The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

Read 2020
Recommended for fans of fantasy
 ★     ★    ★    ★ 

Before there was TV Tropes, there was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

In 1996, Wynne Jones created the ultimate epic fantasy trope list. Done in a time when the portal–through-the-doorway–fantasy was popular, the conceit is that Tourists in fantasy lands who will find the Guide useful in navigating through the world. However, even should one not be physically traveling through the fantasy realm of choice, this guide could come in very useful. (It would also apply to most fantasy video games).

The book opens with a large, generalized MAP (“these empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labelled ‘Megamort Hills,’ ‘Death Mountains,’ ‘Hurl Range,’ and such”) and follows with a list of symbols used throughout the text. The majority of the guide is an alphabetized listing of common terms/items/ areas/ beings/ etc. found in fantasy books. The listings are priceless, filled with a gentle sort of humor that pokes fun at the tropes and without outright mocking. For instance, take the entry on insects:

“INSECTS are practically non-existent, possibly as a result of the WIZARD’S WAR (see also ECOLOGY). Parasitic insects such as LICE and bedbugs have mostly been stamped out–although fleas are still popular–and only HOVELS occasionally manifest houseflies. Small numbers of bees must exist, since honey is often served… and so much silkworms, because so many persons wear silken garments. Otherwise, almost the only recorded insects are the mosquitoes all Tourists complain of in the MARSHES (in stinging clouds OMT[official management term]).”

The beauty of it is that it’s true. There are never ladybugs in fantasyland, or wasps (unless they are the magical kind), or any other member of the insect family that should be so vital to pollinating crops and flowers that keep the realm functioning. They are usually only mentioned as a way to describe how horrid conditions are. Or take another example:

“DWARFS are short, muscular, bearded PEOPLE much given to mining and forging. They mostly live hidden inside hills, where they do their mining. Until recently, almost no female Dwarfs had been sighted, but now they are seen quite often… All Dwarfs, perhaps through living so long immured in DWARVEN FASTNESSES, have a very old-fashioned, surly demeanour. They bow a lot, but also grumble. They recite long epics about the marvellous deeds of their ancestors… they always keep their word once they have been induced to give it. They will join the forces of GOOD and supply ARMOUR, but before this the Tour may well have a difficult time with them. Dwarfs will take all Tourists prisoner for trespassing in their Fastness, and it will involve much persuasive talking to get them to be friendly.”

Tell me that doesn’t about describe every single dwarf population you’ve run into in fantasy. I’ll wait while you check. She’s spot-on, isn’t she? Here, let’s check one more entry under ‘D’:

“DUNGEONS are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. If the Tourist is being confined is lucky, there will be a small barred window too high up to reach, through which the contents of the moat trickle, and old (fetid [OMT]), filthy [OMT]) straw on the ground. There will be a thick door (locked) with a small shutter in it where what passes (only just) for FOOD can be thrown in at prisoners, generally dropping tantalizingly an inch out of reach, and there will always be rings in the walls carrying chains and sometimes old bones too. It is all designed to make you feel low. There may even be scutterings [OMT] that could be rats (but see ANIMALS). Do not, however, let this get you down. The average stay in such a place is, for Tourists, twenty-four hours.”

Surprisingly, strangely true, particularly with regard to the stay. Because how else could the story progress? 

However, despite the amusement, this really isn’t something that can be read straight through. It gets exhausting, much like reading any volume of the encyclopedia (for those who remember what that was like; for those that don’t, it’s rather like endless scrolling and clicking through a reference site). It is precious fun–I agree with a fellow GR friends that the entry on horses and cross-pollination if quite funny, although I’d note that most ‘desert nomads’ seem to be horse-breeders, so I’m not sure if that holds true–but more fun in a word-of-the-day sense over a straight read-through. Wynne Jones follows this up by writing her own ultimate portal fantasy called The Dark Lord of Derkholm, from the point of view of a (benevolent) Dark Lord. 

So, rating: highly, for cleverness, completeness and humor, but less so for actual readability. Not really a book I feel motivated to add to my library, but that’s probably how it’d work best, as a pick-up, put-down kind of read.

Note: nominated for the 1997 Hugos ‘Best Related Non-Fiction Work,‘ which is hysterical all by itself. 

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

  1. alicegristle says:

    What I find genuinely sad is how pertinent Wynne Jones’s satire is even today. Why have so few things changed? (Or am I just living in a bloody bubble?)

    • thebookgator says:

      I mean, sad but funny, right? I think as we age, we realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 😀 Particularly when it comes to fantasy, which exists in the realm of the mind, many authors haven’t strayed from this imagined ideal-version of medieval times, but it must feel fresh to each new generation.

      • alicegristle says:

        Ya, I guess you’re right there. And I admit there must be something eternally compelling in the tropes, behind all the dross. I guess the thing is to dig through the dross and try to get at that shining core. Still, though, sometimes… 😀

      • thebookgator says:

        But that’s how/why truly remarkable fantasy stands out as well. NK Jemisin quickly comes to mind, although there have been many others.

  2. =Tamar says:

    In Dark Lord of Derkholm she plays with the tropes, using and twisting them. The sequel, Year of the Griffin, plays with another set of tropes.

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