Thursday, 7 January 2021

Portals: entrances to other worlds


It’s January, the month of doorways and portals: the Roman god Janus presided over beginnings and endings, passages and transitions; his two faces look back to the past and on towards the future. So this month I’m taking a look at some portals in fantasy. How do you get characters from one world into another, and how do writers make us believe it? Even more interesting, how strongly are we intended to believe in those otherworlds beyond the portals, and why are the characters going there? For what purpose? Let's begin with a little girl sitting with her big sister on a bank, when a White Rabbit runs past.

 There was nothing so very remarkable about that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” (when she thought of it afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet… and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment, down went Alice after it…

 Moments later she’s falling down very deep well, absurdly lined with cupboards, shelves and maps – falling for so far and so long that it takes two and half pages for her to arrive at the bottom ‘not a bit hurt’, in the antechambers and hallways of Wonderland. Carroll takes us smoothly from the mundane to the incredible by his deadpan story-telling. Nothing’s happening; Alice is bored. A rabbit runs past: ‘nothing remarkable’. The rabbit’s exclamation ‘seems quite natural’. Only at the watch and waistcoat pocket does Alice jump to her feet; by this time we’re snagged, and Alice is so self-possessed that nothing, even falling for miles down a well, perhaps to the very centre of the earth, fazes her. Panic? Not she! She philosophises all the way down: if she can accept it, we can.

            ‘Wonderland’ was published in 1865; ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in 1871. In the second book, Carroll employs the same strategy of easing us from the everyday to the strange. Alice opens the way into Looking-glass land herself, towards the end of a five-page fanciful monologue to the black kitten. You remember that it wouldn’t fold its arms properly, and she held it up to the mirror ‘that it might see how sulky it was –

 ‘and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through into the Looking Glass-House…

‘Now… I’ll tell you all my ideas about the Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass – that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair – all but the bit just behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit. I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too – but that may be only pretence, to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold one up in the other room.’


Let’s stop for a moment and reflect (sorry!) on how creepy Alice’s chatter is. She comes up with the disquieting notion that the people who live beyond the glass are not ‘us’, and that they may be out to deceive us. And it isn't her own reflection holding up the book in the mirror, but one of those mysterious others: Alice isn’t tall enough to see her own face in it, so if she holds a book up over her head she sees it reflected, but not who's holding it... This detailed observation of how a looking glass works is enough to convince the reader of its reality, while Alice’s interpretations provide a frisson of the uncanny without being too sinister.


‘Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through – ’ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright, silvery mist.

            In another moment Alice was through the glass and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room.



I'm sure this is just how passing through a looking-glass would feel… I once read, I think in an essay by C.S. Lewis, that to have an unusual protagonist in a fantasy world was gilding the lily: too much icing on a very fancy cake. And he cited Alice as an example of an ordinary child to whom strange things happen. But how ordinary is Alice, after all? Is she really just an innocent and rather pedestrian Every-little-girl in a mad, mad world? Or does she have her own brand of illogical weirdness with which to combat the weirdness she finds? I think she does, and we often miss it. We look at the blonde hair, the hairband, the blue dress and the white pinafore, and forget her speculative, inventive mind, her impatience – and passages like this:

 And once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse!  Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyaena, and you’re a bone!” 

It’s Alice’s weird imagination that takes her into Looking Glass Land: she’s both a credibly strong-minded little girl, capable of defending herself in the White Rabbit’s house by kicking Bill the lizard up the chimney – and a surreal philosopher, as some children are. Her dream-adventures are her own creation, and when they get too chaotic, she ends them – amid considerable violence.

 ‘I can’t stand this any longer!’ she cried as she jumped up and seized the table-cloth with both hands. One good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.

In each case, Tenniel’s illustrations catch the vivid threat and drama of the situation.  Some books with dream endings can feel like a cheat. ‘He woke up, and found it was only a dream’ seems to negate all that’s happened – John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights’ is an example. But Wonderland and Looking-glass land were never real. Alice hasn’t  strayed into a pre-existing Narnia like Lucy Pevensie. She is the Alpha and Omega of her own worlds: and when she wakes from them, it is utterly logical that Wonderland and Looking-glass land cease to be.    



