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Literature / Fire and Hemlock

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A novel by Diana Wynne Jones, based on the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, with a 1980s setting.

While staying at her grandmother's, Polly Whittaker wandered onto the grounds of an old neighbouring mansion, Hunsdon House, and met a man called Thomas Lynn, with whom she struck up a peculiar friendship. Together they created stories in which their alter egos were heroes - but soon things from their imaginary world became real (though not always as expected), and Tom's mysterious relatives persistently badgered Polly to stay away from him.

Now nineteen and preparing to leave for university, Polly has no memories of Tom or anything to do with him. But when she realizes so many bits of her life don't make sense, she slowly uncovers her hidden memories and becomes determined to find out what happened to her friend.


Tropes include:

  • Absolute Cleavage: Nina becomes extremely fond of this kind of outfit in her teens, and her "much-discussed bosom" (as well as other parts of her anatomy) become something of a legend in Polly's small town.
  • Adults Are Useless: A depressingly realistic version with Polly's parents. Her mother is paranoid, controlling and nagging, but believes that she is a long-suffering martyr who gives up everything for other people, and she sinks into spiky moods when things aren't to her liking. Polly's father is a feckless, Dirty Coward who tries to coddle his wife by treating her moods as a joke, which only makes them worse, and they both attempt to use Polly against the other, without much thought or care for her at all. They aren't related to the main plot outside of their effect on Polly's state of mind because they care too much about themselves to get involved in it.
  • Age-Gap Romance:
    • Tom and Polly. They meet when she's a child, and he's old enough to have been married. Polly gets a bit of a crush on him as a teen, but they don't actually start a relationship till she's in college. The age gap is still about 14 years.
    • Both Tom and Leslie were teenagers when Laurel took an interest in them. Justified, in that she has to ensnare men and use them to prolong her husband's life, and presumably it's easier to get them under her thumb if she starts young.
    • Fiona was hoping for one with her father's business colleague, Hans, even following him back to Germany to be with him when she was 15. It turned out to be very one-sided, and Hans essentially patted her on the head and sent her back to England.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The degree to which the stories Polly and Tom come up with are actually Rewriting Reality. On the one hand, things like the horse and Sam turning into a dragon are clearly fictions that Mr Leroy is deliberately bringing to life to turn against them. On the other hand, Tom's alter ego Thomas Piper, along with Piper's sister and her son turn out to be Tom's brother, sister-in-law and nephew, respectively, all real people who existed long before Tom and Polly even met but somehow end up living lives that more-or-less directly reflect Polly and Tom's writing. With the book's running theme of blending the real world with "Nowhere", this ambiguity is probably on purpose.
  • Amnesia Missed a Spot: Polly's memories of Tom are buried, but not erased. Whenever she finds something that directly ties into Tom or Laurel, her original memories are triggered.
  • Astral Projection: Polly works some rudimentary magic to do this, determined to reach Tom and demand an explanation. Unfortunately, she does so at exactly the wrong time, and it directly leads to her memories being erased.
  • Bad Liar: Laurel relies mostly on her magic and being painfully sweet to get her way, and seemingly has never had to learn the art of lying. Though she puts on a good show of sadness when she tells Polly that Tom is dying, she barely bothers to put much effort into the details, blaming it on "one of those cancer things". Polly is too distraught and caught up in Laurel's spell to notice.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Tan Hanivar in the stories that Polly and Tom write. It bleeds over into his real world counterpart, Sam, who turns into a dragon made of garbage and gets hit by Tom's car in the process.
  • Big Bad: Laurel, the Fairy Queen and main threat to Tom and Polly.
  • Big Brother Bully: Tom's brother, Charles. He's a bully to everyone else, too, but gets extra bad points for being the one to originally have a contract with Laurel before willingly exchanging Tom's life for his. He explicitly says at the end that he's glad he did it.
  • Big Eater: Sam, who always has food of some kind on his person.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Laurel, to a soul-eating extreme.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Polly, Nina and Fiona, respectively, though Nina spends far more time with her hair dyed in a crazy colour than with her own natural shade.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Tom, as part of the spell laid upon him by Laurel. In a twist, however, it's not exactly that he can't lie, it's that everything he says becomes true, after a fashion.
