
Today this reads like a throwaway line, akin to saying, “I’ve got more important things to do with my time!” But DWJ came of age in the 50’s, wrote Fire and Hemlock in the 70’s, and expressly said she was contemplating the women’s movement as she wrote it, trying to address a paucity of female heroes. In Polly, she created a female hero who won, not by holding on as Tam Lin’s lover did, but by letting go, and adopting an identity free of his expectations.
Consider the power imbalances that had been at play. Tom is a man, Polly a very young girl at first. Tom is so handsome and talented that the Fairy Queen herself chose him as a lover. Polly is from a broken home. Both of her parents have basically abandoned her. Tom has an overwhelming, dire situation going on. Polly, who has not yet formed her identity, has the power to save him.
In fulfilling that role, Polly lost the equal power she held in the beginning. Whatever true affection they might otherwise have felt for one another became tainted. In the end, Tom, Polly, and their feelings for one another, can only be redeemed if she removes herself from that role, becoming again the master of her own storyline.
Tam Lin was saved when he was at last again, a man in his lover’s arms.
They shaped him in her arms at last
A mother naked man.
Tom Lynn is also naked, but in a different respect, stripped of all contrivances. Polly has also stripped herself bare by intentionally ceding her role as Tom’s savior, stripping herself of the very thing that drew Tom to her in the first place.
Divorced from that storyline, how do they feel about each other?
You meant it, didn’t you? he asks when the battle is over, trying to process her insistence that she never wants to see him again.
Yes, Polly tells him, miserable, thinking she can never stop meaning it, that she can never let herself become truly his again or she will again be a weapon to be used against him by the Fairy Queen.
The loophole they then discover is not mere wordplay as some have complained. It is something far more intimate to their story.
What happens is that Tom does not try to change her mind.
Instead, he admits that he used her and tells her that while he agrees it might not work out, he has still always wanted to go on seeing her. Polly realizes the significance of his not trying to change her mind.
She thought of all the things Tom might have said—which Seb would have said—just now to change her mind. It was the things not said that showed they might have a great deal in common. And Tom had spent so many years defying Laurel. One of the things he had to be saying, by not saying was that there had to be some way to get round Laurel’s chilly logic. Perhaps there always was a way.
Tom understands what she is just realizing. Polly became a weapon to be used against Tom when they both, mutually, allowed Polly to become a character whose storyline was defined by Tom’s certainty that she was his savior. They can be together only if she is no longer, ever, in any way shape or form, a person whose identity is under the influence of his ability to imagine things into being, to control her storyline.
In order for their circumvention of the Queen’s curse to work, Polly has to be the only person shaping her identity. She has to reclaim the ground she held at the beginning, as the writer of her own stories.
This is quite impossible, Polly says carefully, beginning to understand the crucial importance of him not being able to predict her storyline. He can never again be so completely sure of her if they are to elude the curse.
For you, the only way to behave well was to behave badly. For me, the only way to win was to lose, she tells him. What she is conveying is that the only way it can be possible for them to be together is for her to tell him it is impossible so that he cannot imagine them into togetherness and thereby manifest a relationship that can “come back and hit him.”
The alleged wordplay occurs here:
“If two people can’t get together anywhere—”
“You think?” Tom said with a shivery laugh. “Nowhere?”
“Yes, and if it’s not true nowhere, it has to be true somewhere.” Polly laughed and held out her hands. “We’ve got her, either way.”
This would be so insubstantial and disappointing as mere wordplay. But it isn’t. They are having a substantive discussion about their history and possible future. What they are saying is: While Polly was a child and Tom was ensnared in the Fairy Queen’s clutches, they could never be together anywhere but in the realm of the imagination (Nowhere). Now, the stories they believed in that realm have turned out not to be true. Tom wasn’t sending books to Polly because he cared for her. And Polly failed in her role as his savior. Even worse, their connection in the realm of the imagination made them vulnerable to the Fairy Queen’s curse.
Thus, their connection in the realm of the imagination (Nowhere) no longer has substance. Yet they do still have a connection, a fact they were able to discover only by severing the one that existed in Nowhere. If it does not exist in Nowhere (the imaginary world they created), but does exist, then it must exist in some other realm: the real world, the Now Here, the somewhere.
In other words, if they still want each other, after facing these hard truths, then their wanting is true in a way that transcends the Nowhere of their cursed imaginations. It exists beyond the reach of the Queen’s curse because Tom and Polly do not have to use make-believe on each other to make it true.
DWJ told us way back at the beginning of the book that this was where she was headed, when she had Polly ruminate that:
[R]eal life trumps made-up things every time…
This, incidentally and tellingly, is also where Cupid and Psyche ended their story, when she drank the ambrosia and finally became his equal, thus consummating both their union and Cupid’s wish that:
I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god.