One of the more long-lived subsets of Fantasy is Portal Fantasy, which often involves a character from the “Real World” transported to a fantasy-esque land. The Wizard of Oz or The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are probably the most famous examples of portal fantasy. We asked asked our panelists the following question:
Of the classic examples given, I’d have to say the “Chronicles of Narnia” is my favourite, likely because I first read them at more or less the age of the protagonists. As the first fantasy novels I ever read, in fact, they’d hold a special place in my emotional library regardless.
Setting aside sentimental favourites, however, there are several others I find worthy of mention, beginning with Charles de Lint’s Moonheart. De Lint is often considered the father of the contemporary or urban fantasy (sans romantic connotation) and with Moonheart, set in contemporary Ottawa, we see the introduction of many of the elements we now consider tropes of that particular sub-genre. Without doubt, however, it is also a portal fantasy. It’s been many years since I last read the book, so I don’t remember exactly what the other world is called by the characters, but since the fantasy is Celtic-mythology based, I think you can fill in the blanks yourself. What was most interesting to me at the time I first read the novel (besides the fact that, back then, Celtic mythology hadn’t yet achieved its present level of overuse) was that the portal worked both ways.
Now I know that the witch appeared in London in The Magician’s Nephew, and Caspian helped Jill and Eustace thrash the school bullies in The Silver Chair, but those were special circumstances. In Moonheart, supernatural, non-human beings from a secondary world, are in the habit of coming to our world and living here – which, when you think about it, is the very essence of contemporary/urban fantasy. That was new for me.
De Lint wrote other traditional portal fantasies – The Little Country is one – in which characters are actually transported from our world to another land and vice versa, but it’s this idea of supernatural characters going about their lives in the same world we’re using to go about ours that made his approach so striking. In Jack the Giant Killer, for example, the “portal” is a hat that enables a young woman to see the supernatural creatures living in her Ottawa neighbourhood, even when she’s sober. Once seen, they can’t be unseen, and for Jacky Rowan, the “other world” becomes the world she’s been living in all along.
This is no longer an unusual device, you see it in Tanya Huff’s early work, Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light, for instance, and there are many other examples. The point is that the door, or portal, that allows entry into the other world isn’t external, but internal.
And just to keep things interesting, RA McAvoy’s Book of Kells combines both internal and external portals, and the land the protagonists reach isn’t another world, but our own world in the past. Which, I guess, makes it a time-travelling portal fantasy. In this case, again, the portal isn’t a particular fixed place or object, but a combination of a design and a tune, which when used in the right way by the right person opens a doorway. So, an external door, but created by an individual’s internal or mental ability.
Examples of the classic portal fantasy (which includes the early work of Barbara Hambly as well), where the two worlds don’t mix, tend to be over thirty years old. A question that interests me: are fewer examples of the classic portal fantasy being written, since urban/contemporary fantasy became an option for writers? Is it significant that readers no longer need the fantastic elements to stem from and stay in other worlds, or are they now comfortable with encountering them in their own?.
Portal Fantasy is one of the oldest types of fantasy that I started reading. For all that I love secondary world fantasy, having the intersection of the real world with a fantastic other world, and the characters mixing and interacting is what I truly love. Its powerful stuff, in the right hands. Portal fantasy used to be far more popular in earlier years than recently, although there has been an uptick in recent novels that are exploring this theme again.
Alyx Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea introduced us to Sophie, who learns that her origins are in another world, and leaps at the chance to go to that other world to find her heritage. I identified strongly with the protagonist as she learned about and explored the other realm of the island world of Stormwrack. I especially liked how she did smart and logical things I would do when faced with the possibility of using a portal to go back and forth to another world, including getting a video camera to document her experiences there. I look forward to the sequel, Daughter of No Nation, coming out this year.
