May 27, 2022

Portal Fantasy

         Here’s another post for #WyrdAndWonder, where the prompt is to celebrate the subgenre Portal Fantasy.
        When it comes right down to it, there are two options in fantasy: either there’s magic in the world, or there isn’t.  If the world of our characters includes magic, either it’s a secondary world (ie, a completely different world, such as Middle Earth or Berk or the Five Kingdoms or Khelathra-Ven) or it’s our world that happens to have magic which may or may not be known to the general public (such as the settings of Artemis Fowl, Sorcery & Cecilia, Mary Poppins, or lots of fairy tales and urban fantasy.)  But what if you cross the two possibilities (no-magic in our world with secondary worlds containing magic)?  What if we know that our world doesn’t have magic, and yet we want to tell a story about ordinary-world characters who find their way to magical worlds?  That’s portal fantasy.
        Probably the most iconic portal fantasy is that of C.S. Lewis, wherein our characters go through a portal in the back of a wardrobe and come out in the world of NarniaThe Phantom Tollbooth, too, includes a very clear, literal portal: drive through the cardboard tollbooth and come out in the magical Lands Beyond.  In The Secrets of Droon series by Tony Abbott (deservedly less famous) the portal is a stairway in the basement of one of the characters.  In Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy the portal is, as the name suggests, a book.  A rabbit hole is Alice’s portal to Wonderland.
        If you take a slightly broader look, however, you can include more stories in this category.  Ordinary-world characters always require some sort of special event to transport them from, say, Kansas to Oz.  Famously a cyclone does the trick in L. Frank Baum’s first book, but it’s a storm at sea in another, and an earthquake in another.  In many a classic fairy tale the role of portal is played by the enchanted forest.  Leave the known path and you cross into a world where wicked witches and fairies have power, animals can speak, and curses, blessings, and transformations change all the rules.
        Harry Potter’s Wizarding World is somewhat superimposed upon the Muggle world and not wholly separate as in a true portal fantasy, but in J.K. Rowling’s books the Hogwarts Express often serves as a sort of portal, marking the point at which Harry transitions between the ordinary world and the world of magic.  The bottom line is that there always has to be some moment of transition or discovery where people just like us are suddenly confronted with a world of magic.
        As for myself, I like secondary world fantasy where I’m immersed in a place where magic is part of the fabric of people’s lives, and I like portal fantasy where people living without magic are suddenly transported into a whole ‘nother world.  And I like that other variant, too, where our world does happen to have magic or other fantastical elements.  They all appeal to slightly different ideas for me, and they can all be good!  Do you have a preference?  Or what’s your favorite portal fantasy?

[Pictures: Through the wardrobe, illustration by Marco Soma for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Image from Marco Soma illustrator);

Jane entering the book, illustration by Nicolas Hill for Jane’s Adventures In and Out of the Book by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 1972;

The Cyclone, illustration by W.W. Denslow for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900 (Image from Internet Archive);

Tree wolf image by chic2view on]


Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

As always I was about to postpone an answer to your post. Because your posts are so well written, well prepared, well everything, I feel like they deserve an equally well thought out answer. But this just never happens. Too often I end up with no answer at all. So here's my not so well thought out answer. I like portal fantasy, I like all kinds of portal fantasy. I simply adore the idea of opening the right door, speaking the right words or looking through the right window ad finding magic. This is the reason why I write. And Thank you for this reminder.
Now I hurry to press Publish before I regret my less than perfect answer. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

The half magic books are some of my favorites. And Narnia too.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Charlotte, thanks for your kind comments, but definitely no need to stress over them. I'm always happy to have you stop by and leave your thoughts, even if they're not as well-crafted as you might like!

Anon, yes, I like the Half Magic books, as well! =)