Children and wonderlands are compatible: fictional children usually take passing through a portal very much in their stride. Adults are a different matter. It is interesting to compare the natural ease of Alice’s transit through the Looking-glass with that of Mr Vane, the narrator of George MacDonald’s adult dream-fantasy ‘Lilith’. Written in 1895, it post-dates ‘Alice’, and the character’s transition through a mirror is not into a dreamland but into a ‘region of the seven dimensions’ – the meaning of which has been much discussed – which interpenetrates the ‘real’ world. Like Alice, Vane is in pursuit of someone who leads him to the portal: he follows the spectral figure of an old man, Mr Raven – who sometimes appears in raven form – up the many winding stairs of an old house into a garret room containing nothing but a dusty old mirror.

 It had an ebony frame, on the top of which stood a black eagle with outstretched wings, in his beak a golden chain, from whose end hung a black ball.

Looking at rather than into the mirror – as we do too, since the description focuses on the frame and its decorations – Vane suddenly notices that it reflects neither him nor his surroundings. Instead it shows him a wild landscape. ‘[C]ould I have mistaken for a mirror the glass that protected a wonderful picture?’ he wonders

 I saw before me a wild country, broken and heathy. Desolate hills of no great height but somehow of strange appearance, occupied the middle distance … nearest me lay a track of moorland, flat and melancholy.

 Like Alice on seeing the White Rabbit, Vane is initially ‘no wise astonished’ at seeing an ancient raven hop towards him within the supposed picture. But when he stumbles forward over the frame and discovers himself ‘in the open air, on a houseless heath’, he is confused, shaken and afraid. Looking back he sees nothing comprehensible: ‘all was vague and uncertain’. The raven asks him who he is, and he cannot truly answer. Having stumbled into this strange place he rapidly stumbles out again through a ‘something with no colour’ hanging between trees; back in the garret he hurls himself downstairs in panic, swearing never again to climb ‘the last terrible stair.’ However, definitions of real and unreal are blurred: Vane has not returned to his own world at all and sets out on a spiritual journey to find the true life of heaven. Is this a physical parallel universe with objective reality, or a land of the psyche or spirit? Does he wake at the end of the book, or does he only dream he’s awake? What do such questions even mean…? 


             Lucy Pevensie’s passage into the snow-bound Narnian forest through the back of an old wardrobe in an empty room is reminiscent of Vane’s empty garret with its mirror: but Narnia is different from Wonderland and Looking-glass land, or the multi-dimensional visionary world of ‘Lilith’. It has physical existence and continuity: it endures. We see it being created and we see it end.

Lewis is extremely good at portals. He guides us through them, as Carroll does, by carefully describing the physical situation and sensations of passing from world to world. The sleek softness of fur coats gives way to prickly fir branches: ‘the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe’ becomes ‘something soft and powdery and extremely cold’… Lucy, while not as in-your-face as Alice, possesses her own quiet confidence: ‘“This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further’, until:

A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

In every book the way into Narnia (and quite often the way out) is different, and always wonderfully vivid. In ‘Prince Caspian’ the children are dragged into Narnia by Susan’s magic horn. They never hear it – but suffer the effect: an urgent, physical tugging that wrenches them off the station platform and dumps them into a dense thicket. (It would have been terrifying to arrive in Narnia for the first time like this, but with their prior experience of travel between worlds, they can process it.) Then there’s that picture in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, when the ship and painted waves begin to move and a ‘great, salt, splash’ breaks over the picture-frame. There’s the door in the wall of the school grounds, which opens for Scrubb and Jill at the beginning of ‘The Silver Chair’, and Uncle Andrew’s semi-scientific green and yellow rings in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. Last of all is the railway accident which hurls Eustace and Jill back into Narnia to help Tirian in ‘The Last Battle’ – and through the ultimate portal of death. 