  • Child Prodigy: Tom, with regards to music. It's stated that Laurel specifically seeks out young men with this particular talent, having previously targeted Polly's grandfather and later setting her sights on Leslie Piper.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Ivy, to the point of paranoia. Though she was right about Reg cheating on her, she didn't help the situation by steaming open his mail and refusing to let him go anywhere or spend any money without accounting to her for it. While she is with David Bragge, she even starts to believe there might be something going on with him and Polly, who at the time is twelve.
  • Connected All Along:
    • At first, Leslie and his mother are just random people from Stow-on-the-Water who just happen to strongly resemble characters in Polly and Tom's stories. Later, Leslie starts going to school in Polly's town and it turns out that he is Tom's nephew, and later becomes the target of Tom's ex-wife, Laurel.
    • Granny turns out to have a connection to the Big Bad as well: Laurel seduced and sacrificed her husband, Polly's grandfather.
  • Curtains Match the Window: Laurel, whose hair is described as "light and floating, of a colour that could have been grey or no colour at all" and has eyes to match.
  • Dirty Coward: Polly's father, Reg. Even his own mother believes he is "only too happy for someone else to do his dirty work for him". Polly's mother sends her to live with Reg full-time, but he is too afraid to explain to his new girlfriend that it's more than just a weekend visit. When Polly elects to leave, Reg is relieved, and happily sends his young daughter out alone into a strange town with no money or transport or place to live.
  • Distressed Dude: Laurel and Mr. Leroy are extremely possessive of Tom and attempt to control his life and actions. In keeping with Tam Lin, Polly has to save him in the end.
  • The Dragon: Mr Leroy for his wife, Laurel. He appears more often throughout the story and is the most persistent threat, though it is implied that his involvement is preferable to Laurel's.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Tom. It's established that he can get away with this because his life is protected from danger until it's time for Laurel to claim it, so he can behave as recklessly as he wants until his nine years are up without fear of dying.
  • Dye Hard: Once they become teenagers, Nina's penchant for dyeing her hair extreme colours like green or crimson becomes as much a part of her personal brand as her Boobs of Steel.
  • Evil-Detecting Cat: Or magic-detecting, at least. One of the first signs that there might be something odd going on with Tom is when Granny's cat, Mintchoc, usually very friendly, runs away at the sight of him, and refuses to come out until after he's gone.
  • Exact Words: As Queen of the Fairies, Laurel is bound to adhere to this.
  • Extreme Doormat: Polly, who regularly curses her own "soft-heartedness". She spends most of her friendship with Nina being her lackey out of fear of the friendship ending and silently puts up with almost all of her parents' terrible behaviour despite how it affects her. Her entire relationship with Seb - spanning more than six years - is really just a string of romantic events and proposals that she doesn't have the heart to turn down. She finally shakes it off in the end. Ironically, about the only person she isn't ever a doormat to is Tom, who often annoys her with his own tendencies toward this.
  • Failed a Spot Check: The spell Laurel casts erases all Polly's memories of Tom, and also affects the same memories in her friends and family, so they can't remind her of his existence. What Laurel didn't realise was that Fiona, at the time only a casual school acquaintance of Polly's, saw her and Tom together one night, and reminding her of this is the key to Polly getting all her memories back for good.
  • The Fair Folk: Laurel and Morton Leroy, as well as their acquaintances. It's never made clear whether or not Seb, Mr Leroy's son and half-human on his mother's side, is one, though he is certainly involved in their dealings.
  • Fake Memories: Laurel's spell changed all of Polly's memories of Tom to generic ones, making her think she had a much more average life than she actually lived. There was at least some minor alteration of reality to go with the memories, as all the books Tom had given Polly were changed to prevent her memories triggering.
  • Fat and Proud: Nina, though her pride shifts to something else once puberty kicks in and her body changes quite dramatically.
  • Food Chains: It isn't elaborated upon, but Seb marks it as significant that Polly didn't eat or drink anything when she crashed the funeral at Hunsdon House. This was completely by accident, as she was so afraid of being discovered as an impostor that she forgot to touch her drink, but it was just as well she didn't.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Most of the books Tom sends to Polly are a kind of coded message trying to get her to understand his situation because part of Laurel's spell is that he can't directly tell her. Most obviously, he sends her the book containing the Ballad of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, but other stories like East of the Sun and West of the Moon end up being quite helpful to Polly along the way.
