Non-specific Fantasy World Map (credit:

Diana Wynne Jones
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Gollancz 2004 (1996)

Dark Lord (dread lord). There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS (forces of Terror, bound to his will), of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black […] and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. […]

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones created an imaginary tourist’s guidebook to a generic world where magic is a given — in fact the kind of world conjured up for almost any example of the epic fantasy genre you can name. Think Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or, less familiarly, the Old Kingdom, Prydain, Zimiamvia or Pellinor. Jones imagines them all perhaps as aspects of Fantasyland, though it’s clear that the Disney version is not really what she has in mind. As pretty much all fantasy is predicated on conflict leading to some sort of resolution the nemesis of each world is thus nearly always some incarnation of a Dark Lord. It’s hard to think of any dread adversary who doesn’t conform in some way to Jones’ description, their motivations exactly those of Milton’s Satan:

One who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

But a Dark Lord alone does not a Fantasyland make.

Jones’ Tough Guide, like any genuine Rough Guide to our world, lists places as well as people, concepts as well as concrete (and not so concrete) objects. Open any page at random and you will find no end of examples of fantasy tropes and clichés: from prophecy (“used by the Management to make sure that no Tourist is unduly surprised by events, and by GODDESSES AND GODS to make sure that people do as the deity wants. All Prophecies come true. This is a Rule…”) to inns (they “exist in TOWNS and CITIES, but seldom outside them, except at crossroads that are miles from anywhere”), from dwell (“used throughout the Tour meaning to live somewhere. The inhabitants are always Dwellers“) to sex (“obligatory at some stage in the Tour. The Rules differ according to whether you are male or female…”). All entries are recognisable to a greater or lesser extent, and for any fantasy writer worth their salt they can be a useful corrective to lazy writing, should they choose to aim at original plots, characters and situations.

Then there is the MAP. All guidebooks have them, and this one is no exception. “No Tour of Fantasyland is complete without one.” The Tough Guide‘s map is weird and wonderful, until you realise that it’s our outline map of Europe — with north at the bottom. This is the author’s way of saying that most epic fantasy is basically a topsy-turvy version of life in medieval Europe. The map is peppered with ‘unpronounceable’ names or barely disguised familiar placenames, usually with ominous descriptions. Some versions of this map are based on the first Vista paperback, but the Gollancz edition has both additional and alternative names on its map, redrawn by Dave Senior. An assiduous reader will have fun winkling out the original source of these aberrations.

Redrawn map based on that in the first Vista edition (credit

But rely on the map at your peril. Nothing is as it seems, and where there is nothing on the map it seems there is inevitably something unexpected. Not only is this evident in the maps one sees as a frontispiece in most epic fantasies, DWJ is very specific about their failings: some placenames “may be names of countries, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell […] there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.” Her conclusion? “The Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get.”

Fantasyland (

As soon as she was embarked on the Tough Guide Diana must have been thinking of writing narratives set in this landscape. But how to incorporate a spoof born of familiarity and no little affection in stories which, while mocking the conventions of the genre, also reflected her sense of responsibility towards her audience? Two years after the original Tough Guide she produced Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998), and two years after that came Year of the Griffin (2000). In these — to put it bluntly — she excoriated those who wielded power and extracted profit from the general population or who showed a narrow-mindedness where education and creativity are concerned. Don’t expect Victorian morality tales, however; these are subtle fairytales in which, while magic is normal, fine though flawed individuals learn life lessons, most wrongs are eventually righted and a devastated world starts on the road to rebuilding and some kind of happily-ever-after.

But the Tough Guide harboured the germs of a slightly darker vision under its breezy exterior. In an earlier review of the 1996 paperback I gave the impression that this was principally a tongue-in-cheek spoof, and indeed this was the general assessment (Terry Pratchett called it “an indispensable guide for anyone stuck in the realms of fantasy without a magic sword to call their own”). Nevertheless DWJ had always been aware of the fantasy writer’s propensity to play God in their created universe — though she would have argued that it’s actually humans who attribute human creativity to their various deities — and to order characters, situations and events according to their arbitrary will. In Dark Lord she portrays the sinister offworlder Roland Chesney (perhaps a denizen of our own world) fashioning Fantasyland into a giant theme park for earth-based package tourists. Here he forces the unwilling local inhabitants to act out epic fantasy roles such as wizard guides, mercenaries, bards, thieves, starving villagers, enchantresses and so on. After four decades, the strain on Fantasyland and its peoples is proving not only hugely burdensome but also unsustainable, not to forget immoral.

We all know the Roland Chesneys of our world. Whether they are on the more benign end of the spectrum (perhaps DWJ was thinking of Walt Disney and his own Fantasyland) or, less benign, like the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, they peddle entertainment on a global scale while seeking to maximise profits and to acquire the greatest monopoly the law allows. Their rapacious greed outweighs any true concern for the common man, and they may well choose to devastate a planet rather than relinquish any power. These days they may, indeed, govern countries.

