In my first semester of my MFA program, I considered the ways that my protagonist, Agneta, might enter the world of the forest spirits and the mountain giants, who are her neighbors, in a sense. But how will she go from one “world” to another? I’ve been considering the means of such travel in other books, asking: How do characters move between worlds or realms in stories, and what forms do portals take? It turned out to be quite easy to identify a number of forms throughout literature.
They can be wardrobe, doors, and gates, such as in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; The Ten Thousand Doors of January; or the gate in Gallant. Sometimes it’s a matter of time travel and machinery, as in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In The Little Mermaid, Hans Chistian Andersen’s mermaid makes a sort of Faustian deal to become human, entering the world above the sea.
An act of nature transports Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, drugs are the vehicle in The House on the Strand by Daphne du Murier, and attempted suicide takes the protagonist in Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library to an in-between space where she’s able to step into the books containing different variations of her life to try to save her life. Death and a long journey feature in the legends of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as in the Norse myths as with Hel/Helvig.
Some other examples include dreams (Legends of the North Cascades), getting lost or happening upon a real but unknown or strange place on earth (“lost world” stories), a stone or amulet, and mental illnesses. Other stories involve guides, such as the ferry man in Once Upon a River, the boy who didn’t grow up in Peter Pan, or the Valkyries in Norse mythology who take the fallen to Valhalla.
In the case of The Hazel Wood, the characters look for the legendary place and are somehow allowed in by its inhabitants. Fantastical transport also shows up in internet lore as in the urban legends of the Back Rooms, a liminal space where people can supposedly become trapped if they “no-clip” reality.
To take the idea and expand it to reality with no fantastical elements, it could include characters transcending their stations in life, be it through a benefactor, marriage, or any other means. I think of Great Expectations as one excellent example, as well as a character getting hired to work at a remote and exclusive school with a dark secret (Madam by Phoebe Wynne).
What are some examples that come to mind for you?
Previous posts in the Writing the North series: A Reintroduction: Returning to Writing Fiction Giving Voice to Setting Linking Norse Mythology and Fairytales What if Skadi Stayed?