            While I was writing this essay it was pointed out on Twitter in a fascinating thread by Daniel Cowper (see @DanielCowper) that the painting of the ship in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ may owe something to ‘The Story of Kwashin Kogi’ related by Lafcadio Hearn in his ‘Japanese Miscellany’ (1901), which Lewis may well have read. Kwashin Kogi is a Buddhist priest who paints landscapes and depictions of the heavens and hells: at the end of the tale he unfolds a eight-part screen painted with beautiful views of Lake Ōmi. The admiring onlookers notice a tiny boat in the painting, rowed by a boatman. It turns and comes closer and closer

 – always becoming larger, – until it appeared to be only a short distance away. All of a sudden, the water of the lake seemed to overflow, – out of the picture into the room, and the room was flooded; and the spectators girded up their robes in haste, as the water rose above their knees.

Kwashin Kogi climbs into the boat. As the boatman rows him away all the water in the room flows back into the picture: he dwindles into it and is never seen again. Could this be the origin of the ‘great, salt splash’ from the Narnian ocean? Maybe, but there’s no way of telling: paintings make obvious portals, and writers do come up with such things independently. John Masefield twice uses a similar type of magic in ‘The Box of Delights’ (1935): in each case, the painting/portal offers an escape from danger. The first time is when Cole Hawlings escapes Abner Brown’s ‘wolves’ by entering the painting of a Swiss mountain that hangs on the wall of Kay’s house, Seekings:

 As they stared at the picture, it seemed to glow and open, and to become not a picture, but the mountain itself. They heard the rush of the torrent. They saw how tumbled and smashed the scarred pine-trees were among the rolled boulders…

            High up above there, in the upper mountain, were the blinding bright snows, and the teeth of the crags black and gleaming. ‘Ah,’ the old man said, ‘and yonder down the path come the mules.’

 A white mule with a red saddle comes trotting out of the painting: the old man swings himself on to its back and rides ‘out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall. Kay watched him until he was gone, and almost sobbed, “O, I do hope you’ll escape the wolves…” ’

            The second instance is when Kay, currently only six inches high and imprisoned with Cole Hawlings in the flooding cellars beneath Abner’s lair at Chester Hills, uses a bit of pencil lead to draw pictures on a piece of notepaper – in particular a picture of a boat with a man sculling her, bringing a bunch of keys to set them free. Cole Hawlings sets the paper floating away on the water, and as ‘bigger waves rushed out of the darkness at them,’ the boat and the boatman Kay drew come to the rescue. Here, the association of ‘living’ paintings, boats, boatmen, and the shocking splash of water does seem suggestive of the Japanese tale.

            Not all stories about entering painted landscapes are so comforting. In Catherine Storr’s ‘Marianne Dreams’ (1958) the eponymous heroine, sick in bed, employs a stub of pencil to make a drawing of a house, which she subsequently visits in a series of increasingly disturbing dreams. In ‘Bad Wednesday’ – Chapter 3 of PL Travers’ ‘Mary Poppins Comes Back’ (1935) –  young Jane Banks, left on her own in punishment for bad behaviour, hurls her paintbox across the room and cracks the Royal Doulton Bowl on the mantlepiece with its painted scene of three little boys playing horses. ‘I say – that hurt!’ cries a voice, and Jane sees one of the painted boys bending down, clutching his knee in both hands. The boys invite Jane to come and play horses with them: the hurt one, Valentine, pulls her into the Bowl and she’s suddenly in a wide sunlit meadow.

 William and Everard, tossing their heads and snorting, flew off across the meadow with Jane jingling the reins behind them. … On ran the horses, tugging Jane after them, drawing her away from the Nursery.

            Presently she pulled up, panting, and looked back over the tracks they had made in the grass. Behind her, at the other side of the meadow, she could see the rim of the Bowl. It seemed small and very far away. And something inside her warned that it was time to turn back.

            ‘I must go back now,’ she said, dropping the jingling reins.

            ‘Oh, no, no!’ cried the Triplets, closing round her. And now something in their voices made her feel uneasy…

 But she goes on through a dark alder wood to their cold, threatening house, where she meets their sister, and sinister grandfather, and hears that the three boys ‘have been watching you for ages! But they couldn’t catch you before – you were always so happy!’ She is to stay here for ever and never go home. As they surround her, Jane screams for Mary Poppins in sheer terror – and is finally rescued.

