Fantasy is commonly interpreted as a pure creation of imagination in opposition to reality. When fantasy stems from literature, it does not require strict rules or rigid boundaries. Literary fantasies appear detached from the restraints of time, space, and dimensions, as well as from “distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, self and other, life and death” (Jackson, 1981, p.5). Furthermore, as the author Rosemary Jackson observed, the infinite possibilities of fantasy convey a specific sense of freedom along with the allure of an escape from the common reality: “Literature of the fantastic has been claimed as ‘transcending’ reality, ‘escaping’ the human condition and constructing superior alternate, ‘secondary’ worlds” (Jackson, 1981, p.5). Therefore, this notion of fantasy literature reveals a desire for a better or different reality, which renders portal fantasies an interesting example within the genre, as it allows the fictional characters to travel between universes. This article will thus explore how portals in fantasy novels function as tools in the character's search for their identity.
“Portals – also known as stargates, wormholes, or wells – can take many forms, ranging from mythical mirrors to real bodies of water. For each name that can be used to describe a portal, there are thousands of stories, myths, and scientific experiments that have attempted to explore and explain them (and the parallel world they lead to" (Gordon, 2019, para.1).
Portal fantasies tend to present characters who exist in what appears to be a common reality - a representation of the real world - and discover a passage that allows them to access a new extraordinary realm: a parallel universe or a magical world, coexisting with the real one, or a place from a different time and dimension. Examples can be found in children's literature: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), or Coraline (2002). Moreover, plenty of fantasy series use portals in their narration, such as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), The Magicians (2009-2014), Miss Peregrine's House for Peculiar Children (2012-2021). Portals in these stories take various forms; for instance, they can appear as objects, like a door, a wardrobe, or a plain wall. However, sometimes, their definition is more spacious, like a mysterious island or a hurricane, which can bring a character to a different realm. Regardless of the representation of a portal, this type of a story always involves some sort of a passage that works as a bridge between two realities.
One of the earliest portal fantasies is L. Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The narration of the book combines the trope of a portal with a dream: falling asleep, 7-year old Alice chases a rabbit into a rabbit hole. She tumbles into Wonderland and later on returns to the real world by waking up. In Wonderland, nothing resembles the normal reality of Alice's world: it is an irrational realm with “strange and curious creatures doing strange and curious things. It's also a place where sense and nonsense meet, where a turn of phrase becomes a literal thing in the world” ("Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Setting", n.d., para. 3). This fantastic realm and its inhabitants make Alice question everything she knows and even doubt who she is. During her adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks and grows in physical size and these transformations make her constantly re-evaluate her self-perception and the world around her. Eventually, she asks herself, "I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I?" (Carroll, 1957, p.11). Coming of age is an essential part of the transformation process required for building up the character, as "the concept of identity is highly related to an adolescent's socio-emotional development"(Karlsson, 2011, p.8). Alice does not identify herself as a child, nor as an adult, but at the same time she strives for an answer to "who she is". At the end of her dream, Alice experiences personal growth, realising that she does not need others to tell her who she is anymore, and she returns to the real world (Karlsson, 2011). Joseph Campbell's concept about the Hero's Journey states that it is basically a quest for identity. The Hero's Journey is an archetypal narrative structure which presents a character's evolution, involving certain steps in the process. Campbell's Monomyth assumes that heroes abandon their ordinary world to set for adventure in the supernatural realm where they overcome trials, encounter the greatest challenge, and then return back home with a reward or a knowledge of who they are and what they are capable of. (Campbell, 1949). Just like Alice goes through her emotional and intellectual journey in Wonderland in order to find who she truly is, the hero's journey in the parallel universe represents a metaphor for the inner quest for one's self.
S. Lewis’s fantasy series Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) continues the tradition of portal fantasies that reveal the issues involved in a hero's search for identity. The plot is set in England during World War II, and the protagonist’s adventure to the parallel universe can be seen as a desire to escape the oppressive reality. The first novel presents an iconic portal artefact, as Lucy Pevensie discovers that an old wardrobe leads to the fantastic world of Narnia which proves to exist beyond the rules of time and dimension. Soon, her siblings Peter, Susan, and Edmund follow Lucy into the alternative realm of talking animals, mythical beasts, knights, witches, and magicians. It is notable that Narnia is more than a magical adventure: “it represents a psychological journey during which hidden emotions and desires are released and acted out” (Ottosson, 2010, p.1). In the real world, growing up without parents, the Pevensie siblings feel helpless and lonely. However, as a part of the coming of age journey, they have to overcome these struggles of their own. For instance, in the real world, Lucy is shy and insecure, suppressing her true character, whereas in Narnia, she "allows herself to come out of her shield: she starts to be courageous" (Ottosson, 2010, p.4). As a character, she requires independence in order to take the first step on her path of self-development. Therefore, Narnia does not just present a utopian magical world as an escape from depressing reality; it also serves as a door to the parallel universe where the protagonists have a potential and opportunities for self-growth, facing the dangers and fighting the battles on their own. The Pevensie siblings choose to remain in Narnia for quite a long time, becoming kings and queens of the realm, which demonstrates a significant character development.
