Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Very few fantasy texts lack them. They may be physical (doors, gates, tunnels, Pictures, movie screens, Mirrors, Labyrinths) or metaphorical; they may exist whenever a Crosshatch which mingles worlds, or a Threshold which demarcates them, is sufficiently focused to be detected (see Perception), perhaps only by Talents; or, less commonly, they may be themselves transportable, in the form of Amulets or Rings or Books – more often than not, a Little-Big relationship obtains between the outside and the "inside" of a portal. They may be located anywhere, from a nook or wardrobe or cranny to an Edifice or City, at whose heart may hum a thousand intersections. They may be signals of almost any significant transit point in the typical Genre Fantasy: transitions between this world and an Otherworld or Afterlife venue or Arabian Nightmare; from one otherworld to another; from our time (via Timeslip or Time Travel) to another time; from this world to Faerie; from one level of Reality to another; from life into death; from a prior state of growth (see Rite of Passage) into empowered adulthood; from a prior state of being, via Metamorphosis, into something rich and strange (see Bondage; Wrongness; Thinning); from Amnesia through Recognition into Healing, whenever that central fantasy movement is dramatized or put in Ritual form.

The distinction between a portal and a threshold may sometimes be blurred, but normally the term is used here to describe a liminal structure or aura, while a threshold is a sharp gradient between two places or conditions, a gradient which may define a Borderland or Polder. Though portals can of course be invisible, usually this invisibility is treated as somehow to be remarked upon (while any portal may be a Plot Device, all invisible portals almost certainly are). Visible or invisible, portals are likely to be warded – woven round with Conditions and Prohibitions – and to pass through a portal is likely to pass some kind of test, to gain a new level of understanding of power, to demonstrate oneself as a chosen one, whether through birth or actions or some other merit: in fantasy, it is very often the case that a character who finds a portal has in some sense been found by that portal. Portals are part of the grammar of significant Story. Portals represent acts of selection and election.

In genre fantasy portals are generally passages from here to there; in Dark Fantasy, Supernatural Fiction and Weird Fiction, portals are more often seen as passages from the other world into this one.

Portals dominate the Taproot-Text tale of Orpheus, particularly Harrison Birtwistle's Ovid-based The Mask of Orpheus (1986) (see Opera). They initiate a high proportion of Children's Fantasies involving any form of transition from this world to another, from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) through E Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet (1906) to C S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). They are often used in Planetary Romances as the opening through which the destined hero is called. They articulate three- or multi-dimensional worlds, like the wood at the heart of Robert Holdstock's Ryhope Wood sequence, most clearly in The Hollowing (1993). They shape large narrative sequences, like the four portals (the last constituting a Slingshot Ending) that divide the four volumes of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983).

There is also a commonly found secondary use of the term. In sf, portals may be access points to forms of transit, usually instantaneous. In fantasy – particularly genre fantasies set in hard-wired Fantasylands, and Technofantasies or Rationalized-Fantasy tales – portals may also perform this relatively mundane function, though in such texts the transition is usually effected by Magic. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.