            As a child I absolutely loved this very dark story, and I still do. It’s closer to George MacDonald’s work than Lewis’s or Masefield’s, and it’s far from Lewis Carroll’s, whose Alice never needs rescuing. Jane travels through the portal of the Doulton Bowl on a psychological vector from rage and defiance, via fear and abandonment, to rescue and reassurance. Even though the next morning, Mary Poppins’ checked scarf can be seen lying on the painted grass of the Doulton Bowl, I don’t think PL Travers means it to signify that the world in the Bowl is real – but Jane’s emotional experience is. In ‘Bad Wednesday’ Jane learns how frightening and alienating losing your temper can be – like being taken over by a stranger within you. Once Mary Poppins has answered her call for help, and comforted her in her sharp, no-nonsense way, Jane relaxes:

 A tide of happiness swept over her. ‘It couldn’t have been I who was cross,’ she said to herself. ‘It must have been somebody else.’

And she sat there wondering who the Somebody was…

            Alice apart, children in fantasies tend to be sent or called into imaginary worlds for purposes, which may be practical or moral or both. Jane, as we’ve seen, learns a lesson about the dangers of wilful tantrums. With Aslan’s assistance, Lewis’s children variously defeat the White Witch, dethrone the Telmarine King Miraz, rescue Prince Rilian and King Tirian and so on, but there’s another purpose that transcends physical adventures. We’re meant to understand that the children’s relationship with Aslan is precious in itself; to love him is to love Christ, leading to spiritual development and ultimate salvation. (How far this really works depends on the character and the book. Digory’s is the most moving emotional journey; Eustace’s the most character-changing. Edmund’s salvation, wonderfully delivered, really only transforms him into a decent sort of chap like Peter, and Peter is the least interesting of them all: he certainly never exhibits the touching clumsiness and frailty of his Gospel namesake.)

            ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster (1961) is often compared with Carroll’s books because Juster shares with Carroll an inventive delight in puns, puzzles and the light fantastic. Milo, far more bored and discontented than Alice, receives a mysterious parcel labelled ‘For Milo, who has plenty of time’ and unpacks it to discover ‘One Genuine Turnpike Tollbooth’ with associated signs, fare, map and directions. He assembles the Tollbooth and drives past it in his toy car to find himself ‘speeding along an unfamiliar country road’ with ‘neither the tollbooth nor his room nor even the house’ anywhere in sight. It’s the specificity of the Tollbooth’s construction that makes this easy to believe:

 Following the instructions, which told him to cut here, lift there and fold back all around, he soon had the tollbooth unpacked and set up on its stand. He fitted the windows in place and attached the roof, which extended out on both sides, and fastened on the coin box. It was very much like the tollbooths he’d seen on family trips, except of course it was much smaller and purple. 



Most of us have done this kind of thing as children or parents (often cutting out designs on the backs of cereal packets) and with the Tollbooth firmly established in our imaginations, we willingly accept the rest. Off Milo drives through the wonderful Kingdom of Wisdom, to visit the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis ruled by the estranged brothers, King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician, and rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air in the Mountains of Ignorance. By the time he returns he doesn’t need the Tollbooth any more, for he’s learned to appreciate life and all it offers.

 There was so much to see, and hear, and touch – walks to take, hills to climb … voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

            And ... there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent and make and build and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know – music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and some day make real.

 Milo’s adventures are such fun, and so charming, that readers are carried along with the enchantment. We positively enjoy the lessons: after all, that ‘knowledge is delightful’ is the whole point of the book, but is the Kingdom of Wisdom ‘real’, or a dream like Wonderland? It may be more than a dream, since Milo’s journey enables him to recognise knowledge and wisdom in real life – but it’s a lot less real than Narnia.

             Join me in venturing through more portals in my next post.


Picture credits:

'Alice found herself falling...' illustration by W H Walker, 1907

Alice passes through the Looking Glass - three illustrations by Tenniel 

Cover of 'Lilith' by George MacDonald, Ballantyne Books 1971, artist unknown

The Wardrobe, 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe' - illustration by Pauline Baynes

The Doulton Bowl, 'Mary Poppins Comes Back' - illustration by Mary Shepard

Milo and the Tollbooth, 'The Phantom Tollbooth' - illustration by Jules Feiffer


  1. Yes! That's it exactly! Make both worlds physically real, make the movement from one to the other emotionally real, and the exact mechanics cease to matter.

