Flights of fantasy: Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock


I’ve just finished reading Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and thought I’d add some musings!

What it’s about (good question!) (from the publishers):

In the mind of a lonely, imaginative girl, who can tell where fiction ends and reality begins? An epic fantasy, spanning nine years…

The fire and hemlock photograph above Polly’s bed sparks memories in her that don’t seem to exist any more. Halloween; nine years ago; she gatecrashed a funeral party at the big house and met Thomas Lynn for the first time.

Despite the fact that he’s an adult, they struck up an immediate friendship, and began making up stories together – stories in which Tom is a great hero, and Polly is his assistant. The trouble is, these scary adventures have a nasty habit of coming true…

But what has happened in the years between? Why has Tom been erased from Polly’s mind, and from the rest of the world as well? Gradually Polly uncovers the awful truth and, at Halloween nine years on, realises that Tom’s soul is forfeit to demonic powers unless she can save him.

Sam’s review:

I’ve just read this as part of a fantasy module in my MA in Children’s Literature (I need to add more books here soon). I must admit that I wasn’t at first keen to read this novel as fantasy isn’t my favourite genre but I was completely drawn into this book, so much so that I kept reading it beyond 1am most nights.

Polly is an interesting choice for a heroine. As is the case with many children’s books, she is necessarily a loner and her life is pretty miserable by all accounts – with two parents who are so completely self-absorbed with their own problems and desires that it becomes painful to read. Luckily Polly has a caring and fiercely protective grandmother, who adopts her and provides her with a more stable and happy home life, along with the faithful cat Mintchoc (named because of her love of mint chocolate ice cream).

Set against this is a parallel existence in which Polly forges a friendship (which is admittedly a little odd, especially by today’s standards) with Thomas Lynn, a man who rescues her when she gatecrashes a funeral, aged 10 (seriously!). She and Tom create a fantasy world in which they are the heroes. Diana Wynne Jones based this on the Scottish folk tales of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer and Tom gives Polly various books throughout the years which show the narrative of these and similar stories. However he’s not just trying to expand Polly’s reading – there is purpose behind his literary gifts.

Behind her friendship with Tom lies danger. She is constantly warned off him by two relations whom she met at the funeral – Morton Leroy and his son Seb. Unable and unwilling to give up her friendship she continues corresponding with Tom and occasionally meeting up, despite the increasing danger and threats the two come up against.

The story was thrilling and also quite confusing in equal measures. Just as the story would pick up huge momentum, the reader would be party to Polly’s confusion about what was happening, raising doubts that she was a reliable narrator. I think that was the purpose here – to reflect Polly’s self-doubt. The last quarter of the novel raises the stakes and the narrative leaps ahead in pace but with the detrimental effect that the reader (or at least THIS reader!) becomes totally confused! Fantasy and reality merge so quickly that it’s difficult to tell what is happening. I think that multiple readings of the book are necessary to truly understand what is happening.

This was the first of Diana Wynne Jones’ books and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s always wonderful to enjoy a book that you never anticipated and I’m grateful that my course expands my reading choices in this way.

Have you read Fire and Hemlock? Can you enlighten me about the ending?




  1. I’ve never got round to reading Diana Wynne Jones – like you I have a bit of reluctance about out-and-out fantasy – but she’s definitely on my to-read list. I wonder which of her books is a good place to start? And your point about heroes and heroines often being loners is interesting. I think if they were really happy, settled, in a great circle of friends and family, they might be too busy to have book-worthy adventures, and this outsider status also makes them observant, which is always useful. (And a bit like writers themselves…)


    • Hi Julia
      Thank you for your comment. Perhaps Fire and Hemlock would be a good book to start with? It is meant to be one of her best, which might be why it was chosen rather than her other ones for our Masters course (we cover the book next week, so I might have more info then!). And I agree with you – particularly in children’s literature, you kind of need a loner so that adventures can unfold. Or if not a loner, you need to get rid of the parents! 😉


  2. Very interesing – thanks Holly and Sam. I’ve downloaded a sample of ‘Fire and Hemlock’. Diana Wynne Jones also writes fantasy for grownups doesn’t she? Her fairies can get quite dark. There is a Manga animated movie of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ which is fab.


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