Portal fantasy is escapism in the purest sense. The ability to walk through a doorway and disappear into another world captivates the imagination.
Cultures around the globe have long been enchanted by portals. You can find them in great literature dating back thousands of years. One early and well-known example is written in the Old Testament, Psalm 78, where it says, “Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; He rained down manna for the people to eat, He gave them the grain of heaven.”
Portals, as in a threshold you must cross, also feature prominently in the mythology of life and death, from ancient Egypt to Central America to India. Sometimes these portals are called doors, sometimes gates. Regardless, every mythology has a portal fantasy moment in it: the moment when a human soul crosses the threshold into the realm of the dead.
It’ll take a better historian than me to figure out which tradition first popularized portals as a universal human theme. Who can truly say how old they are? Maybe portals have always been with us.
Their lasting power is self-evident.
Standout portal fiction of the 20th century
The thread of literature in the 20th century, however, is a little easier to pull apart.
Looking back at all the popular genre fiction books published in the last two hundred years, it’s clear that a select few novels of portal fiction have had an outsized impact on popular culture, on entertainment publishing, on storytelling—and certainly on me personally, along with millions of other readers.
So where did this fascination start?
If there’s a “beginning” of portal fiction in popular genre fiction, it can be attributed to the success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, released in 1850. Other portal stories from that era were published, but none were so popular and none have had as much influence as Alice’s. What Carroll tapped into with his story of a little girl lost in a mad hatter’s world was something universally human. Escapist literature beloved by a multitude, passed down from generation to generation, continually improved and reinvented.
After Carroll, publishers must have started to realize that those works would sell. There was demand for them in the market, and a desire to write them coming from writers. I’ll let you decide which came first. Does the story influence the market, or does reader demand create the story?
In any case, you can see Lewis’s influence in the books that followed. Books like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995). The books of my childhood—perhaps yours, too.
Since we can’t list them all, I’m here to share four standout portal fiction novels from the 20th century. All excellent books you can follow down the rabbit hole.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland wins the trophy for best portal fantasy book from the 1800s, then without question the book which earned the honor in the 1900s is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
As far as books where the main character is transported to another world with magic are concerned, Chronicles of Narnia is the reigning champion.
Crafted as allegorical tales during WWII, Lewis’s portal fantasies center around a group of children who discover an entrance to the world of Narnia at the back of a wooden wardrobe.
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie have been sent to live with Professor Digory Kirke to escape the Blitz. What they discover in Narnia, however, is not necessarily the idyllic safehaven it seems to be. In many ways, it’s more dangerous than the bombing of London they came to escape.
The children find themselves tangled up in a war of another sort. An otherworldly conflict where the White Witch has forced eternal winter upon the realm, and the people must defeat her to reclaim their land. Creatures come to befriend them—and others to beguile them.
(There are those core portal themes again—other realms, escape, supernatural forces of aid.)
I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens to the children at the end. This tale is full of surprises. There’s lots of Christian symbolism, especially with a talking lion named Aslan. Wonderful and shocking events force the children to grow up, to accept responsibility, make an impact on Narnia, and ultimately return to their home different than they left it.
The portal changes them for the good.
While this book is magical, it’s also only the first in a seven book series. I read them very young and am always looking for a girl or boy of that age to gift a complete set to.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)
Neverwhere is a delightful story about London Below, a hidden underside of the city populated by vagabonds and weird characters of all styles and magical talents. Inspired by abandoned Tube stations—the charming name for the London subway system—the homeless population, mental illness, and what it’s like to live in plain sight without ever really being seen.
Originally conceived as a six-part mini-series for the BBC, Neil Gaiman’s 1996 novelization became an international bestseller and more well known today (at least outside of the United Kingdom) than the TV show.
The story revolves around Richard Mayhew, an investment banker who lives an ordinary life but is beset by boredom and longing. He’s cut off from everyone and everything he knows when he befriends a mysterious woman named Door and helps her escape from her pursuers.
I picked this book because it’s a favorite of mine. That said, it’s worth noting that portals are one of Gaiman’s favorite storytelling devices. He also uses them to great effect in his book for children, Coraline, which was made into an animated film in 2009.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
The next book that stands out from that era is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, the first of a trilogy titled His Dark Materials
Also known by its original name, Northern Lights, Pullman’s story of parallel worlds been made into a film (2007), an HBO series (2019), and won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association.
Unlike Neverwhere, who could not have been more obvious about their doorways, The Golden Compass doesn’t seem to start in portal fiction territory. But everything that happens in the story hinges on the idea of alternate Earths and the great lengths people must go to reach the doors between them.
The Golden Compass starts and ends with Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pantalaimon. A adventurous and slightly feral young school girl, she lives and causes mayhem with her familiar at a boarding school in Oxford, England. Her only family is her Uncle, Lord Azriel, a courageous and somewhat frightening explorer who visits Lyra at Jordan College less than she’d like. Lyra simultaneously idolizes and fears the man.
The different worlds that exist in this story are all on Earth, with subtle differences—in Lyra’s world, for example, every person who lives has a familiar they call a daemon. As young children, the daemon has the ability to transform into any animal shape they can imagine. The two beings, human and daemon, are connected, two bodies sharing a single soul. Any harm done to one causes harm to the other.
Subtle world building slowly reveals alternate Earths, other Oxfords than these. There’s Dust, and terrible experiments, and northern lights in the sky. Lyra becomes tangled up with the madness, thanks to her uncle and her character, which is more wild animal than it is precocious schoolgirl.
Like much other portal fiction, The Golden Compass features brave young people who enter adulthood while on a death-defying journey of self-discovery.
And isn’t that what portals are all about?
The Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)
By now, you may have begun to notice a strange pattern. Popular portal fiction in the 1900s is very English.
It’s time to step across the pond. Come through the portal, if you will, to the American side. In particular, to the Wild West of Sai King.
The Gunslinger is my next recommendation and it has one of my favorite openings lines of all time:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”Stephen King, The Gunslinger
One of King’s earliest books, it started as a series of short stories he wove together into a novel, which was published in 1982. The story was followed up by many sequels and wraps with a rather contentious ending in The Dark Tower. It’s a sprawling, unique and memorable story.
How to describe the tale…
One of the Hallmarks of Stephen King’s books is that a large number of them take place in a shared multiverse. All those books are interconnected not necessarily through characters or settings—although there are repeat appearances of both people and place—but because their worlds are connected.
The Gunslinger is a seminal work because it is the story at the nexus of that interconnection.
As our fabled gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, marches across the desert, pursuing this man in black, he collects companions from different worlds, each time reaching across and pulling them into his orbit through a doorway. The world he inhabits is stretched and broken, and this pursuit has gone on for a long, long time. Roland’s the last of his kind, and this is his journey.
“Go then, there are other worlds than these.”Stephen King, The Gunslinger
Other worlds than these
While there are many, many more examples of portal fiction from the 20th century, these are the standouts for me.
I didn’t even mention Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, another famous fantasy example with a heavy romance bent, which was recently made into a massively popular TV show.
Or The Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein, which is the first great science fiction example, and paved the way for the Stargate franchise.
Portal fantasy stories continue to delight and inspire today. Multiple new works in this sub-genre of SFF are released each year. I’ve published a few portal fiction novels myself!
There’s not enough space to list them all, and I’m sure my tastes differ from yours. That’s what’s wonderful about the reading world—there’s so much variety. Before you go, let me know what other novels are on your 20th century portal fiction best book list. Or, share your own experience reading one of the books I listed.