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The Tough Guide to Archetypes

February 14, 2001


"PRINCESSES come in two main kinds:

     1) Wimps.

     2) Spirited and willful.  A spirited Princess will be detectable by the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her somewhat tiptilted nose [OMT]  ..."

-- Diana Wynne Jones
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland


Blue Band Having worked the Spirited Princess racket myself in my novel-under-submission, Catherine of Lyonesse, I was more than ordinarily amused / horrified by Ms. Wynne Jones's brilliant, brutal survey of fantasy conventions.  Not only did I have both kinds of princess in my book, but the spirited one - obviously Catherine; you wouldn't name the book after the wimpy one - even had the damn freckles on her nose.  (At least I didn't specify it as tip-tilted; be thankful for small blessings.)

Yet even as I laughed till I cried at the book's exposure of hackneyed fantasy conventions, including the ones I was trotting out one more time, I was also struck by the reek of rightness [OMT] in some of the items. 

Well, maybe I should first back up and explain the book, if you haven't read it.   (And if you haven't, buy it and read it).  I'll save typing here by quoting my own knockoff "Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy:" 

The premise of the book is that fantasy quest trilogies are essentially Tours of Fantasyland.  Following an introduction, most of the book consists of "Toughpick:" thumbnail descriptions of the various attractions you'll see and experiences you can expect to have in the course of your Tour.   Capitalized words indicate cross-referenced items, and Official Management Terms - such as savory for edible stew, or blood your sword for "skewer someone" - are italized and marked by a little oval with OMT in it.  (I can't fully reproduce this; hence [OMT].)

Certainly quest fantasies offer plenty of fat, easy targets, and Wynne Jones picks them off with verve.  Too many fantasies are cobbled together in imitation of Lord of the Rings - or its imitations - with neither research nor thought.  A favorite among Tough Guide readers seems to be her entry on HORSES, which probably means that both Wynne Jones and the readers know something about them.  (A couple of Catherine beta readers saved me from my worst equine blunders.) 

On the other hand, amid the exposure of fantasy conventions that are just plain inexcusable, there are also entries like this one, on royal guards (KING'S MEN) when they are basically aligned with the good guys:

They are very smart and well trained and their drill is as crisp as any you will see.   But they are human.  At some point you will encounter them in a relaxed mood, joshing their captain, swearing merrily and recounting touching anecdotes about their young children.  They are the salt of the earth, like their King, but there will probably be a time when they have to arrest you.  When this happens, they will tell you how much they regret it and not give you any chance to escape.   [emphasis added]

On one level you could say that this is perfectly corny stuff, and as unrealistic as horses that gallop full-out all day and never wander off if you forget to hitch them (or whatever it is you do).  But it also has a certain rightness to it - especially that final touch:  These guys are professionals, after all; it's the bad guys who are careless and give you a chance to escape.  Realistic or not, this is what you'll find not just in the fantasy dreck, but in the fantasy jewels as well.   So it was as well in the best of the old Errol Flynn movies, or in Dumas.  If Athos, Porthos, and Aramis had to arrest you for some reason, they wouldn't let you escape, either.

Or for that matter in Homer.   The Odyssey didn't have this particular scenario, but remember Phaeacia.  (And by the way, Nausicaa had the spirited-princess thing down cold, freckles or not.)  Almost all fiction adheres to these basic conventions; if not Serious Literature [OMT] at least the popular escapist classics from 750 BC on.  Nor is even Serious Literature exempt, really.  It has its own conventions, which follow essentially similar rules; even antiheroes are smaller than life in a slightly larger-than-life way.  The only fiction that completely avoids these conventions is really meta-fiction, a type of fiction criticism and not quite actual fiction at all.

In real life, to say the obvious, the cavalry doesn't always show up.  Good Kings turn out to be blithering idiots and Bad ones reform the legal system (perhaps for their own cynical reasons).  People miss the train on which they would have met the love of their life, or if they catch it they sit in the wrong car.  Moorish generals in Venice are tricked into thinking their wives have betrayed them, but instead of tragically strangling her they just live unhappily ever after in separate bedrooms.   Things happen in a haphazard way, or fail to happen in an equally haphazard way.   We can experience this every day, and for real, without plunking down for a paperback to experience made-up versions of it.

Fiction is supposed to create a world with dramatic structure that the real world lacks.  That means drawing on the archetypes that populate our dreams, or at least our daydreams.  Good fiction may flip a convention or two on its head, but I suspect that more often it simply has machinery so well-designed and smoothly oiled that it takes plot twists like a sports car.

So The Tough Guide To Fantasyland should really be taken - as I am sure Diana Wynne Jones knows perfectly well - with a sort of reverse grain of salt.  By all means laugh at everything from ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS to WEAPONMASTERS.  (Don't worry; you will.)  But keep in mind that while some of the items skewered are pure hackwork, others have become genre conventions for a reason.  Beneath their corny surface, a good many have a substrate of essential fictional truth to them.   


Okay, that does it for our day's lesson in Fantasy Lit Criticism.  Now for a little fun stuff.  Here are a couple of items that Diana Wynne Jones left out of her book; your mileage may vary, but they have the reek of rightness at least to me.  And here is my knockoff treatment of standard conventions in science fiction.

Oh, and I finally corrected the misspelling of "archetypes!"


-- Rick Robinson


Corsairs and the Free Haven

The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy


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