Harry Potter (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling is another great example of the hero's quest for identity, as through the novels the "protagonist undergoes an extraordinary transformation from an insecure adolescent and reluctant victim of prophecy to a confident saviour of humanity and master of his own destiny" (Applewhite, 2010, p.1). The novels present the parallel universe in a different way, as the wizarding world exists right next to the normal one, within the same realm and its timeline. There are many passages leading from the “muggle” (non-magical) world to the wizarding world, though only those who are capable of magic can see them and travel freely between them. For example, Harry has to run through the wall at King's Cross Station to get to platform 9 ¾. These passages can also appear like a dead-end behind an old English pub, which in fact leads to Diagon Alley full of magical shops; or a broken phone booth which, if used properly, can slide underground into the Ministry of Magic. Harry's fantastic adventures closely follow Joseph Campbell's definition of the hero's journey. His development resembles the classic heroic myth with such elements as unusual birth, call to adventure, a series of tests, helpers, apotheosis, the final battle, a metaphorical death and resurrection, and mastery of the two worlds (Applewhite, 2010). An interesting distinction of the Harry Potter series from other portal fantasies is that Harry, being a wizard, belongs to the magical world from the beginning, but he is not aware of it. The portals to the magical world grant Harry a secret access to a completely different universe where he is able to express himself, to find friends, to get a meaning in his life, and to become a powerful wizard - all what he was incapable of achieving in his life in the "muggle" world.
While some portals lead to parallel universes that exist in irrational realms, beyond the rules of normal space and time, some of them might serve as passages to a very specific destination in the real world. Outlander series (1991-2021) by D. Gabaldon is an interesting example of a fantasy that involves time travelling. It is considered a historical fantasy, as it is based on the representation of the real world, except for the fact that its protagonist Claire Randall falls back in time from 1946 to 1743. In these novels, the mysterious stone circles serve as portals, probably taking its idea from the Stonehenge circle, which has been believed to be a real portal since the old times due to its mystical location and strange energy surrounding the place (Gordon, 2019, para. 9). In the first novel, Claire finds herself in the 18th century Scotland after touching a monolith in the stone circle at Craigh Na Dun. Significantly, after she travels back to her own time, in the twentieth-century, it appears that “the time passes at the same rate, regardless of what era you’re in”, though the past, present, and future exist simultaneously in the Outlander's universe (Dibdin, 2020, para. 10). Outlander's perspective on the issue of identity is more complicated than those in the aforementioned fantasy series for children and young adults. Through the novels Claire overcomes trials, finds her true love, and attempts to change the course of the historical events. Her adventures to a different time, away from the common reality, provide her with a chance to abandon her former-self and re-discover her identity in the parallel universe. In this case, the hero's journey does not end when one becomes an adult, as "childhood, for instance, does not end nor adulthood begin with adolescence", and life experience can be seen instead as a circle (Melanson, 1994, p. 7). Outlander proves that the protagonist's quest for identity may start at any point in one's life and continue through its different stages, making a hero unceasingly change, grow, and evolve.
Portal fantasies gain their appeal as they “can allow the author to create a multitude of different worlds for their characters to explore” (Nuttall, 2022, para. 4). Portals can take many shapes and forms, just like the parallel universes possess various features and possibilities. They also provide their characters with an escape from the real world and grant them an alternative reality where they are able to find their true selves. Though the authors of portal fantasies reveal the imperfections and issues of the real world, they do not present magical worlds as utopian - rather, they open a path for the character's journey. Sometimes portals serve as a temporal getaway, providing the space and opportunities for a hero's self-development, necessary in the real world. However, a protagonist might also discover a parallel universe to be the final destination on his or her journey in search for oneself. Hereby, the main purpose of portal fantasies is a quest for finding one’s true identity.
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Figure 1: leonardo45000. (2021). Portal Fantasy. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.deviantart.com/leonardo45000/art/Portal-Fantasy-883012728
Figure 2: Wonderland. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://ru.pinterest.com/pin/766245324116078882/
Figure 3: Jaspers, A. (2009). Lucy enters the Wardrobe. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://narnia.fandom.com/wiki/Wardrobe?file=NarniaWardrobe.jpg
Figure 4: Platform 9 ¾. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://ru.pinterest.com/pin/908179081081565406/
Figure 5: Koberle, A. (2021). Craigh Na Dun. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/QrAR6Z