EHR 3600: The Portal Quest Fantasy

I begin this blog on an eve of great anxiety. For one thing, I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow that’s a long time coming and I’m uncertain what the verdict on my health will be, or whether there will be more needles involved. More pressingly perhaps, I just purchased a pair of white leather Adidas sneakers though I know fully well that I am neither cool nor stylish enough to pull them off. But alas I have committed, and now have to live up to the levels of style I have prescribed for my large and often chronically aching feet.  

It might have come to your attention that I do not have what one would call a particularly functional body. Headaches, flat feet that have led to bouts of debilitating tendonitis, insomnia, just a truly shit immune system, and not to mention my weird too-flexible double joints that will likely give me arthritis now that I’ve reached the dusty old age of 24.

I comfort myself by saying the parts of my brain that should be dedicated to keeping me from being a chronic dumbass are mostly taken up with a constant weighing of known triggers versus the levels of pain or discomfort I am willing to bear at any given moment.  The really fun one recently is that the light in our apartment is triggering all sorts of migrainey-ocular episodes so apparently I should just not LIVE in my APARTMENT where I LIVE. When I finally give up and retreat to the darkness of my room and a cold compress, the cat comes to sniff at my lips, checking to see if I am still breathing, or if he can, in fact, finally eat me.  

I bring this up because it’s on my mind and that is unfortunately part of what you signed up for by clicking this link, but also because escape from body had been a particularly appealing idea to me these last few weeks. I have been drowning thoughts of The Appointment in whatever my live-in Netflix Oracle Emily Juchau could fit into my greedy and aching hands. Recommended: Sex Education, The Umbrella Academy, The Good Place.

[This was as far as I got at my first pass at this blog, before I was taken down by a series of more extreme ailments. 1) an episode of facial nerve pain on an airplane to Austin, TX that was truly the most terrifying thing I’ve experienced in my life and as close as I have ever felt to death. The pain – or its phantom – lingered throughout my 5 days in Austin, 2) bronchitis, and 3) if you’ve been following EHR main you already know that I have mono, which has taken up residence in my spleen and made me a fatigue riddled goblin and twitter’s worst nightmare. You know mono, the disease that teenagers get, which I was led to believe I already had at age 8 even though people are only supposed to get mono once in their life. But anyway, kiddos, she’s back, typing as much as her (still, chronically, forever) aching hands allow.]

Escape is fantasy’s word, belongs to the genre through leash, collar, and adoption certificate. For those real theory-heads out there, we’ll talk about the Man, the Myth, the Legendarium himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, sometime when I have the energy and a copy of On Faerie Stories. To boil Tolkien’s discussion on escapism down real simple: so often fantasy is critiqued for being escapist in a flippant or immature way. We’re escaping from reality because we can’t deal with it. But as we all know, escaping from your reality is not always a bad thing, especially because with fantasy not only are you escaping from your reality, you are escaping to another reality, and it’s in this other reality where the really neat stuff starts to happen.

This idea of escape to is at the heart of the Portal Quest Fantasy, where a protagonist – as the category’s name might suggest – enters a fantasy world through a portal. The portal can be physical (like a wardrobe) or more metaphorical (like Sam going further from home than he’s ever been in Fellowship of the Ring). Specifically, the protagonist is going from the mundane world with which they are familiar, through a portal, into a fantasy world with which they are very much not familiar. That sense of unfamiliarity is a major driving force behind how the Portal Quest Fantasy works. It’s important to note that in the Portal Quest Fantasy, the portal does not “leak.” This means our characters can go through the portal to a magic world, but the magic of the fantasy world cannot go through the portal to the mundane world.

In Rhetorics of Fantasy Farah Mendelsohn writes:

“portal fantasies require that we learn from a point of entry…The language of the portal fantasy is often elaborate, but it is the elaboration of the anthropologist or the pre-Raphaelite painter, intensely descriptive and exploratory rather than assumptive…the need to describe and explain remains a driving force behind the narrative and language used” (2).

What Mendelsohn calls the “point of entry,” my Lord of the Rings professor would often call the Least Knowledgeable Character. Portal fantasies “require that we learn” and so often in these books we are learning with our protagonist. Think Harry Potter entering Hogwarts (via several portals but most obviously Platform 9 ¾.) We know nothing about the wizarding world and neither does Harry, which is convenient for storytelling.  As a genre, fantasy is particularly susceptible to the despised “information dump” as authors attempt to get us acclimated to this brand new world. In a portal fantasy such as Harry Potter, the information dump doesn’t feel as clunky as it does in immersive fantasies (the topic of the next theory blog).

Imagine rolling up to one of the early chapters of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and good old George sits us (and one of the teens – Jon, I guess? He’s a moron. Or maybe Daenerys…that actually fits as she’s probably our Least Knowledgeable Character at the beginning of GoT) down at a table and explains the intricate politics of Westeros and various house alliances.

We’d stamp that with a BAD INFO DUMP and doubtful Game of Thrones would be as popular as it is. With Harry Potter, though, we need Hagrid to sit Harry down in Diagon Alley and tell him about Voldemort killing his parents. We need people to explain to Harry about wands and moving pictures and the houses at Hogwarts. We need it because in a Portal Quest Fantasy we are aligned with our protagonist. As Mendelsohn puts it, “One way to envision this is that we ride alongside the protagonist, hearing only what s/he hears, seeing only what s/he sees; thus our protagonist (even if they are not the narrator) provides us with a guided tour of the landscapes” (2). In other words, we need someone to explain magic to Harry Potter, because otherwise it will not be explained at all. Harry, as Least Knowledgeable Character, cannot explain it to us himself. It needs to be spoken aloud – or read, or seen, or conveyed somehow – or neither Harry nor us will ever know.