    • A silly game the prefects at Polly's school play involves looking into a mirror in a darkened room, where you will supposedly see the face of your one true love behind you. Nothing happens when Polly tries it, but when she breaks into Laurel's bedroom later in the book, a picture on the wall behind her stands out more clearly reflected in the mirror than when she looks directly at it. It's quite some time before she finds out the photo is of Tom as a young boy.
  • Forced into Evil: Seb. The first time Polly met him was at his mother's funeral, who had been killed to help Laurel live even longer. He grew up knowing he was the second least valuable member of the family, and that if Tom wasn't there to die they would have no compunction about sacrificing him instead. It's strongly implied in the end that, with his father being defeated by Polly and Tom, Seb will now have to take his place as Laurel's consort. He's not the most pleasant of young men, but it's hard to blame him for it.
  • From a Certain Point of View: Quite a bit of this in the finale as a way of getting away with beating Laurel. In order to win, Polly had to mean it when she told Tom she didn't want to see him again, but this doesn't necessarily stop him from seeing her.
  • Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand: Polly's father and mother, respectively. Ultimately they both go too far in either direction, and Polly ends up on the receiving end of two different flavours of Parental Neglect. Fortunately, she moves in with her grandmother, who readily admits she was too much of a Gentle Touch with Polly's father when he was a child, and is now a much more balanced caregiver.
  • Granola Girl: Nina, briefly, as one of her many "crazes".
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Polly herself.
  • Half-Human Hybrid:
    • Seb, born to a mortal mother and the King of the Fairies. He's never expressly shown using any kind of magical power, but he knows all about the Fairy world.
    • Implied with Ann Abraham, who says near the end that her "mother was a Leroy", one of the surnames Laurel and her associates use. It might account for her somewhat-Ripple Effect-Proof Memory, as she is the only one of the quartet to even vaguely recall knowing who Polly is at the end, the others having been spelled into forgetting about her.
  • Honey Pot: A male example. Seb convinces his father that there's a better way to keep Polly away from Tom.
  • Honorary Uncle: Early in their friendship, the child Polly suggests that she could address Tom as "Uncle Tom", but he asks her not to because it makes him feel like the title character of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
  • I Have Boobs, You Must Obey!: Once Nina's figure develops, she embraces it for all it's worth.
  • It's All About Me: Both of Polly's parents are deeply selfish, but her mother is much more harmful because she's convinced herself that she's entirely selfless, sacrificing everything for others and resenting them for it, even when it's completely unjustified.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: The younger Polly mentions near the start of the book that her mother, Ivy, is quite good-looking, and always puts a great deal of effort into maintaining her own appearance as well as that of her home. Almost a decade later, however, and Ivy's outsides have started to match her sour insides, and the house is falling into disrepair to reflect it.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Charles (aka Thomas Piper) is unpleasant and abrasive to everyone he meets, and as a child he made a deal with Laurel to take Tom's life instead of his, but he genuinely loves and cares about his wife and son, and will do anything for them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Ultimately, Seb. At the end, Polly reflects that he loved her in the same way that most other people bear a grudge.
  • The Lad-ette: Polly tries her hand at this throughout the story, as part of her self-imposed "hero training". She builds her muscles by lifting up her bed, joins the school football team as its only girl and gets into fights with the local bully. She spends a lot of time looking wild and unclean as a result.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Leslie with Laurel. A lot of it is down to magic, but when Laurel is defeated and she abandons Leslie, he clearly cared enough to cry his eyes out over it.
  • Land of Faerie: Hunsdon House is transformed into this during the finale, and it's clear that it was always connected to it in some way.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Polly is manipulated into agreeing to forget about Tom. Subverted, though, as while they removed all her memories of him, they didn't (or perhaps couldn't) remove all the memories and knowledge he was linked to, leading to bits of information she couldn't have possibly learned anywhere else and conflicting memories. These open the door to remembering Tom.
  • Light Is Not Good: Laurel is fair-haired, dresses in a lot of white and gold, and generally gives off a sweet and pleasant air. She's also a Fairy Queen who has survived for millennia by seducing young men and stealing their souls.
  • Manchild: Polly's father, Reg. He is fun, charming, and easy-going, but he has no idea how to handle conflict of any kind, can't hold a job or manage money and seems to seek out controlling women to run his life for him, only to then head for the hills once he finds them too controlling. His mother, Polly's Granny, admits that she spoiled him rotten as a child, and vows not to make the same mistake when she takes Polly in.
