SPECIAL FEATURE Magical portals – The Evolution From Real-world Conflict to Empathy and Empowerment


In her second feature about magic in children's stories, Kate Walker takes a look into secret portals. Since Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s novel, published in 1865, there have been evermore fantastical places to explore. But where do fantasy portals stem from and why are these stories important?


A Magical World

Being transported from the mundane to the extraordinary is the ultimate escapism. In portal stories, it’s often the small, or ordinary person who makes a big difference. They are chosen or discover somewhere magical where they must use their wits and bravery to prevail against the oppressor. The underdog winning is something our island has prided itself on. Portals are not unique to British fiction, but our iconic children’s books have inspired generations. This type of story offers all children the potential to flourish into someone amazing, regardless of their origin. Although we have a long history of magic and folklore, the portal fantasy is influenced by Christianity, plucky explorers of the British Empire and lessons from winning two world wars against the odds. From this history of bloodshed, these stories shine an empathetic light on those who are different. Current portal stories challenge the status quo and seek compassionate change.


Escape from Dreariness

The Magic Far Away Tree by Enid Blyton in 1943 and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950 are books that offered an escape from bombed-out Britain’s ration books and home-spun clothes. Both deliver an exciting place of magic and possibility accessed from everyday places. These imaginative worlds offer freedom, but with responsibility to stand up for what’s right.


Empathy Samaritans

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has parallels with Britain’s struggles to defeat a significantly stronger enemy. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg shockingly swept across Europe to take Paris within six weeks, like the witch’s ever-winter, yet it explores empathy. The distance from our reality allows readers to view people who are different with greater compassion. In Narnia, many types of creatures unite to fight for freedom, mirroring the Allies in the war. However, its biblical themes are clear, particularly ‘The Good Samaritan’.


The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery uses Blitz Britain and the concept of helping others, but in contrast to Narnia, the portal brings magical characters into our world. The juxtaposition of a British child and a German Jew rescued by the Kindertransport, both grieving the loss of their different ways of life, demonstrates how people can unite for a common goal and gain friendship.


Walk in the Shoes of Another

Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend further challenges the concept of nationality and belonging. Morrigan Crow is tainted by otherness as she flees her world as a refugee into Nevermoor. This is an interesting way to convey the uncomfortable feeling of being the outsider. Being set in a magical land creates the freedom to show an ugly truth that blights our current political climate. Morrigan is even visited by officials who want to expel her as an illegal immigrant and send her back home, where she’ll be killed! This allows children to ‘walk in another’s shoes’.


Helping Others Can Fix Your Woes Too

This concept prevails in The House at the Edge of Magic by Amy Sparks. Nine is transported through a portal disguised as an ornament into a magical, sprawling house. As Nine is drawn to the vulnerability of Eric the Troll she takes on the plight of house’s inhabitants to change their fate and her own, creating a better life for everyone.



This idea is flipped in The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike. Rayne leaves her quiet village when she accidently breaks the magic, damaging her community. She doesn’t realise that her world is the secret place beyond the portal, the place that keeps the scary other world out. This exploration of leaving home highlights how she took what her mum sacrificed to protect her for granted and how important home is.


Hope of Escape

But not all children have caring parents. Portal fantasies offer hope to children, especially those who need to escape their lives. Footballer, Ian Wright recently made a BBC documentary about his abusive childhood. He wished there would be a knock on the door and he would be whisked away to a kinder family. This ties into the notion of being taken by fairies or by Hagrid to Hogwarts. Everyone dreams of better, and portals offer that, crucial for children who are struggling with things they can’t control in their lives.


The idea of a secret entry point into another world is really exciting! A magical interruption into humdrum life. The quest starts in ‘normal’ for those special enough to see it, and we all want to be special.


Alternative Outcomes

The ultimate in other worlds has to be the concept of Philip Pulman’s The Subtle Knife, literally cutting into alternative realities separated by gossamer threads. To discover infinite Oxfords with no two the same, filled with Daemons, treachery and adventure. This is Narnia and Through the Looking Glass taken up a notch, blended with science but no less magical. It allows children to think about how they could do-over situations and how they would live in another Oxford, which is how dreams train our sleeping brains, ready for real-life.


Who To Trust?

Portal fantasies explore and question who can be trusted, from the duplicitous Mr. Tumnus to the conniving Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman and your own mother in Lyra’s case with Mrs. Coulter.



Jim Henson’s iconic film, Labyrinth is also crammed with trickery and misdirection. The Labyrinth incorporates the stories from Sarah’s childhood, making them perilous to navigate and forces her to take responsibility for the baby she resents and save him from the Goblin King – David Bowie in tights!


Slaying Monsters

In each world the protagonist must defeat the monster, like George slaying the dragon. Whether that’s the Magisterium, the volatile Queen of Hearts or an actual fire-breathing beast. These stories offer children the chance to win against the odds; transporting imaginations to a safe space to show that compassion and bravery should prevail. They provide children a path through our challenging world into the ultimate portal of adulthood which children must eventually travel though.


You can read the first part of Kate's magic series The Evolution of Witches and Wizards in Stories here.



Kate Walker writes, middle grade, picture and chapter books. She lives in Sussex with her family. She loves growing too many plants and stories, although her children grow far to quickly!

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.