Fire and Hemlock illustration

Polly’s reading list

(Fire and Hemlock print available here)

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, based on the folk tale Tam Lin and Eliot’s Four Quartets, is one of my all-time favourite books. The gifts of classic books that the protagonist Polly receives from Tom, the other main character, are an important part of the plot, but not listed anywhere in the novel. I made this reading list of the books for the zine of essays about Diana Wynne Jones that I made. You can find it here. You can also read my interview with Diana here, and my account of attending her memorial service here.

The books Tom sends Polly are an important part of Fire and Hemlock. Tom tries to hint at his situation through the choice of books (in particular East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Golden Bough and The Oxford Book of Ballads) but also inspire Polly’s imagination, and teach her about magic, the difficulty in knowing what you want and being careful what you ask for, heroism and fighting injustice. The physical evidence through the gift of books that someone cares about Polly, and the love of reading they incubate in her keep Polly going through her difficult childhood, and help to give her the strength of character she needs when she’s older to save Tom (your mileage may vary as to whether cynically created by Tom as a calculated lifeline or not). Even Polly’s tutorial topic, Keats, continues the themes of the book, and Ode to a Nightingale sums up her feelings at that point:

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,  
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”

(The Belle Dame Sans Merci would also be pretty appropriate here).

Fire and Hemlock is a book of patterns. Themes and events cross over from beginning to end, and patterns shown in the stories of the books Polly reads and the poems the book is based on are inverted and turned round in the main narrative of the story,

I’ve read all of these that are possible, except Henrietta’s House. The books in brackets are entirely fictional. T.S. Eliot is mentioned nowhere in the novel, but his Four Quartets are as much of an underpinning to the story as Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer. I have listed the books in the order they appear in the story. As well as linking to the books on Goodreads here, somebody else has also made a list of the books on the site.

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