  • Maybe Ever After: The Mind Screw ending leaves it deliberately ambiguous where Tom and Polly's relationship will go. It's possible they might be able to get away with staying together, but it's hard to believe Laurel would let sleeping dogs lie after being cheated.
  • Mind Screw:
    • Polly and Tom come across Lorenzo, a wild, aggressive horse who resembles the golden steed Tom's alter ego rides in their stories. Direct parallels are drawn between Lorenzo and The Alleged Car that Tom drives later on, the vehicle being similarly unpredictable and directed by Tom's swearing. Tom later says he "swapped the horse out for the car", implying that the two are somehow one, yet both continue to exist at the same time. At the end, Tom summons the horse to his aid, and it briefly appears, but later on Lorenzo is nowhere to be found, but Tom's car is in the garden. What?
    • The ending itself is deliberately vague and confusing about exactly how much of Polly and Tom's relationship is being sacrificed or if they can keep being together.
  • My Grandson, Myself: Laurel pulls this to avoid anyone figuring out she uses human sacrifices to extend her life. There's also a bit of Refuge in Audacity at play, as it's strongly implied that Seb's mother was not only one of these sacrifices, but Laurel then passed the poor woman off as her own mother at the funeral Polly crashes in the beginning, denying her even the small luxury of dying as herself.
  • Mythology Gag: The full names of both Laurel and her "mother" are "Eudora Mabel Lorelei" and "Mabel Tatiana", referencing various fairy queens from the works of Shakespeare and mythology. Since it's established that a lot of the literature that Laurel is based on actually exists in-universe, it's possible that she chose these names herself as a private joke.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Polly's Granny is extremely kind and loving towards her, but woe betide anyone else who gets in her way or defies her wishes. She makes bank tellers quake with fear, and even the similarly strong-willed Ivy is no match for her.
  • Never My Fault: Ivy never acknowledges that she was a bad mother to Polly, even when called out on it, and instead blames her behaviour on everyone else, Polly included.
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever happened when Fiona ran away to Germany to be with Hans. All that gets revealed is that he eventually sent her back to England, but something happened over there. Polly only ever refers to it as "Fiona's Scandal", and Fiona herself wonders whether Hans still walks with a limp.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, and it's something of a plot point. Tom's alter ego is Thomas Piper the hardware store owner. And Polly's grandfather, who was also ensnared by Laurel, was called Tom as well. Polly's Granny bitterly remarks that Laurel has a "fondness" for that name and it apparently dates back to Tam Lin himself.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: They're made of garbage! And Tom's friend Sam.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Laurel. According to the reading of the will at the beginning, her full name is "Mrs Eudora Mabel Lorelei Perry Lynn". Of course, given who she actually is, it's likely that none of these is her real name.
  • Parental Abandonment: Polly. Twice. Her mother sends her to live with her father, under the belief Polly is the reason for all her failed relationships. Her father's too cowardly to tell his girlfriend Polly's staying with them indefinitely, so he pretends it's only a short visit and then has her leave, with no way to get back home. Lucky for Polly her grandmother steps in.
  • Parental Neglect: Even before the above happens, things aren't great for Polly at home. Her mother considers her to be more of a burden than anything else, complaining to her outright about having to "dump" Polly at a friend's house so she can have a social life, and her father disappears the minute things get bad. Even though Tom is a good guy, Polly's parents have no way of knowing this, and it's very telling that neither one of them is overly concerned about Polly spending so much time with a man more than twice her age.
  • The Power of Love: The only way Tom (or any of the men Laurel targets) can be saved.
  • Pretty Boy: Leslie, with his long, curly hair and glittery skull earring. He is just as aware of his good looks as Nina is of hers. He is apparently pretty enough for Laurel to overlook the fact that he isn't named 'Tom'.
  • Properly Paranoid: Almost all of Granny's superstitions are completely ridiculous, but it's strongly implied she only threw herself into them after Laurel took her husband and she was desperate to hold the people from Hunsdon House at bay, and she was very smart to be afraid of them.
  • Prophecy Twist: Laurel basically gives Tom the "power" of Prophecy Twist. All of the stories he and Polly make up together come true, but none of them are 100% accurate to the source material.
