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.
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.”
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.