  2. I hope so, as that's what I'm trying in the current wip! :)

  3. For years I saw ads for the Phantom Tollbooth in the back of Puffin books. Being rather dislexic I read it as the Phantom Toolboth... and still do until I get my brain in gear. I think I read it when I was a bit too old. However, the Box of Delights is an absolute favourite.
    Are you a fan of the Twilight of Magic?

    1. It's so long since I read it, I'd almost forgotten about it, but thankyou for reminding me. I'd actually have to read it again before I could answer you, but as a child I loved Dr Dolittle, especially his journey to the moon and back.

    2. My mother used to tell me Dr Doolittle stories when she washed my hair. Being a disapproving judgemental sort of child I decided they were very silly stories because the animals all had such stupid names. Mummy was disappointed as she had enjoyed them so much them when she was little. So she moved on to tales from Shakespeare. Bit of a leap!
      On the other hand, I absolutely love The Twilight of Magic . It’s a shame it isn’t better known.

      The other world in Elidor scared the pants off me when I was about 8. The way the front door was scarred on the outside and the children could see fighting through the letter box.

    3. The Elidor portal! I'm glad you reminded me of that one. I was about 13 when I read the book, so it didn't scare me so much as thrill me.

    4. The bit with the planchette and drawing Findhorn! Shivers down my spine.

      I don’t know if you ever read sci-fi? I heartily recommend the fabulous Railhead by Philip Reeve. It makes great use of a very different style of portal which are very nearly magical because nobody understands the science. My partner saw a review and bought it for me out of the blue and it immediately became one of my favourite reads ever. The imagination this author has. It’s quite stunning.

    5. Some sci-fi of course, yes, but I'm not an aficionado. I haven't read that one of Philip's - only the Mortal Engines books, which are very good. More on portals to come in the next month, and I've included Elidor after your reminder!

    6. Railhead has some of the very best world building I have ever come across, better than the Mortal Engines books I think. There are fabulous trains, there’s quick and easy travel between planets, glancing references to Dune and Star Trek, it’s just very different from everything I ever read before. And it’s YA so a very easy read. Can you tell I’m a massive fan? Looking forward to more on portals.

  4. What an interesting comparison of portals in fantasy! I love portal fantasy, and you have named some of my favourites. Have you read Joy Chant’s Red Moon, Black Mountain? Like Narnia, it’s a “real” world on the other side of the portal. There was a sequel set in that world, with no visitors from ours. The children are whisked into this world for a purpose, fulfilling a prophecy in this case. It has the flavour of both Lewis and Tolkien(there is even a couple who are a lot like Arwen and Aragorn!)

    1. Yes, I've got them both and was thinking of talking about 'Red Moon, Black Mountain' - which is the one I read as a child - in one of the next posts. I'm glad I picked some of your favourites! :)

  5. Oh my. I just love this! Thank you. I'm a portal fanatic. :)

  6. Thank you so much for this. I currently writing my first portal fantasy story and hoping to write more. The only thing I want to change is the children's agency. The children of classic portal fantasies almost never return, which strikes me as sad and a bit horrifying. To be call into that world, only to get cast out, almost never returning. I want my child heroes to be like Persephone, coming and going as they like, and should they choose, decide to stay in that other world.

  7. Which children's fantasies have you in mind,Sam? In most of the ones I can think of, the children do return; not at the very end of the Narnia stories of course; but that's Lewis taking them all to heaven (bar Susan).

  8. Kath, I just read the whole series in one gulp, backwards, and love it! How delightful to end / begin with The Phantom Tollbooth, which I adore, along with many of the other books you've written about. (Am now plotting to read several of the others.)

    One of the perks of being in Manhattan - when J. was little, there was an anniversary event at Books of Wonder, in Chelsea, and J. got to meet Norman Juster & Jules Feiffer, and now we have a signed copy. I'm not normally a book-signing person, unless it's by a friend, but this one was a thrill.

  9. Wow, how wonderful Helen! And thanks for your kind words about the posts. xx