Violette Malan two novels The Mirror Prince and Shadowlands take place in modern-day Canada, and in the Land of Faerie. In the first novel, an amnesiac Prince of Faerie exiled to Earth is identified and returns to Faerie to set things right. In the second novel, a mortal psychic, Valory Martin, continues to work the relationship between both worlds, cleaning up the consequences of the conflict of the first novel both on Earth and in Faerie.
V.E. Schwab’s new A Darker Shade Of Magic features three alternate Londons, including one that is clearly ours in the 19th century, and two much more magically oriented ones. Lila, in the company of the world-traveling mage Kell, manages to travel from our “Grey” near zero-magic London to the very different “Red” and “White” London counterparts, and if anything, seems more at home on the other side of the Portal in those two Londons than in our world.
For readers young and old, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Toolbooth is a classic of Portal Fantasy. The main character, the young Milo is bored, bored, bored, and so receives a large package containing a car, and a tollbooth. Driving the car through the tollbooth, Milo finds himself in a fantastical world where stairs lead to infinity, dogs contain alarm clocks, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned, to the detriment of the land. The mathematical and linguistic references, complete with puns, allusions and concepts make the work delightful for all ages. You don’t have to jump to the island of conclusions to know its one of my favorites.
There are some novels which are Portal fantasies, if only from a particular point of view. Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes In Amber starts with our hero, Corwin, in a hospital on Earth, who then in the course of the book travels from Earth, only one of many shadow worlds, to Amber, the one true world, the real world he is from. The trump cards featured in the book and series not only allow communication, but like a magical portal, they also permit transport.
Julian May’s “The Saga of Pliocene Exile” is science fiction with strong notes of fantasy. In that series, a one-way time gate from the 22nd century is discovered, leading back 5 million years. The first novel in the sequence, The Golden Torc, begins with a number of misfits choosing a voluntary exile through the time gate. They think they are joining a rustic colony stranded in time, not knowing the gate leads to a time and place when the alien Tanu rule in the manner and semblance of faerie.
Stephen Baxter’s Ring has a science fictional portal of gigantic size, light years in diameter, that serves as their, and the protagonists, ticket to other universes, one hopefully free of the photino birds who threaten the end of the universe of matter. One of his early novels, RAFT is a novel where humans clearly came to a universe with strange laws of physics from our own, but just how they got there isn’t clear. Perhaps they, too, used the Ring.
John Myers Myers’ Silverlock has its titular protagonist, on a sea journey in our world, get shipwrecked, only to find himself on the shores of the The Commonwealth of Letters, a realm of myth and story. While there he goes about meeting characters such as Circe, the Green Knight and Robin Hood, stealing Huck Finn’s raft and visiting places like Heorot Hall and Job’s ranch. This novel even has a Portal fantasy within the Portal fantasy, as Silverlock briefly is imprisoned, like Tam Lin, in a faerieland.
Matthew Woodring Stover’s Heroes Die and its sequels are also Portal fantasies of an unusual sort, mixing science fiction and fantasy. The transport to the realm of Ankhana is regulated by the Entertainment industry and the main character Caine is traveling back and forth between Earth and this fantasy world as part of the ultimate reality show job. The novels nicely mirror how events on one side of the portal can spark events, and even political revolution, on the other. The novel also uses clever literary tricks like point of view to compare and contrast the differences between Overworld (our world) and Ankhana.
The SF grandmaster Gene Wolfe has also written what appears to be a Portal Fantasy in his novel There Are Doors. In that novel, the protagonist pursues the woman he is obsessed with, Lara Morgan through a Door into a world next door. Or does he? The fractured mental state of the protagonist, the scenes set in mental institutions (in both worlds) and other clues make it, as always, a Gene Wolfe style puzzle: Just how reliable IS our narrator’s telling of events. Does he really travel to another world through a Door, or not? And can you be sure of your answer, given its a Gene Wolfe novel? Gene Wolfe’s “Wizard Knight” duology (The Knight and The Wizard) is much more clearly and directly a Portal fantasy, with fewer questions about the reliability of the protagonist in relating events. But even then, Able clearly leaves out crucial things in the course of the narrative, framed as a letter from himself, in the Norse-like tiered world he has been brought to, back to his brother on Earth.
