The DWJ Project: Tough Guide to Fantasyland

This book is single-handedly responsible for a 900% reduction in the frequency of stew in fantasy novels.

(True fact: there used to be stew in the doppelganger books. I took it out because of Diana Wynne Jones.)

It is not, in the normal way of things, a book really meant to be read cover-to-cover. It isn’t a novel; it’s an encyclopedia, mocking the tropes and formulas of quest fantasy, from Adept (“one who has taken what amouts to the Postgraduate Course in MAGIC”) to Zombies (“these are just the UNDEAD, except nastier, more pitiable, and generally easier to kill”). Oh, sorry — you don’t start with Adept, you always, always start with THE MAP. (“It will be there. No Tour of Fantasyland is complete without one.”)

I decided to read it cover-to-cover anyway, because if I’m going to do a completist read-through of her work, then dammit, I’m going to be thorough about it. And it’s still entertaining; it just takes a while, compared to a novel of similar length. It also forms useful, though not completely necessary, background for Dark Lord of Derkholm, which takes the idea of the quest-fantasy protagonist being a Tourist and runs for the end zone. But for that, you’ll have to wait for another post.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Tough Guide to Fantasyland”

  1. teleidoplex

    Why stew?

    I… like stew. And in large part, I like it because the stew that Fezzik feeds Inigo looks so good and hearty. All stew should aspire to be as good as that stew looks.

    So… what’s wrong with stew?

    • Marie Brennan

      “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 be the center of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as a staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak.”

      It goes in a bit from there, but you get the idea.

      Like many readers, I had never noticed how often you get quest-fantasy people making stew on the road, nevermind that it has to cook for hours. Now, I will point out that it makes sense for inns and the like; stew, unlike steak, can be stretched out to feed more people, and is a good repository for various odds and ends that won’t make a meal on their own, or are not quite so far gone as to be inedible, but far enough that you’re happier not looking at them directly. But she has a point that stew ends up being the meal in old-school quest fantasy about 97% of the time, the other 3% being when the characters are in a dungeon (then they get stale crusts and water) or at a royal feast. It’s good to get more variety.

      • mindstalk

        Plus stuff like “you can leave on the fire all day or reheat it”, I thought. Low labor, flexible serve.

        I need to get another copy. I gave mine to a teen’s birthday a few years ago. Have you seen the SF version?

        • Marie Brennan

          No, I hadn’t seen that. Thanks!

          • fjm

            Actually, you could cook a stew while moving; heat the ingredients to a boil in the morning. Place in basket tightly packed with straw. Cover. Add more straw. Leave to slow cook in the pannier.

            Messy tho if broken in a fight.

          • Marie Brennan

            It’s still an awful lot of prep for questors trying to outrun the Dark Lord. 🙂

      • shadowkindrd

        *gnashes teeth*

        I hate that quote with a burning passion. It’s stew in stories because it’s stew in real life, too. Stew is quick, easy, and doesn’t require tending. It’s not omlettes because ever try to keep eggs on the road? Upset hens on the back of the wagon don’t like to lay eggs. Scavaging for eggs in the wild often turn up fertilized eggs–and they’re literally a bloody mess if cracked. If good eggs are found, it’s a lot of work to make the actual omlettes, and even scrambling eggs takes a lot of tending. Those fires get hot, even small ones. Plus, eggs need to be eaten soon after they’re cooked to get the full flavor of them, so they have to be made at the last minute–AFTER camp has been set up. By that time, everyone’s even more tired. It’s much faster and more effective to put a stewpot on, fill it with whatever is at hand, and then leave it to cook while doing other chores. That way, food is ready when everyone is done with chores, and they can enjoy a hot meal that’s not last-minute.

        Oh, and steak? Again, sensitive, needs a lot of handling, and there’s the hunting thing that may or may not be happening on the road. Also, steaks are not an effective way to control portion size, especially for large crowds like armies and such. Steaks are delicious, but it’s also a waste of the animal to only have steaks, and if they are available, will be very expensive at those inns and taverns referenced. And then we get into poaching issues, and a whole bunch of other things….