In Portal Quest stories, then, we are very frequently told of the fantasy world’s history to help us get a sense of it. In the Rhetorics of Fantasy chapter on the Portal Quest, Mendelsohn brings up the interesting point that, “many of the “histories” we receive are oral retellings, which might alert the reader to unreliability” (32). Oral history and the unreliability thereof is a prominent feature of trauma literature, which I would love to dive into more deeply in another blog series. However, sticking with the Portal Quest, has it not become so common it is now a trope to hear a story at the beginning of a fantasy novel only to learn later it is not true, or there is more to the story ? Cough cough, the Dragon Reborn in Wheel of Time as both savior and breaker of the world, cough cough.

Mendelsohn says of Portal Quest, “the need to describe and explain remains a driving force behind the narrative and language used.” In terms of narrative we see the need for explanation play out as the “portal fantasies become more mysterious, rather than less” (Mendelsohn 2). There is always more to the story or a new faction introduced or something that allows our protagonist to remain less knowledgeable than ideal, so that world and the story can continue to be explained – or at least described. I find this more to the story, mystery aspect of Portal Quest Fantasy pretty exhausting, because I don’t always want another revelation after I’ve committed 300 or 400 or 900 pages to a story. I find the descriptive (aka language) aspects of Portal Quest Fantasy to be delightful.

To once again reiterate the quote far, far above, Mendelsohn writes, “The language of the portal fantasy is often elaborate, but it is the elaboration of the anthropologist or the pre-Raphaelite painter, intensely descriptive and exploratory rather than assumptive.” Through this intense and elaborate description, Portal Quests often take on a tone of wonder or awe, which is why – I think – we return to them so frequently. Think of Harry’s first time in the Great Hall, or playing Quidditch. Lucy when she walks through the wardrobe into Narnia for the first time. We seek that wonder in our everyday lives, and Portal Quest Fantasy serves it up to us on a shiny, self-cleaning platter.  

(I don’t actually currently possess a copy of either The Sorcerer’s Stone or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, making it impossible for me to pull quotes to demonstrate this tone of wonder. That makes this a bad essay, but hopefully a still somewhat decent blog.)

I’ve brought up the quintessential Portal Quest – Narnia – which creates a nice transition for saying that Portal Quest isn’t confined to stories that take a character from “our” world to a secondary fantasy world. Mendelsohn notes that much “quest fantasy” (which I think we could also think of as “high” or “epic” fantasy for the most part) fits better in this category than in another, such as immersive fantasy.

In these quest/high/epic fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time, our protagonists frequently move from their safe and peaceful lives where they might be aware of magic, but don’t usually deal with it, into direct contact with magic. Think of the Two Rivers gang in The Eye of the World. At the beginning of the series, Aes Sedai magic is mostly far away superstition to them, but within two books three of those characters are Channeling on a near daily basis. In short, a character moves from the mundane world into the fantastic world – which is the exact process of Portal Quest.

Or, as Mendelsohn more eloquently puts it:

“In the quest fantasy we see the world through this transitional narrative: for despite the assertion that this world has always existed, the technique remains identical to that of the portal fantasy and the effect on the language of the text is the same, forcing the author to describe and explain what is seen by the point of view character as s/he negotiates the world,” (3). 

BUT SALLY –  you’ve talked, like, way too much about how The Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings are immersive fantasies. SO WHICH IS IT? Both, neither, all of the above. What I find so interesting about these categories is the ways in which they overlap and interact. Game of Thrones also interacts and overlaps, making my above example not entirely accurate or fair. When we get through talking about all of these fantasy categories, I’ll do an analysis of some texts that utilize these features. Probably The Eye of the World (assuming we still have a copy. We use Wheel of Time books as part of our Patreon rewards so we usually have a fascinating collection of random WoT titles.)  

For now, I leave you with an additional, not entirely anchored thought. Mendelsohn also says of the Portal Quest that they “lead us gradually to the point where the protagonist knows his or her world well enough to change it and to enter into that world’s destiny” (3). She posits that this might have to do with the “mystery” aspect of Portal Quest, and the need for the world to become ever more mysterious. She says, “The reliance on destiny in so many portal fantasies may reflect the need to create rational explanation of irrational action without destroying this mystery,” (3). So destiny and prophecy can explain why characters end up in certain places, etc. without giving away The Plot Twist. However, thinking about this first quote, and the idea of a character learning a new and foreign world “well enough to change it and to enter into that world’s destiny,” makes me think of imperialization. I’m still stuck on Rand al’Thor as an unnecessary conqueror (we talk more about this in our recent Q&A episode), but I think also of the Narnia kids becoming kings and queens. No final thoughts on that, but it’s an interesting idea to mediate on. How frequently are Portal Quests accompanied by our once wide-eyed protagonist conquering lands that are not theirs? Let me know if you have thoughts.

Thanks for your patience on this very delayed blog. And thanks to my hands for making it through this.

Until next time,

Sally


Once again, this blog was made plausible by the existence of our Episode 1 transcript. So, if you liked it please consider going to ko-fi.com/everybodyhatesrand and sponsoring an episode transcript to enable EHR 3600 to continue!

Sources:

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

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