  • Protective Charm: The heart necklace Polly's Granny gives her is supposed to be one, but never seems to do anything. Mr Leroy claims to have "got it's measure" at some point, and Polly suspects that he might have actually hacked into it to spy on her. She casually throws it away in the end, avoiding a Dramatic Necklace Removal so that nobody will catch on to what she's doing.
  • Purple Prose: An in-story example - Polly writes like this until Tom gives her some rather odd tips to cure her "sentimental drivel".
  • Purpose-Driven Immortality: Tom's purpose is to be sacrificed to extend Mr Leroy's life once his nine-year contract with Laurel is up. During that nine years, though, it is magically impossible for him to die. It's not that he recovers from mortal wounds; the world just bends around him to prevent him from getting injured. This is the reason he Drives Like Crazy.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Both of Polly's parents are alive and well, but prove to be so incompetent at taking care of her that Granny takes matters into her own hands and moves Polly in with her when she is 12, where she stays until she moves away to college.
  • Really 700 Years Old: It's not stated exactly how old Laurel is, but the ballad of Tam Lin dates back to the 1500s. She keeps a selection of photographs on her wall, strongly implied to be of all the men who's souls she has taken. The boys in the pictures look more old-fashioned the further back Polly looks, and several are just crude charcoal sketches. Laurel has been at this for a very long time.
  • Really Gets Around: Nina develops an incredible figure seemingly overnight, much to Polly's jealousy, and wastes no time putting it to good use on any man she can get her hands on. By the time they are in their late teens, she is famed for her sex life. Leslie is basically her male counterpart, and they run into a "collision course" with each other more than once.
  • Rewriting Reality: The stories that Polly and Tom make up have a habit of turning out to be true, though usually with a bit of a twist. This was part of the "gift" that Laurel gave Tom when he left her, but she was angry enough at him for going that she put a bit of bite into the spell.
  • Shout-Out: To various literary works.
    • The whole story is based on the ballad of Tam Lin, with a bit of Thomas the Rhymer thrown in.
    • Tom scolds Polly for plagiarizing The Lord of the Rings.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Laurel took Granny's husband, also called Tom, while she was pregnant with Polly's father. She muses that this is probably why she spoiled her child so much.
  • Spanner in the Works: Fiona. She is pretty much a background character during Polly's childhood, until she becomes Polly's flatmate while they are at university together. It is exactly this relative lack of importance that causes Laurel to overlook Fiona, and her reminding Polly of the time Tom came to see her at a school pantomime is what finally confirms to Polly that she wasn't just making him up and spurs her on to confront Laurel.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Seb to Polly, though he only develops the crush after he starts stalking her, on his father's orders after she accepts the titular Fire & Hemlock photograph from Tom at the beginning.
  • Stranger Safety: Played totally straight; the only people who actively seek to harm Polly are those who know who she is. She gatecrashes a funeral, pretends to be part of the (large) family, and befriends an adult man, who helps her get out of the party before people notice she isn't family. Sounds dangerous? Only becomes dangerous because his enemies are now her enemies.
  • This Is Reality: Part of Tom's criticism of Polly writing Purple Prose. Namely, he takes her to task for describing a man's back as having "rippling muscles beneath silken skin", and dictates to her a fairly graphic depiction of the types of things more likely to be discovered on men's backs.
  • True Companions: The heroes of Tom and Polly's stories. Later, this also extends to their counterparts in the real world.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Tom and his older brother, Charles. Characters who know them both regularly confuse one for the other at first glance.
  • Unnamed Parent: Averted with Polly's parents, Ivy and Reg, but Granny is much more integral to the story than either of them and she is only ever called Granny.
  • Wife Husbandry: A gender-flipped version with Laurel and Tom. She adopted him and his brother after they lost their parents at a young age, and she essentially raised him to be her consort so she could claim his soul.
  • Younger Than They Look: Tom, who Polly first meets when she is 10 and thus vaguely assumes that everyone over the age of 20 is "old", combined with his recent harrowing divorce leaving him looking drained and aged. After not having seen him for several years, she gets quite a shock once she grows up and sees a picture of him, realising that he was much younger than she had imagined. Tom's exact age is never given, but he would have been in his early 20's at the start of the book.
    • If you read carefully, you can deduce Tom is at minimum 24 at the beginning. Tom is stated to be 10 years older than Seb, who is “at least fourteen” at the start of the story.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Laurel has a claim over Tom's soul, and she plans to take it after nine years. She has done this many times over the years, including to Polly's own grandfather.