        Another problem is that people don’t understand that curry, chili, gumbo, ratatouille, tagini, and soooo many other dishes are actually stew. Stew is the generic word for throw stuff in a pot, stir every once in a while until everything is done, and then eat. The problem is not stew, it’s the lack of naming the TYPE of stew. It’s lazy worldbuilding. She should have said, “Just calling it stew is lazy worldbuilding. Using the generic name is a waste of culture building. Figure out what kind of stew, match it with your culture, and use that name instead.”

        *rant rant rant rant rant rant rant*

        Many things DWJ talks about, she gets right, but on this point, I think she’s way, way off on multiple levels. So I’ve decided there will be stew in every single one of my books, only I’m going to do it RIGHT instead of lazy.

        (Why yes, I have ranted about this in multiple places. *grin*)

        • shadowkindrd

          Oh, one other thing… Stew can be easily ready in 20 minutes or less if the pieces are chopped small enough. I hardly think Rachel Ray was the first to come up with that idea.

        • stormsdotter

          Your commentary made me giggle. If you are a Published Author, I would be interested in reading your books since you clearly bother to do your research.

        • marycatelli

          My own complaint is her complaints about the lack of developed ecologies and economies. Like that would be be noticable to your characters — or even visible.

          • Marie Brennan

            Not sure what you mean by that. I think the lack of most normal animals, and anything resembling a real economy, would be very visible; it bugs me plenty, and would likewise be weird for a Tourist visiting the place.

          • marycatelli

            Yes, it would be very noticable and therefore commented on. That the stories include no such comments indicates that the animals are there and the POV characters find them so routine as to not notice them.

          • Marie Brennan

            I see what you’re saying. I take her point about flat, unpersuasive worldbuilding, though. Like many of the things in the Guide, the idea is to poke fun at how fake or nonsensical it all looks if you take the texts as written.

          • marycatelli

            Except that they aren’t “taken as written”. No one would take a book in this manner if reading in good faith.

          • houseboatonstyx

            Jane Austen has a SEVERE lack of worldbuilding, nor any sort of sensory experience. So do some books I’ve been reading lately from the 1920s or so. They seldom bother to give the sort of sensory richness we expect from fantasy or sf or historicals.

            Even L. M. Montgomery’s Avonlea books, wonderful and sensory as they are, lack the sort of definite period-pinning detail we expect of world-building. It’s way along before someone mentions that they still sand their floors instead of using this new-fangled hardwood that doesn’t need sanding.

          • Marie Brennan

            There are key differences there, though. Austen was writing about her contemporary environment, for an audience that was likewise familiar with it; just as we don’t explain cars or grocery stores to readers of modern realistic fiction, she didn’t need to explain her own setting. Not to mention that the conventions of fiction in previous eras were not the same as we have today.

          • rachelmanija

            Actually, I do find it extremely noticeable when the author gave even a moment’s thought to the idea that a world needs and economy and ecology, and when they didn’t. No reading in bad faith required.

            Random examples of books in which the lack of an economy and ecology jumped out at me:

            Blood Red Road. Slogging through a blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland, the characters suddenly come across a rollicking inn, complete with bartenders, jolly patrons, beer, etc. But no apparent town. How in the world is this inn surviving and attracting customers, when it appears to be on no known path and have nothing around it?

            Divergent. Entire classes of people play out job-like roles with no actual purpose. For instance, the Dauntless (brave) people ONLY play paintball, do jackass stunts, and beat each other up, but do not act as cops or soldiers. The unsorted underclass don’t have jobs. How do they survive? Who’s keeping them down? Why do trains ceaselessly circle the city with apparently no one tending to them, and no one riding them but the Dauntless, who only use them to prove their bravery by leaping off.

            Anne Bishop’s books with the magic cock rings. The total lack of description really does make it seem as if nothing but the protagonists, their magic jewels, and their cock rings exist in the world.

          • mindstalk

            Tolkien: we did get the slave fields of Nurnen, yay. But how do elves and dwarves get their food? How did they get food before the Sun came up, which happened well after they were active? Why did Gondor and the Grey Havens not keep in touch by sea, or Gondor and Lorien? (Okay, Corsairs might explain the former somewhat.)

