The "portal fantasy," where somebody walks through a magical door (or wardrobe) into a fantasy world, has become a terrible cliche. So why do we keep walking through those portals and loving the hell out of it?
I heard a lot of grumbling about portal fantasies last weekend at the World Fantasy Convention in Ohio, an annual gathering for writers, publishers, and editors who deal with fantasy. Often a writer would begin describing his or her book by saying, "It's not a portal fantasy." What most of them meant was that their fantasy stories don't follow the old rules of the medium, probably originating with Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, where a youthful protagonist is sucked into an amazing alternate world but spends the entire story trying to get home rather than exploring.
As Catherynne M. Valente remarked:
I like portal fantasies - it just so happens that my pet peeve is portal fantasies where the protagonist is like "You know what? I would like to immediately go back to my depression era dustbowl hellhole life and not even look at anything here." So I react against that a whole lot.
Photograph by Cyril Helnwein.
One of the other problems with portal fantasies is that they are sometimes sheer wish fulfillment. The world on the other side of the portal is new Narnia or the perfect eco-feminist utopia of Woman on the Edge of Time. Or they fulfill a slightly creepier fantasy, like John Norman's Gor series, where our nerdy scholar finds himself on an alternate Earth where all women are slaves and men are leather-wearing masters.
Either way, these stories offer portals to worlds that seem too simplistic. They also give us only one perspective: That of the displaced human, the outsider, looking in on another world from the perspective of tourist or prisoner. In the classic portal fantasy, nobody immigrates through the portal. Nobody jumps out of the portal into our world and says, "What the hell, people? This is some crazy shit. I've got to get home."
Gor book cover by Boris Vallejo.
But that doesn't mean we've got to scrap the idea of portals altogether. Nor does it mean that portal fantasy is bankrupt as a concept. In fact, some of the most powerful fantasies of the past decade have been portal fantasies, including Pan's Labyrinth and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Valente herself has written a powerful portal fantasy in Palimpsest. Even science fiction has gotten in on the action, with Fringe coming into its own as a series the instant it began to focus on the portal between Earth and Alternate Earth.
What makes these and other modern portal fantasies work, even though they're using the same "through the magical gateway" trope? Two things: The ambiguity of the fantasy worlds (they're neither good nor bad); and the double-sidedness of the portal (people travel both ways). One of the terrific revelations of His Dark Materials is that our protagonist is from a parallel Earth, so her journey through the portal into our world reverses the typical scenario. And in Pan's Labyrinth, the fantasy world is as ugly and dangerous as the real one.
Image from The Golden Compass by marinuse.
These aren't necessarily modern trappings of portal fantasies, either. In the Wizard of Oz books, we have a chance to thoroughly explore the world of Oz and discover that it's as complicated (if not more complicated) than our own. And soldier John Carter may have jumped through a portal to the exotic world of Barsoom in A Princess of Mars, but he doesn't get to escape from war - Mars is basically one giant, ongoing war that swallows him up immediately.
What's useful about the portal scenario is that it's a quick and often beautiful way to signify that our characters have moved from the realm of the familiar into the unfamiliar. The problem comes in when authors refuse to question the definition of "familiar," or build fantasy worlds that are unsustainable monocultures ("all women are slaves" or "everybody is happy here").
Our lives are full of portals, both literal and figurative. We've divided up the planet into nations whose conceptual boundaries are magically concretized in maps, in fences, and more dangerous barriers. We enclose museums and universities and laboratories in buildings whose doors truly lead to alternate worlds where new things become possible. Every time you walk over the threshold of a library, or through a door into a party, you open yourself up to the strange and previously unknown. That's what makes the portal such a powerful and enduring metaphor. It's based on our everyday experience.
And, when done right, it takes us out of that everyday experience in unpredictable ways. That's why I will defend portal fantasy to the bitter end. I like walking through doorways. In fiction, and in real life.