The Tough Guide To Fantasyland – Review

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The Tough Guide To Fantasyland is a tongue-in-cheek dictionary of fantasy clichés and norms. Diana Wynne Jones read at St Anne’s College, Oxford in 1953, a student of both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. She has been writing fantasy for over forty years.

Tough Guide to FantasylandJones was collaborating on a serious Encyclopaedia of Fantasy when she had the idea for a parody. The Tough Guide To Fantasyland was first published in 1996 and became a classic reference book amongst both readers and writers of fantasy, with fans including Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. After disappearing out of print for a while, a revised and updated edition was produced last year.

The Tough Guide takes the premise that clichéd fantasy stories may as well be set in the same country, and lists an A to Z of what a tourist (ie, reader) might come across or have to endure on a tour (ie, novel) of this “Fantasyland”.

The Tough Guide is not meant to be read straight through from beginning to end, but consulted like a dictionary. It’s ideal for the writer because you can check each element of your story both to avoid clichés, and conversely to avoid moving too far from accepted standards of the genre in your quest for uniqueness. Many entries are cross-referenced and can entice you into spending hours reading different entries because one query inevitably leads you to think of others.

Only rustic “Sword and Sorcery” and “Quest” fantasy is covered in The Tough Guide. Contemporary and urban fantasy have their own clichés which often contradict those of medieval-style fantasy.

Certain entries have earned a capital “C” to mark them as clichéd probably beyond redemption (unlike the normal entries which could still be usable). As with all the entries, these are stamped with Jones’ dry humour, such as:

“Apostrophes: Few names in Fantasyland are considered complete unless they are interrupted by an apostrophe somewhere in the middle… No one knows the reasons for this. Nor does anyone really know how an apostrophe should be pronounced…”

And my absolute favourite (which is not marked as a cliché, but is categorised pictorially as both an “Animal” and “Transportation”) :

“Horses: …no mare ever comes into season… and no stallion ever shows an interest in a mare…It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination.”

At first I wondered whether The Tough Guide would spoil my enjoyment of the fantasy genre, but it doesn’t do that any more than any other parody or fantasy comedy highlights the funny side of inventing new worlds.

My other concern was whether worrying about avoiding all the clichés in writing could take a lot of the fun out of it and add to the writer’s anxiety. In fact, I found the opposite for myself - The Tough Guide is a reminder to lighten up. It’s also a reminder than even a cliché can still work well if it’s properly thought out and used for a real purpose rather than being added for embellishment because every book the writer reads uses the same concept.

I can highly recommend The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as that rare reference book that both entertains and educates. It’s well worth a spot on a fantasy writer’s bookshelf.

This review was first published on BellaOnline in May 2007. © Elsa Neal