A Classic Takedown of Theme Park Fantasy

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones is formatted in the style of a travel guide (the title even riffing on the then-popular Rough Guide volumes, now largely supplanted by TripAdvisor). However, I would actually argue that if it is in any literary tradition, it’s that of Ambrose Bierce and his The Devil’s Dictionary (most widely available these days as The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary). Bierce’s work consisted of various dictionary entries written with satirical intent – to an extent, something which Dr. Johnson did in his original dictionary, but Bierce’s work was all about that. Some entries were terse, some extended, some included little snippets of what we would today call micro-fiction, but all of them had the role of spoofing, parodying, satirising, or commenting sarcastically on then-modern society.

Jones’ approach is similar, but has something of a different focus. The similarity is most evident in the original 1996 edition of the book, which I own and has a few additional short pieces cluttering it up, but the original presentation makes it clear where the focus of the work is; the preamble takes up but a few pages, and then we get to the “Toughpick” section.

This is essentially Jones’ riff on The Devil’s Dictionary as it applies to fantasy literature – a particular flavour of fantasy literature, as I’ll be getting into – with the conceit that “Fantasyland” is a tourist destination and that the experiences of fantasy novels consist of the events of “tours”, with the protagonists as the tourists. All this is overseen by an unseen “Management” who are, of course, the authors of the novels in question; the text is littered with carefully-denoted “Official Management Terms”, for instance, which are almost always examples of rather clichéd prose.

This is not a satire of the entire fantasy genre, mind – it’s more targeted than that. Jones instead targets the most generic, commercialised, mass-produced, and widely-imitated variety of fantasy at the time she was writing – the sort of post-Dungeons & Dragons super-generic fantasy churned out by the likes of Terry Brooks and Ray Feist and uncountable forgettable bandwagon-riders. Let’s call this “themepark fantasy”, to go with the “themepark MMOs” like World of Warcraft that derive inspiration from it, the tourism themes Jones goes with, and for reasons I’ll outline in a bit.

Now, Jones had written some fairly conventional pieces herself, but had also produced a healthy contingent of books of a less straightforwardly mainstream sort. She’s good at identifying the aspects of formulaic fantasy, because she was skilled at working the formula itself. And whilst on its most superficial level the book presents a light, jolly take on its subject matter, start getting into the entries and you will see a finely-crafted satirical polemic concerning both the state of the genre and the limitations this formula sets upon itself – especially when this formula is highly heteronormative, Eurocentric, and seems obsessed with a medieval aesthetic without showing any curiosity about how medieval society actually worked.

By and large, most of the entries in the book are fairly familiar tropes of the themepark fantasy genre. They’re not true in every book of the type – but any one of those entries will be the sort of thing where you’re sure you’ve seen ample examples of the type before. (Sometimes Jones can’t help herself and goes with a very non-standard take on a subject – like the entry for Gnomes, for instance – just to break things up a bit.)

The most obvious humour here comes from the contrast between how things work in reality and their fictional depictions, both in terms of specifics (horses can go at full gallop all day without rest, bandits keep robbing people but don’t seem to have any means of actually making use of what they steal) and more generally. The ecology of Fantasyland makes not a lick of sense, nor does the economy; Jones develops the theory that the only thing keeping the economy going in Fantasyland is, indeed tourism. The well-worn fantasy excuse of “it’s just magic!” or “it’s not like the real world!” wears thin when it becomes apparent that Fantasyland doesn’t really work even on its own terms.

Now, to be fair, a lot of these issues come down to the same basic issue: writers either writing about subjects they simply haven’t done their research on, or deliberately opting to gloss over some details (though it’s apparent that any of the traits of Fantasyland – and the themepark fantasy books it’s spoofing – come down to ignorance, not selectivity). Of course, a fantasy story does not necessarily have try and offer up a self-consistent world, treated as though it were a real place – though given how often fans praise “worldbuilding” in fantasy literature, this certainly seems to be what fans think is good about it, so it’s embarrassing when this worldbuilding fails on its own terms.

