Sunday, March 15, 2009

True Love

Warning: this post assumes you have read Diane Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock. If you haven't, it will make very little sense, I suspect. Fair warning.

Here's a really weird thing I realized recently about Fire and Hemlock: It's a love story (in large part) in which no-one says "I love you."


I used the Google Books version of the text, and searched for the word "love." The word appears 24 times in about 420-some pages of the paperback. Mostly it's people saying "Here, love" to Polly. Seb Leroy is rumored to be "in love with" Polly, and later offers to go with her in the "Tunnel of Love" at the carnival. The Dumas quartet signs a letter "with love from the Dumas Quartet." And When Polly plays Pierrot in the school play, Harlequin and Pierrot are discussed falling in love. Apart from that, the instances of the word are all "I'd love to!" and "He'll love this!"

But it's not that Jones doesn't have people trying to talk about love. They just always use different words: Ivy goes on about "happiness," at the end Tom talks about "seeing you" and Nina is boy-mad: "The rest of the time Nina pursued boys."

Laurel does not talk about love. Laurel is, in fact, incapable of real human love. One of the aspects of being of the Fair Folk. She takes, she enjoys, she uses—but she does not love. And her point of view infects the whole story from beginning to end.


I'm reaching the conclusion that the reason the ending of the book is so unsatisfying is that the real ending, the place it should have gone, is so depressing that Jones couldn't bear to go there. In order to save Tom, Polly really does have to let go of him. In doing so, she is in essence giving up her love. And in doing that, she is becoming not a little like Laurel. No technicalities, no "Nowhere is somewhere" word games.

The book, in avoiding actually talking about love—real love—swirls around a vortex. It's the pool at the bottom of the garden, which as Polly enters drains her of human emotion and connection, drains her of love.


Maybe afterwards, when Tom says "I want to see you anyway," they will be able to write stories together, to meet in that make-believe world where they explored being heroes together. But in the flesh-and-blood world, Tom used her, or tried to anyway. It may have been justifiable, but that's not the point. Polly's heartbreak, her teenaged jealousy of Mary Fields, which was so neatly erased by Laurel in making her "forget about Tom," has been unerased and revealed for the flawed and not-necessarily-based-on-the-real-Tom thing it was. Whatever relationship Polly and Tom go forward with, it will be tinged with the fact that they can never really trust each other the same way again.

It's not good to ask too many questions of love, to ask it to justify itself. Basing our decisions in love and life on the patterns we see can leave us blinded to patterns we don't see. That's the part of dancing that's impossible to explicitly teach, that rules can't touch, that explicit labels hide.


Anonymous said...

An awful lot of writers about the land of Faërie, and the inhabitants thereof, work on the premise that Faërie is a land of glamor and enchantment but no love. I think the ultimate example of this is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, an amazing work but one that most readers find quite chilling.

Michael Swanwick’s steampunk fantasies, beginning with The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, are faithful to the premise too, though not nearly as painfully. Poul Anderson’s gorgeous, romantic Three Hearts and Three Lions is another example.

And so, interestingly enough, are “Lewis Carroll”’s fantasies, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass.

Of course this premise has roots in the old division between the world, Heaven, and Elfland: Elfland, in that scheme, is a paradise without God, and since God is love, a world without the one, even if a paradise, is still also a world without the other. Here it is in Child’s “Thomas Rymer”:

‘O see not ye yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across yon lillie leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.’

Some of the most interesting “high fantasy” works, though, succeed by finding some revelatory way to disrupt this premise, instead of simply following it faithfully. In Ellen Kushner’s haunting Thomas the Rhymer, for example, the hero, as a poet, can be happy because he confuses love and æsthetics. In the lead story in the current issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sean McMullen’s “The Spiral Briar”, the lack of love in Elfland turns out to be caused by an attitude that can be spoken to.

The “sudden ‘turn’” that Tolkien rightly praised at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories” — a “turn” in which “we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for the moment passes outside the frame” — depends on a particular type of violation of the premise: one through which genuine love comes after hope is gone. The story Tolkien quotes to end his essay (“The Black Bull of Norroway”) illustrates the point:

‘Seven long years I served for thee,
The glassy hill I clamb for thee,
The bluidy shirt I wrang for thee,
And wilt thou not wauken and turn to me?’

“He heard and turned to her.”

I think it may be that Fire and Hemlock does this at the end, too — but only if we, as its readers, are ready to assume something that the novel cannot say out loud.

What do we have to assume? That because of Polly’s denial of the childish love relationship that has driven the story from beginning to end, an adult love of a different and deeper sort will now be freed to emerge. Inevitably, the emergence of that adult love must occur outside the frame of the novel, because what unifies the novel is the childish love, and if the novel were to move on to something else and incompatible its integrity would be destroyed.

Thus, if I may be permitted this interpretation, the novel depends for its ultimate height of magic on something it is not allowed to hint at. And in that it is like Polly’s victory itself — a remarkable and effective mirroring of invisible content by visible.

natcase said...

I spent a lot of time with Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in college and after. They formed a framework in the courtship leading up to my first marriage. I'm interested to see the reference to Faerie-based novels I haven't seen; honestly I've been out of the loop for over a decade now.

I'll post my paper on the Thomases, which focuses on that "three roads" speech, soon.

I still stand by my saying the end was "unrealistically" hopeful. I know it had to be for the novel to succeed, but I think the "real" story doesn't end this way. Sadder and wiser and lonelier I fear is where this was headed, and rule-mongering can't alter that.

Cf. Jones' Homeward Bounders.

natcase said...

My paper on Thomas the Rhymer is posted here.

hschinske said...

Tom der Reimer, by Wilhelm Kubie, is available from several booksellers on ABE, if you're interested. See for more information about Kubie.


natcase said...

Helen: Thanks, I did find an original of the Kubie a few years ago and have a copy on the shelf. If nobody beats me to it, I'd still like to translate it some time...