And then there are roleplaying games and videogames. From the D&D setting Sigil, City of Doors, where any Door might be a Gate to another world, to the forthcoming Feng Shui 2, where a strange Underworld connects times and places together, transporting characters from our realm to a fantasy realm is more common than you think. Lords Of Gossamer And Shadow is a recently RPG that is entirely about opening Doors on a Grand Staircase to other worlds. Videogames, too, tap into Portal Fantasy as well. Perhaps the greatest of these of all time is Ultima IV, the first game in that series where you play as the “Avatar”, an ordinary person from our world who is transported to the realm of Britannia to become an embodiment of virtue in the course of the game. Later games have the Avatar travel back and forth between Earth and Britannia until she decides to settle in Britannia permanently. Even then, Ultima Underworld II has portals from Britannia to other worlds (including one that is set in a flying castle!), and Ultima VIII: Pagan has the Avatar banished from his adopted home world of Britannia to the Guardian-dominated world of Pagan, from which he must escape.
Whether the Portal Fantasy is old or new, straight up or subverted, I am always willing and interested in opening that Door and seeing a world on the other side.
The first portal novel I ever read, and the one that stayed with me the most, was The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn. It tells the story of twelve year-old orphan Rose Larkin, who bounces between relatives until she ends up with an aunt and uncle in Ontario. She doesn’t get on well with her cousins, so she spends a lot of time hiding out in a root cellar, which turns out to be a portal to the 1860s. When Rose walks through it, she meets Susan and Will, who lived on the farm during that period. Then Will runs off to join the Union Army, and Susan enlists Rose to help her find him, sparking a journey through the US during the Civil War.
I was probably about eight years old when I first read it, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that The Root Cellar fundamentally changed the way I experienced childhood after that – not least because my grandparents had this mouldy-smelling root cellar on their farm in northern Alberta, a place that already seemed impossibly ancient and steeped in sepia-coloured history. It was full of early nineteenth century oddities like wood-burning stoves and coal-heated irons and farm equipment that looked like medieval torture devices, so it was so easy for me to pretend I was Rose stepping out of the root cellar into the 1860s.
Not too long after that, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and lo and behold, I found a creepy closet nook in the back of the furnace room in my parents’ basement. Pretty soon, everything was a portal to me. Looking back on it now, I suspect that childhood escapism played a pretty big role in my journey towards fantasy authordom.
Two standout favourites from adulthood are His Dark Materials by Philip Pulman and The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m actually still working on Fionavar, and it was a bit disorienting at first – having these ‘real world’ characters interacting with a high (high high) fantasy world. But it’s an excellent device for introducing the world gracefully, because as a reader, you experience this new world through the eyes of someone who’s just as confused and out of place as you are. As for His Dark Materials, what I found really interesting was that in some ways it’s the reverse of the classic portal trope: instead of someone from the ‘real world’ stepping into a fantasy world, you have Lyra moving from her fantasy world into Will’s real world. But because this happens in Book 2 (The Subtle Knife), after the reader has already had a chance to become acquainted with Lyra’s world, it’s a bit like seeing your own world with a fresh pair of eyes.
As I write all this down, it occurs to me that with the exception of Fionavar, all these examples have a common denominator in the coming-of-age element, the unhappy/ out-of-place child who manages to evade their reality through a little bit of magic that lives right under their noses. That’s a tremendously appealing idea, especially for a child, and I think you see a lot of that same vibe in Harry Potter. It’s escapism in its purest form, because not only is the reader escaping, the protagonist is escaping too, and you experience that journey together. Narratively, that’s powerful stuff, which is probably why the portal trope has proven so resilient over the years, and also why it’s one of my all-time favourites.