For some readers of the Tough Guide in its various manifestations such sombre thoughts mayn’t cast any shadows: this is about magic, isn’t it, make-believe, and we all know that it doesn’t exist, don’t we? This Gollancz hardback includes — instead of the occasional antique illustrations of the Vista paperback — rather more jokey line drawings by Douglas Carrel. Fine in themselves, they remind me a little of the cartoons, by the likes of the UK’s Josh Kirby, of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. But then, we all know by now that underneath the veneer of Pratchett’s sense of the ridiculous there lurked a lot of suppressed anger and subversive polemic. As with Pratchett’s writings, if you scratch the surface of Jones’ writing you’re likely to find rather more than you bargained for.

This is the last of a short series of posts on Diana Wynne Jones: the first was by Tamar Lindsay on Fantasyland’s Dark Lord, and the second was a repost of a review of a collection of that author’s non-fiction writings. DWJ (born 16 August 1934, died 26 March 2011) was an intelligent as well as prolific writer of mainly fantasy for readers of all ages.

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44 thoughts on “Fantasyland

    1. I love guidebooks and pamphlets, either as aide-memoires or as vicarious visits to places I haven’t been to. As I’m unlikely to ever get to Fantasyland, fiction and the Tough Guide will have to do! Btw, which edition have you got?


      1. I love maps and pamphlets too! And my camera too:-) Unlike you, I tend to go on little expeditions to Fantasyland in my imagination 😀
        Far as I can make out, I have the paperback edition printed in 1996 by Vista in the UK.

        Liked by 1 person

            1. So true! All we need now is an electronic version, although it’s not half as thick as my very old Lonely Planet Guide to China. Must admit that I also have a wonderful map book I love almost as much as TG2F. It’s a small, somewhat ancient hardcover pocketbook of the UK mainland, including all the country roads. It’s just awesome!

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I absolutely share your love of historically outdated maps and guides. I too have regional UK maps which are pre-motorways and showing the old counties, guidebooks from the 50s with quirky monochrome photos, even a 1930s Atlas of the world. It’s important to have reminders of how things were, how they were viewed, the state we’ve come from and how we’ve got to where we are now.

              Liked by 1 person

  1. =Tamar

    The tour events described and implied in The Tough Guide are significantly grimmer in some ways than the ones in Dark Lord of Derkholm, though one need not dig very deep to find Derk performing that shudder-inducing action, “just following orders.” What I find saddest is that the dozens if not hundreds of near-identical popular novels from which the formula was derived all apparently sold well, and more are still being written, published, and sold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Just following orders.” That sends a chill through me, every time.

      The only consolations I can draw from those near-identical novels are 1. They are testament to the strength of the tropes and themes in epic fantasy that they continue to appeal to writers and readers, and 2. Standout examples are so much more welcome because they’ve brought something of worth to the well-worn formulas, whether something truly innovative or supremely relevant to the human condition or couched in language that’s a joy to read — preferably a combination of all three!

      But yes, the sheer amount of second- and third-rate novels (usually in mind-numbing numbers of related sequels) is soul-shrinking. Doesn’t your heart sink when the cover blurb reads “Volume I of the Chronicles of Somewhere-or-Somebody-or-Something”? Mine does.


  2. One thing that has always bothered me about fantasy – and so I haven’t read much – is that it really is underpinned by these conventions and rules. That means, no matter how vivid the imagination of the writer, at some level, you always do know what’s going to happen. That’s part of its charm for many readers, I suppose, but I always feel as if I’m jumping through a lot of hoops to reach a conclusion I already know.

    Or am I just showing my ignorance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely not, Gert, it just shows we all have personal leanings towards different types of narrative, and there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. You’ve analysed exactly what the genre provides for many readers, and that you don’t share that taste is not a value-judgement in any way on you or them.

      I view fantasy and the related epic fantasy as lineal decendants of the fairytale, on the one hand, and on the other epics and sagas like those by Homer or Virgil or about Beowulf or related to the Nibelungenlied family. Fairytales are mostly happy-ever-after, epics tend to be rollercoasters ranging mightily between triumph and tragedy.

      Personally I love the variety of fairytale permutations you can find, whatever the culture, and I would never be sniffy about the bleakness of themes on revenge and other passions that sagas exhibit (and which epic fantasy has largely inherited) just because there is an inexorable inevitability about personal disasters and sacrifices or landscapes being wasted.


  3. A great review Chris, of what sounds like a wonderfully entertaining book. What a sharp, intelligent writer DWJ was. Warmth and wit – and a sharp edge too, by the sounds of Dark Lord and its criticism of the commercialisation of the imagination. Very inspiring, Chris. Thanks for introducing me to her

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This isn’t, as you’ll have guessed, a read-through novel but like all reference books something to dip into and occasionally to follow cross-references.

      (Interestingly, it’s usually categorised as ‘non-fiction’ — a supreme example of its contradictory nature of being both fantasy fiction and reference).

