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In my last post I wrote about Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and portal fantasy. I concluded that Carroll was likely the first exponent of portal fantasy in modern literature (which I consider to be post-1800).
Many came afterwards, of course, the best in my estimation being C.S. Lewis. Besides his Narnia series (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, etc.) what other books have used portals? The most famous in the English language are:
Both, however, came a few years after Carroll, who published his two terrific Alice books in the late 1860’s.
In 2019, Annika Barranti Klein put together a comprehensive list of 50 portal fantasy books for Book Riot – 50+ Must Read Portal Fantasy Books, with brief descriptions of each book.
Some in the list are quite famous (see above). Most are current writers, many of whom will be familiar names to readers (Salman Rushdie; Rick Riordon; Cornelia Funke). It’s a great list, first because it breaks the list into age categories (making it very reader-friendly) and second, because it opens the North American reader to less-familiar authors from around the world.
One thing I did note, however was the following: not one of the fifty is devoted exclusively to a tale of animals. Of course, some have dragons and other mystical characters, but these interact with humans. Rushdie has talking creatures, but here, too, people are the focus of the story. Narnia is filled with a host of wonderful animals, the lion Aslan most notably, but here, as well, the children are the heroes (as is the main villain) and main characters of the story.
But I digress once again from my initial question – was Lewis Carroll the innovator of portal fantasy?
One could say that John Bunyan’s fantasy, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), uses a portal to travel to a parallel world. But since that portal is nothing more than a dream, it doesn’t qualify as a gateway in my books. My definition of “portal” would require an actual, physical gateway. C.S. Lewis’s retelling of this famous work, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), also uses the same plot device. So, in my view, both don’t satisfy my criteria. Yes, Alice is falling asleep and dreaming, but Carroll goes through the effort of having her find and use real entry points (the rabbit hole and then the mirror).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World (1912) uses precarious entry and exit points to reach (and escape from) a prehistoric world in the Amazonian region of South America, but this wonderful book comes well after the Alice books.
Only one other writer of the period in my view could make such a claim – Jules Verne. (See my earlier post on this extraordinary science fiction writer). His Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864; revised in 1867; first published in English in 1871) predates Carroll by only one year. It employs a volcano as its portal (located in the crater of the Snæfellsjökull icefield, Iceland) to gain access to the world’s underworld, where our heroes encounter prehistoric animals, gigantic insects and threatening natural phenomena, as well as a different exit point (Stromboli, a volcanic island off Sicily).
It’s a terrific story with just enough scientific detail and plausibility to make the journey seem possible, and his use of two access points is sheer brilliance. I’ve never forgotten the 1959 film Journey to the Center of the Earth by 20th Century Fox (James Mason! Pat Boone!) when I was young and impressionable.
Verne might be one of the most original fantasy writers of all time, but is Journey to the Center of the Earth a true portal fantasy? Although others may disagree, I would maintain that, as the center of the world is not a parallel domain but an exploration of another part, it’s not quite the same thing.
Verne was prolific, publishing 54 novels in his lifetime, over the same time period as Carroll. Since I’ve not read the majority of these works I can’t comment on whether he employed the portal plot device elsewhere. Perhaps readers more familiar with Jules Verne can help.
Having made this one disclaimer, after going through my own books, knowledge banks and combing these lists, I can safely conclude that both Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne could lay claim to being the original user of the portal plot device. But only Carroll could claim to have created a perfect parallel world, mirroring our existing one. So, in my view, Carroll gets the nod as the first of these innovators.
If any other writers of this genre exist, I’m not aware of them. (Readers are, of course, more than welcome to contribute their ideas.)