That said, if the presentation of an internally consistent secondary creation is not the goal of a particular fantasy text, then generally there’s two modes it can take. The first is as deliberate allegory, eschewing realism because ultimately when you are telling a metaphorical story about the ascent of the soul or whatever you don’t need to know how the city that symbolises wealth or enlightenment or wisdom or self-indulgence or whatever quality you’ve ascribed to it is governed or where it gets its food from or where the sewage goes. Even if such subjects must be raised due to being essential components of your allegory, they can just be kind of there, just as plot-critical castles turn up at the drop of a hat in Arthurian literature without any concern about how plausible it is that a castle should be there.

This type of writing is rather out of fashion, partially because allegory tends to be a rather didactic genre and if you don’t agree with the author’s sentiments you’re not likely to enjoy the allegory they weave from them, partially because it’s hard to do well. Certainly, themepark fantasy isn’t really trying that hard to do allegory. Themepark fantasy is the other, lesser way of writing a fantasy story where internally consistent worldbuilding doesn’t matter: specifically, it is the school of fantasy where the world exists solely to provided a painted backdrop to a fairly generic adventure story, and as such worldbuilding is only bothered with to the extent that it supports that backdrop. The tropes of a medieval society are invoked without any particular engagement with a medieval worldview, or indeed any worldview appreciably different from that of the expected audience; they’re just there to denote that this story is the sort of story it is, and to discourage further consideration from there.

This is a type of fantasy which Jones’ tour guide model is richly suited to spoofing, given that the incidents of the “tour” exist only to provide transient excitement and entertainment and whatnot. There is, of course, nothing wrong with fantasy written as pure entertainment. There is, however, plenty wrong with “pure entertainment” which reinforces sexist and colonialist ideas of the world (as Jones teases out here), and it’s unfortunate when people mistake pure entertainment for something more significant than it is. There’s not much wrong with mindless popcorn – but you can’t get all the nutrients you need just from popcorn, you’ll look like a goof if you try and present entirely generic cinema popcorn as gourmet food, and you are not going to get more nourishing and fulfilling meals unless you are willing to look beyond popcorn.

Fantasy like that spoofed in Tough Guide still exists, and it’s surprising sometimes how much of it applies to material like A Song of Ice and Fire and similar grimdark-fantasy efforts; ultimately, a lot of these seem to end up just hitting the grimmer tropes without doing the more hopeful or garish ones, and as I’ve noted in my Feist reviews, themepark fantasy actually kind of already had a thing about sexual assault before George R.R. Martin and Jones does not flinch from acknowledging that here. For her part, Jones would follow this up with The Dark Lord of Derkholm, which riffed on the “fantasyland tourism” idea original enunciated here. I’ve never read that – though perhaps should get around to it – but unlike real world tourism guides, The Tough Guide To Fantasyland hasn’t gone out of date one bit.

3 thoughts on “A Classic Takedown of Theme Park Fantasy

  1. William Burns

    I strongly recommend Dark Lord of Derkholm. The premise is worked out very cleverly, but its also got some emotional depth. The sequel, Year of the Griffon, isn’t bad, but isn’t as good either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwydden

    Having a background in medieval history, I will sometimes pedantically complain about the frequent use of the word “medieval” to essentially mean “vaguely pre-industrial.” That habit is pervasive in fantasy literature. LotR is a mix of several historical periods and pure fantasy; there’s nothing medieval about the Shire, for instance. D&D isn’t medieval either (or remotely historical in any way), except for maybe the military technology.

    But the one that rattles me is ASoIaF, which unlike the others has an author who has repeatedly defended his creative choices with some variation of “that’s just how it was back then,” a claim his fans take very seriously. I’ve often come across folks online speaking authoritatively about medieval society only to reference ASoIaF as an example, never mind that its approximation of the Middle Ages is rather shallow and mostly founded on stereotypes—which I suspect is precisely why it rings true to the average reader.


    1. Oh, absolutely. It’s a sort of history-themed variant on the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people mistake renfaire stereotypes as actual history and then consider themselves knowledgeable about history despite not having read even a fairly basic introductory text.


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