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review, Lynn, perhaps something to borrow from the library when you (a) want a giggle and/or (b) want to check on a commonplace cliche to avoid? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, funny it’s down as non-fiction. I’ll look out for it, Chris, those it’s difficult to create something new and original in fantasy but still acknowledge the conventions that readers love. Can you write fantasy without a Dark Lord of some kind? Or without your characters going on a quest?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Have a look at to see what the conventions are. And, yes, the Evil Overlord is claimed as a ‘necessary’ trope (“The Big Bad is the Evil Overlord and really, really, really bad. He tends to be not so much a man as a personification of some evil and destructive force”). The quest thing? TV Tropes suggests the object (whether quested for or not) is generally a MacGuffin.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks Chris, I’ve saved that link for future reference. MacGuffin or no, quests are common, aren’t they? Maybe we just all need to be a bit more imaginative about what form the MacGuffin takes? Thanks. Really interesting, this

            Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fascinating, the more I get into Terry Pratchett, how he takes many of these tropes (perhaps some in a nod to his friend Diana) and subverts them even more. I think the drawback of the Guide is that any aspiring or established writer who reads it will be forever in a quandary trying to avoid the cliches that DWJ has drawn attention to and, once alerted, never being able to ignore!


        1. A cliché is just an overused trope or meme, used in a lazy manner, I think. A powerful but shadowy adversary is a Dark Lord trope, but to call him the Dark or Dread Lord and have him dress like Darth Vader is merely a cliché.

          The TV Tropes website used to be fun, but its recent transformations and developments have dissipated its usefulness, and the labels given to some of the variant tropes now tend towards the obscure or plain ridiculous, I feel. The academic folklore motif and tale type indices seem to me to be more helpful and rigorous.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. MrsB_inthehills

    I particularly love the maps that accompany these worlds; I enjoy real-life maps too.

    When I was reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, as a teenager (a very long time ago) my mother asked me what it was about. After half a minute of my explaining about the Dark Lord, hobbits, orcs and wizards, she looked at me in despair and said “When are you going to grow up?”

    I felt as though I was a member of some obscure little club but now, of course, I know differently!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once you decide you’re old you’re on the slippery slope to oblivion, I think. The thing about about creative enquiring types (you and me, it goes without saying!) is that in essentials they don’t grow up but retain their curiosity, their questioning, their joie de vivre, all youthful attributes. Without being overtly critical of your mother, I would hate to just survive with nothing to excite my wonder and delight in possibilities.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean, but no! We read fantasies not primarily for the conventions but for strong characterisation, intelligent and engaging plotting and the posing of dilemmas, none of which this guidebook touches on, nor does it aim to do. Carry on as you were!


  5. Oh I just adored this book! Actually, I did a wee post tied to it, too, back when I was writing about Diana Wynne Jones. But you went into gobs more depth than I did; I love your point that it’s rather impossible to avoid the tropes DWJ points out, but I think their effectiveness–or lack thereof–is on the writer. It’s one thing to have a fun story to tell, and that story may very well have some elves or a magic something-or-other. And so long as it’s a FUN story to tell, I don’t think readers will mind. It’s when writers take these elements so, damn, seriously, that the tropes feel exhausted and drag the plot down.

    Excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Jean! Actually I increasingly find I’m going into “gobs more depth” (I love this phrase!) for reviews, though whether readers appreciate my rambles or not or whether they’re just being polite I have no idea. 🙂

      The FUN element you mention is crucial. I think it has to be fun not necessarily in the sense of being humorous (though that’s often welcome) but in the way of being enjoyable to read. I wonder if some authors might just be a bit too, well, intense in their seriousness so that it feels that the reader is making as arduous a journey as the protagonist, and may be tempted to give up the struggle.

      I must begin exploring your archived DWJ posts now!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that, exactly. Reading is a journey, yes, but it shouldn’t be a pain in the ass. I think fantasy is particularly vulnerable to this because of the world-building factor; writers think that if they don’t explain every damn scrap of minutia the reader’s going to suddenly get lost. I actually wrote about this very problem too and how DWJ never bothered paint-by-numbering her worlds for readers. You keep up, or you don’t. (this post is actually elsewhere, though…let me find that link…
        Readers don’t have to have the currency explained, or the road systems, or the way cattle or spaced out among such-and-such system of farming. Unless a detail matters to the story, it’s not worth the lines to explain.
        (sigh) Can you tell this one gets my goat? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Good article — thanks for the link! I agree: by all means plan your setting, scenario and significant players to the nth degree so that your narrative holds water; but then let the action and the actors do the work they’re designed to do.

          I’m so glad you point out DWJ’s way of drawing you in with with her very first sentence, setting out the same-but-different nature of her fantasy world and hinting at the trigger point that precipitates the crisis, that — as it were — sets the ball rolling.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. She’s my favorite writer of all time. 😉
            And thank you so much for reading–I’m glad you liked it! She had such an amazing talent for gripping from the get-go. And as she herself wrote in her essays, she never felt the need to dumb down for adult readers. If kids could keep up without trouble, then why can’t a grown-up?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Isn’t she brilliant? I very much treasure a lovely reply she wrote back to me after I sent her a review I’d written in a magazine I edited. And I suspect she must have read the journal cover to cover because curious details which paralleled stuff I’d written appeared in the posthumous Chaldea book (which I discussed in my review of it). What a star! It just shows that brilliant writers don’t just make up stuff, they incorporate life as they experience it into their fiction, and that gives it authenticity. I feel very awed.

              Liked by 1 person

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