          • Marie Brennan

            This is part of why Middle-Earth isn’t the most compelling fantasy world to me. I like what I think of as anthropological realism, and Tolkien wasn’t much interested in that.

          • rachelmanija

            I think if even one aspect of a world has some plausible detail, you can easily figure that the rest does too, but off-page. If NO part of a book has any plausible detail, I personally find that distracting and annoying.

            (I figured we only meet the aristocrat elves, not the cooking and farm-gardening elves.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Honestly, the most likely food on the road is porridge, beans, and either dried meat or a recent kill roasted over the fire — in other words, either stuff that keeps well, or is fresh-obtained and quickly prepared.

          As for types of stew, you’re absolutely right. But what she’s parodying is generic Euro-quest fantasy, where there is nary a whiff of curry, chili, gumbo, ratatouille, tagini, or anything else of the sort. And she’s not going to say “this is lazy worldbuilding” because that isn’t the framework of the book. I don’t disagree with you; I think she does misstep with some of what she says in that entry. But it was responsible for making me, and a lot of other writers, think through the food culture in our books, and that isn’t a bad thing.

          • mindstalk

            Okay, given a choice between stew, or porridge and jerky, I’m probably going for the stew. Fresh roast could tip the balance, if poor cooking didn’t give me worms. Wait, I’d probably already have worms…

            Other variants: sheperd’s pie, pot pie, which AFAICT is stew in a pastry crust.

            So’s Chicago stuffed pizza, in a way. Heh. I remember first having that (in Seattle! my parents didn’t go for Chicago pizza, I grew up in Chicago not knowing about it) and going “this isn’t pizza! It is, however, good.” Sorry, tangent.

          • Marie Brennan

            I’m thinking not just of the cooking, but the food you’re carrying with you. It needs to be portable and not go bad while you’re on the road, which means a whole lot of dried/salted/smoked stuff, augmented with what you can collect along the way (which may not be a lot, depending on environment and whether you’re being chased by minions of the Dark Lord at the same time). One wonders where the hobbits got the tomatoes they were eating on Weathertop . . . .

          • mindstalk

            Porridge and jerky might be more practical, I was just saying it made the stew seem more appetizing. 🙂

            I don’t remember the tomatoes (book? movie?). But that was their first day out of Bree, wasn’t it? One might bright some attractive perishables for the first part of a journey.

          • Marie Brennan

            The tomatoes were in the movie; I have no idea if they were in the book. And the movie certainly gave the impression they’d been traveling for more than a day at that point. Which I don’t lay at Tolkien’s feet — that may be Peter Jackson — but I’ve seen similar nonsensicality from novels.

          • rachelmanija

            Some version of flatbread, probably. If you’re traveling for more than a couple days, it would be worth your while to take flour and oil.

      • mindstalk

        Huh. Is stew really “on the road” often in fantasy? Samwise made some but that was a special effort to gather ingredients during a pause, clearly not what they were regularly eating. Otherwise I’d associate it more with food at the inn/tavern (and I think God Stalk did have a big pot of it in the Res a B’tyrr).

        • Marie Brennan

          There is all kinds of food-based stupidity in quest fantasy. In Eragon apparently the only kind of food that matters is meat.

          • mindstalk

            Ah. Possibly I haven’t noticed, or possibly my natural instinct for avoiding bad fantasy and SF has served me yet again.

    • moonandserpent

      This post shows up on my LJ right after another Stew post. It’s Stew on LJ Night!

  2. tiamat360

    Dunno if you’re familiar with this or not…basically it’s a blog dedicated to making the food described in A Song of Ice and Fire. Glorious, glorious food porn.

  3. heygirlie

    I’ve always though TGtFL was like an early, printed version of tvtropes. Classic. 🙂 Did you figure out the hint with the map?

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I did. 🙂 And it’s very much like proto-TV Tropes.

      • =Tamar

        Back in the 1970s, Barbara Ninde Byfield published The Glass Harmonica, which was then renamed The Book of Weird. It’s very like the Tough Guide to Fantasyland but is not set up as a tour guide.

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