“She did not shut it properly because she knew that it is very silly
to shut oneself into a wardrobe, even if it is not a magic one.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Welcome back to our Focus on Genres series. This month, we’ll be looking at a subgenre of fantasy and science fiction, Portal Fiction. Portal fiction is a story in which an ordinary person is transported to another world, often to discover that they have an important role to play in its destiny. The “portal” generally refers to a technological or magical doorway that connects two distinct locations separated by space time. It usually involves two or more gateways with a person (or sometimes an object) entering one gateway and leaving via the other instantaneously. The portal serves as a way to quickly move the protagonist into new territories. The linked locations may be situated in the same universe (teleportation), in a parallel universe (interdimensional portal), in the past or future (time portal), or other planes of existence (e.g., heaven or hell). A parallel world, such as the Wood between the Worlds in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, may have multiple portals to every possible parallel world.
Portals will literally take characters from one place to another. They also serve as a way of indicating that the rules of the story are about to change, and can emphasize the importance of looking at life from a new perspective and seeing possibilities in even the most ordinary things. Portals can take many forms, from holes in the ground, to books, to mirrors, to large constructs big enough to fly a starship through. Sometimes the locations the portals lead to are real, but far away. Sometimes they are fantasy worlds that shouldn't exist but do. Sometimes they aren't about traveling distance at all, but instead are about traveling through time. In some science fiction novels, the portal isn’t so much the means to a destination, but more a means of cutting down on travel time and move great distances.
In fantasy novels, portals tend to be ways for characters to pass from their world (usually our own) to a fantastical secondary world. One of the most famous portals in literature is the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Through this portal, which she enters accidentally, Alice begins her fanciful adventures in a secondary world filled with colorful characters. While the alternate world will often be whimsical, magical, and beautiful it may also contain great danger. Occasionally, a portal does not lead to a better world, but to a worse one. In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, for example, the protagonist finds herself in an eerie alternate world from which she must rescue herself and others from an evil “other mother.”
A common plot point in portal fiction involves the main characters trying to find their way back home. In many portal stories, the protagonist(s) may get trapped in the alternate world until they have completed the task that originally brought them there. At times, the protagonist may wish to stay in that world, but are sometimes denied that option, and may then find it difficult or impossible to return in the future.
Come into any of our branches to check out some of these portal fiction books, movies, or video games. You’ll find yourself in a whole new world!