Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

“Legends are an important source of true information. They always turn out to be far more accurate than History.”

Diana Wynne Jones

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by the late children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: a guidebook, in parodic fashion, of every third-rate Tolkien-lite piece of extruded fantasy product ever written.

Entries range from Stew (“the staple food in Fantasyland”) through Goddesses and Gods (“most of them claim to have made the world, and this is indeed a likely claim in the case of threesomes or pantheons: Fantasyland does have the air of having been made by a committee”) to Reek of Wrongness (“the sensation you get when you encounter a Pool of Evil, or when you have been set up for an Ambush or Betrayal”). The superficial snark of the book, though perfectly enjoyable in itself, often serves to reveal a deeper and more serious criticism of the genre, pointing out its embedded sexism (“Queens ruling in their own right are rare”) and racism (“Just occasionally, a Tourist succeeds in making friends with one of these Peoples, whereupon she/he will discover that Strange Races are almost human”), as well as its refusal to confront anything even approaching lived experience (“You can get as wet, cold and tired as you like, and you will still not catch cold”).

It’s actually a clever conceit, this guidebook gimmick: the approach reveals that reading this kind of fantasy is inevitably a superficial experience, a tour of something made just strange enough to fascinate, in an othering kind of way, while not actually containing anything that might surprise, shock or upset us out of our complacency. Jones reads third-rate fantasy as a kind of colonial experience, I guess, a form of voyeurism deeply rooted in Anglocentrism (it’s not a coincidence that it’s Tolkien, a deeply English and deeply conservative writer, whose work has become the model for the genre). It’s not just poorly written, the book says; it’s ideologically lazy and reactionary, confirming our place in the world (as special, privileged, untouchable) rather than challenging it, inevitably to the detriment of everyone else, who act merely as props to improve the experience.

Or perhaps these are just late-night ramblings. In any case, if you’ve had even a passing flirtation with high fantasy, or have read even a mildly unpalatable swords-and-sorcery novel, you’ll want The Tough Guide to Fantasyland on your shelf.

 

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