"Portal fantasy" is one of my favorite subgenres—tales of people transported to other worlds by magic, e.g., C. S. Lewis's Narnia series, which I've reread countless times. In children's fantasy of that type, the young protagonists usually return to the primary world in the end. At the conclusion of Lewis's PRINCE CASPIAN, Peter and Susan learn they are now too old for Narnia. Their younger siblings, Edmund and Lucy, receive the same news at the end of THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. Everything turns out fine in the last book of the series, however, when all the characters are reunited in a recreated, eternal Narnia. (Except for Susan, who, as a young woman, has convinced herself Narnia was only a childish game; Lewis hints in some of his letters, though, that she may eventually find her own way back.)
Seanan McGuire tackles the issue of growing "too old" and getting evicted from the faerie realm in her "Wayward Children" series. Two books have been published, with the third, BENEATH THE SUGAR SKY, forthcoming in January 2018. McGuire explores the anguish of this kind of exile as well as hinting at the dysfunctional backgrounds that may lead some children to prefer other worlds over this one in the first place.
What happens to children who fall down rabbit holes, step through wardrobes or mirrors, or otherwise travel through portals to alternate worlds, after they come back to mundane existence? How do they handle the trauma of never being allowed to return to their true “homes”? In EVERY HEART A DOORWAY, McGuire answers these questions. Miss Eleanor West, once just such a child, runs a boarding school for others like herself. The children's parents think it’s a school for emotionally and mentally troubled youth, where the teen inmates will get “cured” of their “delusions”; the students, however, learn the truth as soon as they arrive. Here, they don’t have to hide their true selves. Each one fervently hopes to find a doorway to the place he or she was exiled from, a desire that has hardly ever been fulfilled. Nancy, who cultivates stillness and wears only white and black, spent years in the Halls of the Dead. Her new roommate, Sumi, spent her time away from Earth in a Nonsense world. Miss Eleanor and her colleagues have developed a system of classifying such realms along four main axes, Nonsense, Logic, Wicked, and Virtue. Other residents (comprising many more girls than boys) include Lundy, a backward-aging woman in an eight-year-old body; Kade, a transgender boy, Miss Eleanor’s probable heir, who runs a wardrobe exchange in the attic; Jack and Jill, female identical twins who have lived in a world similar to a Hammer horror movie setting, Jill as bride of a vampire lord, Jack as apprentice to a mad scientist; and Christopher, who spent time in a realm of animated skeletons and retains the gift of playing music to bones. When a murder occurs, most of their classmates naturally blame Jack. It proves to be only the first of three deaths, which Nancy joins with Kade, Jack, and Christopher to investigate. The glimpses of the realms the students visited convey a numinous impression that made me want to read more about those worlds.
The prequel, DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES, gratifies that wish by telling the backstory of twins Jacqueline (Jack) and Jillian (Jill). Their parents have no concept of what parenthood and children will be like. They want living dolls they can show off in order to fit in with their peers. Mrs. Wolcott expects a dainty, feminine, perfectly behaved girl. Mr. Wolcott has his heart set on a son. Jacqueline (whom their parents refuse to call Jack) gets molded into the frilly-dressed, obsessively dirt-averse daughter. Jill becomes a soccer-playing tomboy. At the age of twelve, exploring the attic, they discover a trunk that holds a downward staircase instead of old clothes and costume jewelry as expected. Descending, they emerge in the Gothic world of the Moors. They stumble upon the castle of the Master, a vampire who rules the adjacent village. There they also meet Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a converted windmill. Jack chooses to go with Dr. Bleak and become his apprentice, while the Master adopts Jill as his daughter. Their mundane roles reverse: Jill becomes a sheltered, spoiled princess in flowing gowns. Jack wears sturdy, practical clothes and learns hard work. Dr. Bleak truly cares for her, in his reserved way. Jill, eagerly waiting for her promised conversion into a vampire at age eighteen, remains the vampire’s cherished daughter only as long as she obeys the rules of the castle. She grows selfish and cruel. The sisters rarely see each other, and little remains of the love they once shared despite their differences. Readers of the previous novel know they’ll return to their mundane birthplace eventually. If we weren’t expecting that conclusion, the crisis that forces the girls out of the world they’ve come to regard as home would be almost too painful to read.
I haven't seen or read many films or books that confront the issue of how a character adjusts after returning, usually permanently, from a magical world. RETURN TO OZ begins with Dorothy in a mental institution, facing electroshock treatment, because of her insistence that the land of Oz was real; she escapes and returns, however, so she doesn't get permanently trapped in her mundane life. A similar danger faces Alice in the TV series ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND, and she also finds her way back to her magical realm. At the end of PETER PAN, Wendy seems happy with her choice to return home, grow up, and become a wife and mother. The cycle continues with her daughter and granddaughter, who enjoy adventures in Neverland until, they, too embrace adulthood. As for Peter himself, his immortality and eternal youth include an amoral view of the universe, a carelessness about life-and-death situations, and a "living in the present" attitude with a downside of defective long-term memory. (To adult Wendy's surprise, he has forgotten Tinker Bell.) This dark side of PETER PAN is seldom reflected in adaptations for children such as the Disney animated movie. These story elements illuminate the issue of fantasy as "escape." While a character may have good reasons to want to escape from this world, is that choice justified as a permanent solution? In "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien defends the function of "escape" by distinguishing between the flight of the deserter and the escape of the prisoner. When shut up in prison, isn't one justified in thinking about the outside world and seeking release if possible?
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt