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The Sombre Season
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones
10,184 words

I started off to write about how Laurel taught Tom about horses, and ended up writing about how Laurel taught Tom something else. Sneakily, even though it takes place pre-canon, this is a story about my thoughts about the ending of Fire and Hemlock.

(These thoughts were shaped as I was writing my story by Diana Wynne Jones' essay about Fire and Hemlock, "The Heroic Ideal-- A Personal Odyssey", which can be found online starting at https://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/01/kyla/Heroic_Ideal7.gif -- the numbers go up to 7.

I also read an extremely insightful essay about the ending (part 1, part 2) by [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks, which influenced my thoughts...though by the time I finished writing my story, I think I ended up having a somewhat different perspective, or at least coming at it from a somewhat different angle.)

So instead of a story about Laurel and Tom and horses, it turned out that I wanted to write a story about how Tom's relationship with Laurel and the things that she did to him and the ways she tried keep him with her taught Tom to be strong enough to deal with having nothing at all.

Which I think turned out to be important, not just for Tom's relationship with Laurel (and his ability to somewhat escape her over the course of the book -- although never entirely), but because I think this is what made Tom's part of the ending possible. At the end, Tom is faced with another situation of having nothing at all. His friends in the quartet couldn't help him no matter how beautifully they played, his music betrayed him by sending him closer to the hole, and to cap it off Polly put the truth between them, an insurmountable barrier between him and something that had sustained him -- but he was able to summon the strength he needed because that was exactly the same kind of strength that he'd needed to deal with Laurel. Not the strength to act, not at first, but the strength not to act.

My interpretation of the ending is that Tom uses what he has for as long as he has it. He plays with the quartet, a futile effort to prove that he deserves to live. He tries to argue with Laurel. And when he's placed in the contest with Morton, he tries to summon the horse, the power of his music and creativity, which he has made truly his. And he expects Polly to help him--

But as Polly figures out (and as the essay by rushthatspeaks points out), the hole at the bottom of the swimming pool represents nothing, and this nothing is double-sided, creation and dead end at the same time, so using the power of creation -- music, passion, anything he's shared with Polly, which is also based on creation -- is also moving toward the hole. That's the conundrum that Laurel has set up.

And when Polly rejects Tom specifically by telling him something that is a cutting truth -- that he used her as a child, that she's not going to let him use her again, he not only doesn't have her, but he's also put face to face with a direct result of using what you have. What Polly feels is true, that's why she can say it and why it has such an effect on Tom -- because he used her, she can use that against him. The truth between two people always cuts two ways.

Morton, on the other hand, has exactly the equivalent of what Tom has, but Morton has no scruples about using anything (stealing life from other people -- using them for what they can give him -- is exactly how he always survives, it's what he's based on), and therefore when the horse arrives, it arrives for Morton. Of the two of them, Tom has realized the price of using what he has, even what is truly his, and isn't going to do it any more, but Morton doesn't have the ability to not use Tom and everything that Tom has. Morton doesn't have the strength he needs to survive on his own, he has to use what Tom has even if it kills him. But Tom, at that moment, has nothing that he wants to use, nothing he's willing to pay the price of using for, and he has the strength not to use anything.

So Tom is unmoved, and Morton falls past him into the hole.

(And Morton is doomed by the very thing that has saved him in the past and that he hoped would save him today, which I find very satisfying.)

(Also, I feel like there's some parallel here with Cat and Gwendolyn from Charmed Life, but I can't work it out at the moment...but Morton can use what Tom has if Tom doesn't use it, and Gwendolyn is the same with Cat's magic... Cat, though, isn't faced with a Laurel who turns everything you have against you, but...he might be his own Laurel for part of the book? Anyway, I think this might be a theme throughout Diana Wynne Jones' work.)

Working from this interpretation, The Sombre Season, my story, is about the the parallel I see between Tom's experience with Polly and Tom's experience with Laurel. It's not an exact parallel, but there are similarities. Because the truth is that Laurel gives Tom things that he couldn't have gotten any other way. A rich life, and a comfortable life, and maybe some amount of inspiration (working from the parallel between Tom and Leslie, who's ridiculously in love with Laurel, and love is often considered a source of inspiration). Whatever Tom wants Laurel will provide -- that's the bargain I put into my story. So this bargain is a mutual use, though not a very fair one.

(The bargain Charles made complicates things a bit, but I just can't see Tom marrying Laurel completely against his will -- it's a mistake on his part, and to some extent his fate was influenced by the Obah Cypt, but I think Tom has to have some free will in all his decisions or what Laurel is doing with him wouldn't work -- and that's why he can get away from Laurel eventually as well.)

But life with Laurel isn't a life that will bring out all of Tom's potential, and I think as an artist -- as the continually improving artist we see in the book -- Tom would eventually figure that out. Tom is described in the book as playing music that "gave you a sense of the music opening out before him as he played", that was "so expert and so varied that it was hard to believe that it was being done with a musical instrument in someone's hands". And whatever Laurel can give Tom, or teach Tom, I don't think that's something Laurel could provide him. She can encourage his music, but she can't encourage it past her own boundaries.

But Tom has potential to grow past her boundaries, and that's what he wants, more than he wants any kind of safety or security or comfort. He could have lived comfortably with Laurel for the time he had left. He didn't.

