Film still from The Chronicles of Narnia, showing the wardrobe

Narnian portals

Many fantasy novels feature portals, thresholds that allow characters to transition from one world to another. Professor Sally Bushell explores C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, focussing on the use of the door as a portal that allows children to enter Narnia.

It is not easy to cross from your world into this,’ said Malebron, ‘But there are places where they touch.’
(Alan Garner, Elidor)[1]

If we are willing to believe that there are such things as parallel universes, worlds that we can ‘cross’ between, then there must also be ‘places where they touch’: points of exit from one world and entry into the other one. Many works of children’s fantasy play with this idea, beginning in the real world, then entering a fantasy realm, before returning. This requires a portal – an in-between place, or threshold, that allows for the transition from one world to another. For this reason, this kind of fantasy is sometimes called a ‘portal-quest’.[2]

Doors as portals in children’s literature

All doors are portals of a kind. Even an everyday door is a threshold to be crossed, marking a boundary between inside and outside, or one space and another. We think we know what is behind it, but as long as it remains shut we cannot be absolutely sure. However, when an ordinary door is used as a portal to another world its very ordinariness makes it both powerful and disturbing. It is used in a straightforward way in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up after the cyclone and opens the front door:

She sprang from her bed and with Toto at her heels ran and opened the door. The little girl gave a cry of amazement and looked about her, her eyes growing bigger and bigger at the wonderful sights she saw.[3]

In The Wizard of Oz, opening the door reveals that the entire house has been transported into the fantasy realm. But the door can also be a portal in itself. In Alan Garner’s Elidor the boy Rowland is able to open a forbidden magical door in the hillside by imagining it as his own front door: ‘Roland opened his eyes, and he saw the frame of the porch stamped in the turf, ghostly on the black hill’ (p. 49). This then creates a link for the fantasy world back into his own by means of the same familiar front door of his home. As a result, back in his own world he becomes fearful of opening it: ‘And all this time Roland avoided using the front door. He felt that he could never trust the door to be the way into and out of the cottage’ (p. 113). Things reach an ugly climax when those trying to get in from another universe peer through it: ‘the upright letterbox in the top of the door was open, and pressed against it was an eye’ (p. 120). The familiar and ordinary becomes fearful when it stands as the sole barrier between you and a dangerous alien world.

Narnian doors and portals in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

In C S Lewis’s Narnia series, doors function as portals in a less threatening way but they also bear other meanings. The most famous door in Narnia – possibly the most famous door in 20th-century children’s literature – is the door of the wardrobe in which Lucy Pevensey hides during a game of hide-and-seek in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In this case, the entire piece of furniture is the portal as Lucy presses further and further into a wardrobe that no longer has a back and opens onto another world. When she hides, she leaves the door open. This is crucial in allowing her to remain in sight of the world she has come from, as well as the one she is entering: ‘She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree trunks she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out’.[4] When she returns later we are told that ‘she shut the wardrobe door tightly behind her’ (p. 14), as if to keep the secret safe. When she first tries to show this magical gateway to the other children, the wardrobe has reverted to an ordinary piece of furniture. The door of the wardrobe can be opened but the portal has temporarily closed, so that the others do not believe her.

Her brother Edmund’s first experience with the wardrobe is significantly different. Where Lucy sensibly left the door open as a guide, he rushes in and shuts it, with the result that he immediately becomes lost in the secure space:

Then he began feeling about for Lucy in the dark. He had expected to find her in a few seconds and was very surprised when he did not. He decided to open the door again and let in some light. But he could not find the door either. (p. 30)

When Edmund at last does see light, and heads towards it, he does so because he thinks he is going back into the room, but the wardrobe is tricking him:

‘Thank goodness,’ said Edmund. ‘The door must have swung open of its own accord.’ He forgot all about Lucy and went towards the light, which he thought was the open door of the wardrobe. But instead of finding himself stepping out into the spare room he found himself stepping out from the shadow of some thick dark fir trees... (p. 33)

So, it seems to matter how you pass through the door and for what reasons. Where Lucy entered the portal because she was drawn to the world itself, Edmund enters after Lucy and with potentially malicious intent. The wardrobe seems to be sensitive to the person who enters it, able to manipulate them and trick them if necessary.

Portals in The Magician’s Nephew

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) was the first Narnia book to be written and published. But The Magician’s Nephew, though published as the penultimate book of the series, is the first book in the series chronologically, set in an earlier historical time. The end of this book reveals how the wardrobe came to have its properties. The boy Digory brings an apple back from Narnia to heal his mother. He plants the core in England and it grows into a tree. When it blows down in a storm, ‘he had part of the timber made into a wardrobe, which he put in his big house in the country... That was the beginning of all the comings and goings between Narnia and our world’ (p. 171). The Narnian origins of the wood give it the power to draw others to the world from which it came. The Magician’s Nephew also reveals that Professor Kirke is in fact the Digory of the earlier book (explaining his remarkable adult openness to the possibility of parallel universes).

For the most part, though, the portal system for The Magician’s Nephew is different from the other books. Humans are able to move freely forward and back by using the magic rings and the Wood between the Worlds (an unlocated interim world-space). In other books, portals tend to be one-way only. Apart from the wardrobe – which initially allows the children multiple passages through to Narnia (though when they finally leave, it closes forever) – Lewis’s characters have no control over the portals. They are pulled to Narnia as needed, with or without their consent, and when they return to their world they cannot go back.

