What’s a Portal?: Gateways and Their Place in Fantasy Fiction

The portal-quest fantasy is one to love and one to be confused by. Surprising to many readers, who believe The Lord of the Rings is what Farrah Mendelsohn calls an immersive fantasy, Tolkien wrote what really functions as a portal-quest. The truth is, Frodo passes through a gateway of sorts: he leaves his idyllic Shire and the home he’s always known to enter the dangerous lands of Middle-Earth. And while one might argue that the Shire is a part of Middle-Earth, elements of the story might prove otherwise. A portal is all about the change between places, whether those places be of the mind, of the world around us, or of the soul. Regardless, to write good portal-quest fantasies, one must be able to identify them through—drum-roll—the portal! Here are four portals I’ve observed in Fantasy fiction:

The Breach in Nature PortalTower_Hill_Pleasure_Company_gazebo

This is the object or place that was totally normal and perfect in the beginning, but in retrospect, seems like a really obvious cover for a gateway between worlds. I recall S.M. Boyce’s The Lichgates, in which a portal between the real world and “Ourea” takes the form of a randomly placed, inconspicuous, and “unpainted” gazebo on a wooded trail. Okay, so it’s not so inconspicuous. If you’re a fan of fantasy and a structure pops up where there ought not to be one, something’s up. But still, you get the point.

The “Journey” Portal

This is a portal that can only be passed through by way of a trip or a journey. The most obvious is the Harry Potter series. Despite being able to do magic and see magic done in the real world (particularly in the company of Weasleys), Harry must hop on a train at Platform 9 ¾ and travel a distance before arriving at Hogwarts. Yes, the magical beings and wizards are a part of the real world as well, but it is the experience of being among these people and things that take Harry into a different realm. The portal does not need to be physical; it can take on many forms.

The “What the Hell Happened”/Object Portal

This is one I observed in Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane. Thomas Covenant, in the midst of one of his leprosy-induced grumblings, stumbles into the path of an oncoming car and wakes to find he’s been transported to a fantasy world. The Land, as it is called, does not sit on the “other side” of some tangible portal. However, Thomas Covenant has been (seemingly) torn from the real world and tossed into The Land through some sort of unseen gateway. Readers are led to believe that the wedding band Covenant keeps, said to have great power in The Land, may have played a role in the transportation between worlds.


The Implied Portal

Here’s where we find The Lord of the Rings. In the story, we even see Samwise Gamgee stop on his and Frodo’s way out of The Shire to mention that it’s the furthest from home he’s ever gone. This portal is implied. It is not physical, and the difference between worlds is not great. We perceive The Shire as a part of a whole, but for all of the Hobbits, The Shire is its own haven. The Shire is safe and represents happiness, comfort, and perfection, in a sense. Middle-Earth is terrifying and full of sadness and evil. Two worlds don’t need to be physically distant or in different dimensions to be separate from one another. It is safe to say examples might be found in our own world as well.

Pick one of these ideas, or any other sort of portal (I know there has to be plenty out there), and write a few pages to see what works and what inspires you.

For more information on the Portal Fantasy, visit Farrah Mendelsohn’s page for The Rhetorics of Fantasy.

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