When I was young, I liked CS Lewis’ Narnia stories, until I re-read them when older. Their portal devices of getting to Narnia are quite clever – not just the wardrobe – and the tales of good and evil, heroes and heroines always made exciting reading when I was younger. I’d recommend them for younger readers, though, as alas rereading them when older emphasized the Christian message too much for me.
Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold!/Landover series is a lot of fun, though not to be taken too seriously. They’re entertaining and get better as you go along. In a similar way, another often forgotten tale that I liked for its similar sense of fun was Gordon Dickson’s The Dragon and the George, which tells a quest tale from the point of view of Jim Eckert, who in another realm becomes a dragon, Gorbash. I’ve always said that humour is really difficult to get right, but I like this one a lot. The characters are all lively and charming. It’s not dark, malicious or rant-y, just good entertainment.
In a much darker vein, there’s also Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels, with their tales of travelling to the Wounded Land. These books were one of the few Fantasy series I could find in the UK in the late 1970’s and were first read by me as an initial foray into adult Fantasy, rather than Narnia and The Shire. There’s a lyricism combined with big ideas and a pushing of the genre boundaries here that I liked – not everything happens how I expected it to be, nor in a way I liked. Covenant is actually rather unlikeable, though whether that is his nature or because of the circumstances he finds himself in, I was never quite sure.
With hindsight, and from a more adult perspective, I actually think I prefer Stephen’s Mordant’s Need duology, which are more traditional Fantasy perhaps than Covenant. Involves lots of mirrors and the twist on the tale is that our heroine doubts ‘the real world’ rather than ‘the fantasy world’ she goes to via mirrors. Lots of characters and events and a few twists and turns along the way. An underrated duology, which even mentioning now makes me want to go and reread.
My next choice is a bit of a cheat, as it may actually be SF, but when the word ‘portal’ was mentioned it was one of the first that came to mind. One of my favourite genre crossover series is CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine series, which is about Morgaine and her faithful servant Nhi Vanye i Chya, whose purpose is not to go through portals but to close them. By doing so the universe hopefully avoids a threat from time causality issues which we know led to the loss of the qhal civilisation in the past. Though the initial trappings of the plot are SF, the majority of the story will be recognisable to many Fantasy fans, as the worlds Morgaine and Vanye travel to are typically Fantasy-like in nature. When I first read the series I really liked the idea that SF could also be Fantasy, in the same way that Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer could be. And the characterisation, their dilemmas and their relationship, is superb.
One portal Fantasy that deserves the accolades it has received is the much-missed Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I loved its take on myths and legends, which all merge into a surrealist perspective once the unwary traveller has crossed over into Ryhope Woods. What we eventually discover in this quaintly and wonderfully British novel is that the mythagos are myth-creatures created from the human subconscious, which leads us to both memorable characters and philosophical ideas. It won the World Fantasy Novel for Best Novel in 1985.
Of the more recent portal tales, one of the best I can think of is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I loved its take on Fantasy, reworking elements found in other tales (Narnia, Hogwarts) but making them into something that is literate, intelligent and pleasantly adult. It’s the one I suggest when people are looking for ‘a more grown up series’ after Harry Potter.
But perhaps my favourite portal novel of recent years (well, the last 15 or so) is Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers, which tells of a musician, Theo Vilmos, who is ‘transported’ through an old book to Faerie. This is a decidedly grown-up version of a magic land, and I loved both the characterisation and the settings. The fairies’ world operates on a House system, in the way that Westeros does, and this leads to great family feuds. The villains are appropriately nasty and there’s some exciting scenes – most of all I remember a particularly damaging dragon attack that threatens to destroy most of Theo’s fairy friends. I’ve always felt I’d like Tad to do more in this setting, but it is a stand-alone novel.
I consider many time travel novels to be portal fantasies. Aren’t the characters yanked out of their world and thrown into the past or future, into a world that’s unknown to them and often utterly different from where they came from? And when I think of time travel stories where things go horribly wrong (because what could possibly go wrong if you’re traveling through time?), two of my favorite novels immediately come to mind – The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.
