Dianna Wynne Jones, born in 1934, was a fantasy author. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, those giants of fantasy, were her college professors. There is no doubt that they were large influences on her; in fact, she was evacuated to the country during the Battle of Britain, just like the children in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
DWJ’s wit makes her writing style unique. To me, she encapsulates the wry essence of British fantasy. Most of her works border on parody; they invert the tropes that she picked up from the giants. Her works that don’t border on parody are parody.
In The Chronicles of Narnia, neighboring fantasy worlds are explored. In DWJ’s Chrestomanci series, and in Howl’s Moving Castle, which you might recognize in its adapted form as a Miyazaki movie, the implications of neighboring fantasy worlds are explored. The ways that characters change because of these fantastical elements are explored.
Her most obvious replies to the glut of fantasy novels that blustered their way to center stage during the prime of her life, however, are her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and the accompanying books The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. The Tough Guide poses as a “guidebook” to the generic fantasy worlds of all those countless escapist fantasy books, while actually satirizing their cookie-cutter nature. It was written in 1996, when Dungeons & Dragons campaigns-made-books ruled the shelves.
Let’s take a look at the entry for “JOKES” in The Tough Guide.
“JOKES are against the Rules, except for very bad cumbersome jokes cracked by GUARDS, MERCENARIES, OTHER PEOPLES, and servitors. (It is believed that the Management in fact thinks these are very good jokes, and treasures them.) Everyone else must be deadly serious, although the SMALL MAN, some WIZARDS, and most bad KINGS are allowed to have a sense of humor — and see also THIEVES’ GUILD.”
“Management” refers to the author, and the words in caps are all other entries in the book; e.g. other cliches in fantasy. This entry is referring to the fact that the main characters of a fantasy novel rarely have well-developed senses of wit, and also that the jokes that do exist in fantasy novels tend to be pretty bad. This entry is quite meta, which is cheating a bit, so let’s look at STEW.
“STEW is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning (but see BATH), and in an INN prone to the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear that the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe of Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.”
Yeah, that’s pretty good. If you were going to fit down a write a tavern scene right now, your soup du jour would probably be stew, for some predetermined and arcane reason, which DJW has successfully identified (along with the hundreds of other entries in The Tough Guide).
In The Dark Lord of Derkholm, DWJ takes this deconstruction of tropes even further. Even the name of the book itself is an obvious dig at the generic; it has the term “Dark Lord” right there in the title (and the remarkably unthreatening “Derkholm” directly after). The book itself is set in a “fantasyland” filled with the tropes one might expect; magic users and a magic college, a generally-medieval flair, pirates and prophecies and the whole shebang. The twist is that the entire world is magically bound to a nefarious Company, assumedly from our world, that profits from their relationship by sending citizens of Earth on tours through their neighboring magical world. The way of life in fantasyland now revolves around being tour guides for the tourists, who pay fortunes to go on adventures, a la Westworld.
The story is every bit as good as the premise. That it mocks the conventional doesn’t detract from its own plot, which certainly does follow the conventions readers expect. (The Dark Lord of Derkholm was DWJ’s reply to the overuse of fantasy tropes, not of plots, which can’t really be overused in the same way.)
Dianna Wynne Jones introduced me to fantasy as a child, and her works are unique among children’s authors in that they stand the test of not only time but of age. An adult reading Harry Potter will be painfully aware of how much of our world is lost in Rowling’s translation. An adult reading Witch Week, set in the Chrestomanci universe, will learn something about our world.