And so the most important thing that Laurel teaches Tom is not to take her gifts. And indirectly, she teaches him to give up what he thinks he needs (her) for ... not for something better, because he doesn't know that he'll be able to get it, but for nothing. Nothing, which is a dead end, but which is also potential. He can't really even see the potential until he's free of Laurel, though.

And Laurel teaches him the necessity of having that kind of strength, to step out into nothing with no guarantees. And to face nothing unmoved. And that saves him in the end, along with Polly and her realization, and her willingness to cut Tom loose, which leaves Tom in a place where he can use the strength that he's learned from dealing with Laurel.

My summary for this story (The truth between two people always cuts two ways), which is a quote from the last chapter of the book, was an accident (I wasn't done writing at the posting deadline, so I posted the first chapter with some extra dialog/explanation to make it stand alone, but the full story not being done yet made it difficult to think of a summary, and going through my notes I found that quote and decided it would do) but once I'd done it I couldn't bring myself to change it, because of the parallels between Tom and Laurel and Tom and Polly that I was trying to write about.

I wanted to write about the dead end, and the price of using things, even if they've been given to you, and what to do when you don't have any way forward or back, and the choice between something that you know is wrong for you and something that looks like a dead end, and about finding something beyond the dead end (maybe, though it's taking a risk).

And I wanted to write about Laurel leading Tom to this dead end, because I think it's pretty clear in the book that at the point that Tom's with Laurel, he doesn't actually have a lot of choices.

(I also wanted to write Tom starting off as a bit frivolous, because that description of younger Tom in the photograph Polly steals really made me think about who Tom was and who Tom had become.)

So that's the reasoning I had while writing The Sombre Season.

...I think I wanted to write that meta about Fire and Hemlock even more than I wanted to write a story about it -- lucky I could do both :) (Though sadly, I'm not sure everything I wanted came across in the story, and actually, having written this, I wonder if I could make the ending of my story a little better...but it's always so.)

(Actually, if I were writing this story outside the constraints of Yuletide, it might enhance what I was trying to do to write it with a frame story that was about Tom and Polly, probably post-canon, and it would be the exact opposite progression as the story about Tom and Laurel, but with lots of cross connections and parallels and opposites that link the two stories together thematically...though I'd have quite a bit to figure out, like whether Tom post-canon retains the gift/curse of telling the truth, etc. and there's a lot about the horse that would need figuring, and I'd probably have to explicitly address the nowhere stuff, or at least have a better understanding of it in my own head even if it wasn't explicit, and ... and ... ...and I'd probably never finish it and this is exactly why it is impossible for me to write things that are short. Believe it or not, I expected the plain Tom and Laurel story to be about half the size -- or less! -- as it turned out to be, which is absolutely typical. And I even feel like I had more time than usual for editing this year, which I think helped the writing, but doesn't seem to have affected the length.)

Anyway. In writing the story, I also ended up soaking in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, to the extent that I'd almost call it half Jones fanfic and half Eliot fanfic. But since Jones mentions in her essay that these four poems were one of her (many) sources, I think that's fair. I'd read these poems before (the first and last were favorites of mine at some point), but T. S. Eliot can be really obscure, so much so that ... well, I can't claim to have completely sounded the depths of these poems, but whatever I got from them was worth it.

The other major source I used was The Golden Bough, which I've had a copy of forever and never read all the way through. I still haven't -- I read the part about fire festivals, and the part about year kings and related concepts, and then browsed around quite a bit. This book is actually mentioned in Fire and Hemlock, so it's also a source for Jones too, but since The Golden Bough is a classic, I'm now pretty curious about opinions about this book and its contents among people who are current in this field.

A cursory web search didn't come across a ton of criticism (unlike The White Goddess, another classic in the same line, which seems to have been influential on fantasy as a whole, and which apparently is now regarded as pretty ahistorical). But The Golden Bough doesn't seem to get the same criticism on first glance, perhaps because it's divided into sections containing either evidence or clearly labeled speculation. The speculation basically assumes that the reason behind every myth with similar aspects is the same reason (which is very syncretic), and then tries to figure out the specific myth that Frazer is interested based on the idea that he can take evidence from all over the world. It's interesting, I just wonder how that methodology has held up.

But I assume the evidence sections are probably fairly accurate, because if you say things like "In such and such a place they baked oatcakes on such and such a day" ... well, if they did that, they did that.

Anyway. For my purposes, which was inspiration, I don't really care if it's academically supportable...I can see why I've heard of this book as a good reference for fantasy (or easily recognizable symbolism). I'd use it that way too -- by the time you've read dozens of variations on fire festivals, for example, it's easier to take the basic idea and use it some way that works for a story. I just wish it was a bit broader, since it doesn't really go into myths or myth categories that are outside of the range of its original myth. (Which is totally understandable considering there was so much material that applied to the original myth...)

So yeah, I might have actually gone overboard on the research aspect, but since it's all stuff I've wanted to do for a long time, I have no regrets. It's also possible that this might have been my last Yuletide (my Christmas/holiday situation has changed since I first started doing Yuletide and I'm just not sure how that's going to play out next year) so it was nice to get a canon that I really wanted to spend the time with this year.

The only other thing I have to say is about the title. It's from T. S. Eliot, and the spelling of sombre is the spelling that he used (in both the book I have and in the online version I found that claims to be accurate). It's also the British (and so far as I can tell, everywhere except the US) spelling. But every time I look at it, it strikes me as spelled wrong, so I'm not sure I made the right choice there. Still, I'm not sure I'd have been happy the other way either.
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