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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.
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  • 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.
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  • Big Eater: Sam, who always has food of some kind on his person.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 some readers confused about 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.
  • May–December 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.
  • Mind Screw: Wait, what happens at the end again?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, thinks 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 ultimately harmless, it's very telling that neither parent 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


Example of: