The thing is, she saved my life. I was a neglected and abused child, and her books told me not only that it could be all right, that I could be all right, but that it could be funny. I learned irony, humor, and resilience from her, as well as how never to be surprised by a plot; I also learned that you may not be who you think you are, but it's still fine.
About a year ago I had the opportunity to write and tell her that she had saved my life. She was at that point already too ill to write back, but the friend who gave me her address told me she got the letter, that it meant a lot to her. I am so glad she knew, that I had the chance to tell her that I loved her, that her books parented me more than my parents did. So very much of who I am today I owe to her-- a huge amount of my sense of humor, a huge amount of my pragmatic streak, and every damn thing I know about plotting. Books can raise a kid, you know. They really can.
I have been trying to think what I can say or do in memoriam, in tribute. The best thing I can think of is that in 2007 I started to write an essay to explain the end of Fire and Hemlock, because a lot of people find it confusing; the essay was meant to have two parts, and I never managed to write the second.
Here is the first. You should of course read it first. I haven't edited it at all except to add some instances of the blockquote tag, which I didn't know at the time and which should make it easier to read. The essay of Jones' referred to is "The Heroic Ideal-- A Personal Odyssey", from The Lion and the Unicorn (1989).
And here, now, now-here, is the second part.
We left Tom and Polly in the garden of the Faerie Queen. Tom and his string quartet play; Polly wonders why, whether it is meant to be helpful in some way, and concludes that it isn't, that they are playing for the sake of playing. Polly and others argue with Laurel, the Queen, about various claims to Tom's life that Polly and others have established over the course of the book.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence...
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.
-- Burnt Norton, V.
Here you see both Tom's music, and why it doesn't help directly: the quartet plays beautifully, but it can only play so long. This is also why arguing with Laurel directly doesn't work. Laurel lives in NOWHERE, and NOWHERE is to some extent outside of time. Mortal argument is only another delaying tactic.
The music broadened and deepened, put on majesty and passion, and moved onward in some way, fuller and fuller. All four players were putting their entire selves into it. Polly knew they were not trying to prove anything-- or not really. She let the music take her, with relief, because while it lasted she would not have to make a decision or come to a dead end.
-- Fire and Hemlock, p. 405 of the 2002 Greenwillow hardcover edition
However, while the quartet is playing Polly realizes something important. She realizes, as I mentioned previously, that the wellspring at the bottom of the garden is potential and imagination as well as the void of nothingness. Good art has this effect on people, that it makes them think about things.
And the argument uncovers a mistake that the King of Faerie made-- while Tom was under the spell, no one was allowed to do anything that might kill him; Tom was to roam free in the world with the poisonous gift of everything he imagined coming true in a way that would hurt him. (This, I conjecture, was to make it so he would be glad for his life to end, as happened in some versions to Thomas the Rhymer.) But the King, frightened, made a real attempt on Tom's life and did injure him. The rules have been broken, and Tom must have his chance to get free.
So argument moves to action, and it is possible to take actions in NOWHERE (fairytales are full of people doing that).
Now, remember that Polly held onto Tom, when she did, by using the Queen's gift against her, by living with Tom in between the two worlds. In HERE--NOW, Polly is a little girl and Tom an adult with romantic problems; in NOWHERE Polly is nothing at all and Tom is a human sacrifice. But in WHERE--NOW Polly is a hero and is Tom's loving, ever-faithful sidekick, and he is a hero and is free. Because of the Queen's gift, while Polly kept making that story WHERE--NOW was the reality that mattered.
But she let go. Now what? You can't just pick up a story where you left off, years later, and expect nothing whatever to have changed, in the story or yourself.
The contest is set between Tom and the King:
"Hush, dear," said Laurel. "Now, Morton, this is what I say. I shall give both of you a chance. Tom can use anything which is truly his. You can use the exact equivalent. The one who enters the pool first is the one who goes. Don't you think that's fair, Polly?"
"No," said Anne, and Mr. Leroy cried out, "Laurel! I've no strength!" and Anne added, "But Tom has. That's the catch, isn't it?"
"Maybe," said Laurel. "But that's what I've said, dear."
Polly looked down at the grass, trying to work out what this meant. Laurel had taken steps to show Tom he could win. But why? (p.411)
Because, as with all the Queen's gifts, there is a catch, which Anne has worked out. The way upward and the way downward are the same. (Herakleitos, in the epigraph to the Eliot.) Because the void is not just hell, because it is the wellspring of imagination, leaning and depending on the things you love and trust and consider part of yourself will send you closer to it. Tom summons his cello, and, of course, practicing his art sends him closer to the source of art. Polly moves to try to help Tom, and, of course, friendship sends him closer to the source of light. And the King may use the exact equivalent-- but he has no art, and he has no friends, so he does not use them, and moves farther and farther away.
Polly realizes it.
All right, Polly thought. So the only way to win is to lose. I'll have to lose. (p.413)
In order to survive, Tom must have less of himself left to use than the King does (unlikely), or else what he has left must turn against him (doable). But because of Polly's position in Tom's life, in Tom's story which is Tom's life, she can't just turn her back on him and walk away and expect that to do it. Tom made WHERE? NOW as much as she did, and he will keep making that story unless she gives it an ending.
And she has to do it quickly, because Tom has summoned the horse he made out of the Queen's gift, the hero's horse, the force of himself that he has been using to fight against his fate, and she needs to turn that strength against him before it pushes him over the edge. So she walks into the pool to make him disbelieve and hate her. It is the only way out.
Around her, everything became gray-green ripples, but she did not feel the ripples, or anything else particularly. She had meant to harden her mind and be as stony as Ivy, but she seemed stony already. Kind feelings seemed to bleed away from her as she went downward. Love, companionship, even Nowhere meant less and less. All she felt was a numb kind of sadness. The truth between two people always cuts two ways, she thought. And she had to go on.
As you do in water, she saw Mr. Leroy floating above her, and the blurred soles of his shoes. Tom was floating below, fighting the current to get near his cello. Neither had gone up or down. By which Polly knew she had to go on and lose.
She was quite near to Tom when he succeeded in drawing the bow across the cello. ... Tom receded downward instantly. Ah, well, Polly thought. It wouldn't have worked. She passed the cello, with echoes ebbing out of it, and the bow, floating, and found Tom in front of her. He was hanging, swaying, with both arms spread out for balance on the very edge of the trench. It was open like a door behind him. And it was nothingness. There were no ripples here, just nothingness. Truly the dead end of nowhere, Polly thought.
"That was a mistake," he said to her. "Wasn't it?"
"Yes," said Polly. The horse was coming. She could feel its hoofbeats in the dying din of the cello, cutting across the rhythm of the ripples in front of her. She wondered whether to say any more. She could have got it horribly wrong. But the only way to turn that wild strength of the horse to Tom's advantage was to deprive him of it completely. To take everything away, and do it now, because the horse had arrived. ... "And it was an even worse mistake," she said, "the way you used me. You took me over as a child to save your own skin."
The golden shape surged above. Polly could feel the beast panic as the current dragged it in. "You're not doing that again," she said.
Tom stared at her incredulously. She could see his eyes behind his glasses, as wide and gray with shock as they were when he first saw the horse. He had been completely sure of her. Polly could hardly blame him. But she had to go on. The horse was on its way down, screaming, lashing, fighting the current, belling echoes against the trench of nothingness, and the large gray shape of Mr. Leroy was tumbling downward before it.
"Now you know how I felt," Polly said. "Taste of your own medicine. We've nothing in common anyway, and I've got a career to come too."
Then the horse came. It stood above them like a tower of golden flesh and bone, beating the current with its iron hooves and screaming, screaming. Polly saw a big eye tangled in pale horse-hair, and huge, square teeth.
"I never want to see you again!" she screamed at Tom through its screams. The gray lump of Mr. Leroy slid past her into nothingness. Polly turned away as the horse hit them. (pp. 415-416)
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
-- East Coker, III.
And so it is.
There are two other good reasons that this works, the thing Polly does, besides the nature of the pool. One is that the horse, Tom's strength, is also the physical personification of his gift to make imagination real. So it sweeps the King before it because he does not exist in WHERE--NOW (he is never mentioned there), and when it hits them it makes the version of the story Polly has been telling, wherein she hates Tom, real, too. It seals her decision of the ending, because they both believe what she is saying when the power comes over them. This is why she had to lose him before it got there; she needs him to finish the story, too.
The other reason is that she is telling the truth. The truth between two people cuts. She does on some level hate him. He did on some level take over her childhood. It is the first time in the entire book that a person has said, outright and bluntly, a hard and difficult truth of that sort. Everyone else in the novel spends a lot of time slithering out of that sort of thing. Mr. Leroy, the King, eats other people's lives, eats artist's lives and imaginations: nothing about him is true. By existing, he is using the exact equivalent of Tom's truth, he is using his lie, and it hasn't turned against him the way Polly has just turned the truth against Tom. The King's one strength destroys him.
And doesn't a good story always end in the truth, isn't there always truth in it? This is another way we know Tom and Polly have come to the end of WHERE NOW? It has brought them face to face with one another.
So Tom survives. They find themselves standing in HERE--NOW, in the real version of the garden. His life is his own again.
But the Queen never takes back her gifts or her bargains.
"You meant that, didn't you?" he said.
"Yes," said Polly. And, thanks to Laurel, had to go on meaning it, or it would all be to do again. To love someone enough to let them go, you had to let them go forever or you did not love them that much.
And yet, it isn't the only truth. She loves him, too. He loves her.
The Queen never takes back her gifts. They have finished one story of WHERE NOW, but there is no reason they cannot begin another. They are still standing at the bottom of the garden. The pool is still there/not there.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
-- The Dry Salvages, V.
They are, after all, free.
And Tom had spent so many years defying Laurel. One of the things he had to be saying, by not saying, was that there had to be some way to get round Laurel's chilly logic. Perhaps there always was a way.
The jet of misery died away and became a warm welling of hope. "This is quite impossible," Polly said carefully. "For you, the only way to behave well was to behave badly. For me, the only way to win was to lose. You weren't to know me, and I wasn't to remember you." She saw Tom's head tip up again as he began to get her gist. "If two people can't get together anywhere--"
"You think?" Tom said with a shivery laugh. "Nowhere?"
"Yes, and if it's not true nowhere, it has to be somewhere." Polly laughed and held out her hands. "We've got her, either way." (pp. 419-420)
And the new story they make up together still fulfills Laurel's condition: Polly has, after all, hurt him very badly in the process of coming true, coming to the truth. She's real-- that's what real people do. It is within the rules for them to be together.
I love and admire this novel so desperately; there is a great deal more I could say about it. I think it is one of the great novels. It's both a perfect Tam Lin and a logical continuation of the ways Tam Lin stories work, and it's a deconstruction of the way a lot of fantasy novels think about imagination, and I could go into a lot of depth about what Laurel and her court can be and do and are, because they work on a lot of levels, as faerie in all its beauty and danger and as something that can be said about art and imagination and truth and power and lies. And it's funny, and it's a romance I believe.
But having explained the beginning and the ending, which are after all the same thing, I think that here is a reasonable place to leave it, Little Gidding, V.:
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
Requiescat in pace, Diana.
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