The Magic of Fantastic Portal Fantasies

The Magic of Fantastic Portal Fantasies

Last week I talked about some of my favorite portal fantasies. And until I sat down to write that post, I had no idea how many I had read! As a result, I’d like to take a deeper look at portal fantasies and what makes them so magical.

I’ve never been a huge fan of formulaic media. The more you stick to a formula, the more generic the result tends to be. But everyone can agree that genre fiction tends to contain the same building blocks, rearranged in different shapes to make something new and exciting. Like other niche genres, portal fantasies have some basic features that identify it.

Portal Fantasies Often Start in Our World

There is no hard and fast rule, but most portal fantasies start in our world. Why? Because portal fantasies are the ultimate escapism! Spending the first few chapters among the dull humdrum of ordinary life highlights how drab and boring our lives can be. Even Harry Potter follows this formula.

Often, though not always, the protagonist spends these opening chapters longing to escape their ordinary existence and experience something exciting. I know I spent my fair share of sunny afternoons staring out classroom windows, wishing a portal would carry me away.

But the real strength in portal fantasies is how easy it is to reverse this simple staple. Princess Nevermore, for example, starts in a magical underground world that exists beneath ours. The princess in question spends her days staring through a water mirror at our world. To her, it seems far more interesting and exciting than the world she lives in.

Likewise, The Dark Tower features a steadily crumbling world that has moved on from its glory days. Yet Roland does not escape to our world so much as he scoops people out of it. He then carries them back to his world to join in his quest.

There’s Some Kind of Doorway

Sooner or later, every portal fantasy transitions between worlds. This is usually accomplished via some kind of gateway. In The Dark Tower series, Roland comes upon a series of literal doors perched on the beach which take him to three different time periods in New York.

But the gateway between worlds isn’t always this obvious. In the His Dark Materials series, Lyra passes out of her world via a tear in the sky. Will, her traveling companion, passes out of our world through an even smaller tear in the grass near his house. He only spots it after he sees a cat disappear.

The portal which carries the protagonist between worlds doesn’t always have to be magical, either. Stargate could easily be considered a portal fantasy, since it involves a journey into the unknown. In that case, the stargate’s wormhole serves as the portal, the planet on the other side serves the role of magical world.

For Island of Lost Forevers, I subverted this trope by having the mystical island pass through the portal instead of my characters. Their arrival on the island then serves as the transition between the real world and the fantasy world they hope to explore. But it leaves the lines blurrier than most traditional portal fantasies.

A protagonist might fall through the gateway to another world accidentally. Or they might summon a portal and cross it deliberately. They might travel alone or in a small group, and they might be followed by a rival from their home world. What matters is, they pass out of their ordinary lives and into a world with different rules.

A World of Magic Waits Beyond

The worlds lurking beyond portal fantasy gateways always follow different rules than the origin point. In The Neverending Story, for example, Bastian enters the land of stories, where humans can weave objects and events into reality simply by speaking about them. In Stargate, Daniel Jackson and his team find themselves on a planet still ruled by the ancient Egyptian god Ra.

Often, once a protagonist steps through a portal into another world, the path closes behind them, leaving them stranded. Which means that many portal fantasies are as much about trying to get home as they are about trying to escape your humdrum existence.

Of course, our hero will also encounter strange creatures throughout their journey. Some of which may prove helpful. Dorothy encounters a helpful witch shortly after her arrival in Oz, for example, who points her in the direction of help. Some of the creatures the hero encounters may even become traveling companions, as is the case with the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion.

But not every creature lurking in the protagonist’s path will turn out to be reliable, even if they aren’t exactly evil. The Cheshire Cat may be willing to offer Alice useful advice during her travels through the looking glass. But he’s a trickster and just as likely to lead her astray if she isn’t careful.

Where Do Portal Fantasies End?

One of the things I like best about portal fantasies is that they tend to be circular. At the end of the quest, the protagonist inevitably finds a new gateway, one that can take them home. And this is really the pivotal moment in every portal fantasy. Because after all their adventures, the protagonist has to decide whether they want stay in the magical world they’ve discovered. Or if they want to return to their normal lives.

Growing up, I could never understand why anyone would want to return to a mundane existence after tasting a life of adventure. I imagined myself finding a way to stay so that I could undertake ever more adventures. But of course time and age have proven the issue isn’t so cut and dry. Adventure and magic can become mundane if they’re part of your everyday life. And the exploration of a fantasy world is likely to be more terrifying than exciting, especially for someone like me.

Of course, even when a protagonist decides to return to their original world, that doesn’t mean they’ll never have a chance to return for more adventures. Entire series have been written about Dorothy returning to Oz. The Stargate team eventually established regular off world excursions. And Roland dipped in and out of our world several times on his quest to locate the Dark Tower.

Even Damian and Catilen were forced to make this choice at the end of Island of Lost Forevers. Stay and see where the island goes when it vanishes? Or return to the mainland and resume teaching their classes? Which did they pick? You’ll have to read to find out!

If you got sucked into a magical world of fantasy, would you stay or come back? Let me know in the comments!

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