The final Narnian door of The Last Battle

The last book of the Narnia series (The Last Battle) is the darkest and most disturbing. It is an apocalyptic tale of the end of the first Narnia (and the death of the children in the real world, so that they can remain in the fantasy world forever). Unsurprisingly, then, the significant doorway portal here represents death (and ultimately rebirth). Throughout the book the building of a stable has been significant as a kind of anti-Christian monument that stands for how far Narnia has fallen. An ape dresses a donkey in a lion skin to create a false Aslan and hides him in the stable. This in turn brings into existence a real god of the pagan invaders of Narnia (the Calormene) – Tash – so that all who enter the stable door are destroyed. In an act of hopeless bravery, the last Narnian king, Tirian, grabs the leader of the enemy Calormene and leaps through the stable door. Once through it, however, he discovers an inside-out space: what appeared to be the door to a small stable from one side (in a corrupted and godless Narnia) is a large wooded glade from the other. Naturally, when Tirian first arrives he is confused: ‘he steadied himself, blinked and looked around. It was not dark in the Stable, as he had expected. He was in strong light’.[5]

Tirian finds himself in the purified and rejuvenated presence of all the human kings and queens ever to visit Narnia (themselves also now in an after-death state, since they have been killed in a train crash on earth). However, when he puts his eye to the keyhole (as he is doing in the illustration) he is still able to see night and bonfires and hear shouting, ‘So he knew that he was looking out through the Stable door into the darkness’ (p. 127). Lewis turns fear of death on its head. What seemed to be something to be avoided turns out to be entirely other than expected and full of joy.

In this case, however, experience of the afterlife remains subjective. The corrupted characters who have followed false gods, but been thrown through the stable doorway, continue to experience space and place as if they remain in that world. The dwarves sit in a circle behaving as if they are in pitch blackness. Tirian, enjoying the sunlit wood, says to them ‘Are you blind?’ and Diggle the dwarf replies ‘Ain’t we all blind in the dark?’ (p. 131). However hard they try, the children cannot open the dwarves’ eyes.

The Last Battle concludes the entire series with Aslan’s creation of a higher, purer world (‘Aslan’s Country’) into which all can enter. The Door (now capitalised) somehow allows all the creatures of the world to run up and through it: ‘either the Door had grown very much larger or the creatures had suddenly grown as small as gnats’ (p. 138). The creatures are sifted to left and right as they pass Aslan. They are either allowed to enter, cleansed and purified into the eternal kingdom, or ‘disappear[ing] into his huge black shadow’ (p. 140). The old Narnia is supplanted by the true Narnia in an idealist neo-Platonic model that only Professor Kirk fully understands (‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato’ [p. 154]).

The importance of the symbol of the door to Lewis

As well as writing children’s literature, C S Lewis was famous as a Christian convert. He wrote a series of books to help others come to faith. In the light of this, the Narnia series has been described as a ‘Christian allegory’. There are certainly many points at which Christian faith on earth is referenced or symbolically represented in Narnia and even Narnian doors are not immune from this symbolism. For example, in The Last Battle, Lucy makes an explicit link to Christianity: ‘In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than the whole world’ (p. 128). A key image in the Gospels is the idea of knocking on the door of faith: ‘And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you’ (Luke 11: 9). The symbol of the door is powerful because it stands as a barrier between the believer and God, but it also offers the possibility of passage from one state of being into another if we have faith enough to step through. So, little is required of us, but something is required. We must be willing to knock.

Lewis often uses exactly this image to try to convince his readers that turning to belief is extremely simple: ‘the door on which we have been knocking all our lives shall be open at last’.[6] His ‘allegory’ works in a similar way. When Professor Kirke advises Peter and Susan to believe Lucy’s account of the world through the wardrobe, Peter responds: ‘But do you really mean, sir, ... that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner, like that?’ (p. 49). This sceptical response is telling. For Lewis, the gap between non-belief and belief is transformative. There is a sense in which Christianity is a kind of ‘world’ actually held within our own – it is not simply metaphorical. If we make the choice to believe, Lewis maintains, then the world itself is transformed. Not only that, but there is nothing complex about it. All you have to do is choose to knock on the door (and believe that a new world awaits you on the other side).

Footnotes

[1] Alan Garner, Elidor, 1965, (London, Harpercollins, 2008), p. 58.

[2] See Farah Mendlesohn, ‘The Portal-Quest Fantasy’, in Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), pp. 1–58.

[3] L Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chapter 2 (Chicago: Geo. M. Hill Co., 1900).

[4] C S Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Puffin Books, 1975), p. 13.

[5] C S Lewis, The Last Battle (London: Puffin Books, 1975), p. 120.

[6] C S Lewis, The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’ Most Moving Addresses, first published as Transposition and Other Addresses (1949), (London: William Collins, 2013), p. 7.

Banner credit: Film still from THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, Georgie Henley, 2005, © Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection / Alamy.

  • Sally Bushell
  • Sally Bushell is Professor of Romantic and Victorian Literature at Lancaster University where she works on place, space and materiality of texts across the long 19th century. She has published widely on Wordsworth and other 19th century authors and texts. Her current research involves the reading of place and space in literature in a range of ways, through maps and through the digital medium. She is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Lyrical Ballads (2019) and author of a major study: Reading and Mapping: Spatialising the Text (2020).