The premise of Willis’ The Doomsday Book revolves around traveling to the past for educational reasons. Kivrin, an enthusiastic student, is all set to travel to England of the 1300s. Along with other challenges, she gets a rude awakening when the villagers have no idea what lies beyond the hills, nor do they know the names of ruling nobles or in many cases how to spell their own names. She’s certainly in England, and she’s certainly on Earth. But it feels like a portal story because she somewhere/somewhen she didn’t expect to be and there is the absolute possibly that she’ll never be able to get home. The villagers are kind and caring, and want to help Kivrin even though they barely understand half the words she uses. For all intents and purposes the Britons of the past could be fantasy creatures from another world, for all they have in common with her.
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers has been a favorite novel of mine for most of my adult life. For those of you who are keeping score, it starts out with a similar premise to The Doomsday Book, with Brendan Doyle traveling back in time, although only about two hundred years, to study a famous poet. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. It’s easy to think that London in the early 1800s couldn’t possibly be much different than the London of today (think fewer cars), but as this is a Powers novel, it’s not that London is different, it’s that the alleys and undergrounds are populated by creatures who aren’t exactly human. If Brendan is going to understand what’s happening, if he has any chance of finding his way home, he’s going to have to risk everything and play by their rules, on their turf.
Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula-nominated author of more than 20 novels, including the forthcoming Silver on the Road, Book 1 of “The Devil’s West”. Ms. Gilman also writes mysteries under the name L.A. Kornetsky, with CLAWED hitting the shelves May 26th. She hangs out on Twitter aa @LAGilman, and at http://www.lauraannegilman.net.
Portal fantasy is sort of the easy-access cliché for most non-fantasy readers – “oh, right, ordinary kid falls into fantasy world, becomes hero, got it.” That’s almost enough right there to make a serious fantasy reader hate portal fantasy as an entire subgenre. And, truthfully, they’d become such a large portion of fantasy during my teen years, when I was reading voraciously, that every third fantasy seemed to start off with
[movie announcer voice]
“an ordinary human, tossed into a world he can’t understand…destined to save it”
[movie announcer voice].
In addition to feeling cookie-cutter, the sub-genre then seemed to cater to male readers, with the female characters too often secondary, or defined by their sex appeal (the 1980’s were not a great time to look for female characters with non-sexual agency). It was enough to make you give up on portals entirely.
But despite all that, a few have lingered in my memory with a haze of nostalgic fondness, either because they were early childhood favorites (the Narnia stories), or because they were painfully, disturbingly well-done – speaking, of course, of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. I can’t say that I enjoyed that series, but they were the first time I’d ever seen how directly and brutally a fantasy would could become social commentary, and forever destroyed any “oh fantasy is kid stuff or escapism’ arguments anyone might raise. Heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old (and yes I read those books far too young, as I suspect most fantasy readers in my generation did).
But beyond that, one series stands out, not because it was great literature, or did something different, but because it was so endearingly self-aware, intentionally self-mocking. And that’s Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger (and the resulting series of adventures).
The original cover pretty much sums it up. Yes, that’s a turtle.
Our hero isn’t some earnest high school student, or misunderstood gamer. He’s a college student who is yanked across the worlds because someone there misread “engineer” for our world’s version of “wizard,” and didn’t understand that “sanitation engineer” was code for… part-time janitor. And to add to it all? Our hero – a musician – is stoned when he’s summoned. So he just assumes it’s all a particularly good pot-hallucination at first. Which is fair, since he encounters a (slacker) talking turtle pretty much right away. As one does.
Along their eventual-journey-to-heroism, the Spellsinger books hit pretty much every damn tope and cliche, not so much skewering them as inviting them for a entire pig roast, and Foster did it with definite mischief aforethought. Basically, it’s the Galaxy Quest of portal fantasy. And I still kinda love it.