Monday 3 April 2017

Exploring Genres: Portal and Secondary World Fantasy

by Jeanette O'Hagan

This year, the cross posts between Christian Writers Downunder and Australasian Christian Writers are focussing on the subject of genre. In February, Iola Goulton gave a great overview of the importance of meeting genre expectations. Last month Adam Collings explored the subgenres of space opera and superhero within the science fiction genre. This month, I will be exploring portal fantasy and secondary world fantasy.

What is Fantasy

The fantasy genre covers a wide scope of different subgenres - from stories that include supernatural elements (like the Christmas ghosts in Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol), talking animals (The Wind in the Willows or Beatrix's Potters' Peter Rabbit), magic and/or mythological creatures such as unicorns, centaurs, mermaids or dragons. It may occur in the past (the 'once upon of time' of most fairy tales), in our present (urban fantasy and many paranormal stories) or occur in an alternate reality (Alice in Wonderland) or an entirely different world separate from our own (like Lewis' Narnia or Tolkien's Middle Earth).

Much of children's literature includes fantastical elements. And while fantasy can be escapist, it often uses analogy and metaphor to explore genuine issues in the real world in subtle and illuminating ways. Maybe because we know this is not the world we live in, we are more willing to explore those issues without the prejudices of our own world.

With the rise of modernism, fairy tales and the fantastical was falling out of favour for a more materialistic approach to literature, especially by the mid-20th century. Arguably, it was the influence of two Christian authors that rebooted the interest in fantasy - C S Lewis with his heart-warming Narnia series and J R R Tolkien with his iconic The Hobbit and its sequel The Lord of the Rings. It just so happens that Lewis wrote a portal fantasy, Tolkien a straight secondary world fantasy.

Portal Fantasy

Sky Bridge, water colour by Jeanette O'Hagan 2016
(inspired by Rachel Sutherland)

In portal fantasy, someone from our normal world stumbles upon a 'portal' or door to an alternate reality where fantastical beings, powers and objects exist.  A classic example of a portal fantasy is Alice in Wonderland - when Alice chases the white rabbit down the rabbit hole and finds herself in Wonderland (a place that defines the laws of logic) or The Wizard of Oz (in this case the tornado becomes the portal). Similarly, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie hides in a old wardrobe and finds herself in the land of Narnia.

Portal fantasy has been quite popular as it allows the reader to see the strange new world through the eyes of an ordinary person. Imagine Wonderland without Alice. Alice helps the reader discover this strange, contradictory world through her eyes, through her questions, through her confusion. In a way, J K Rowling uses this technique with Harry Potter, who has been brought up in the mundane world with no knowledge of the magical. Portal fantasy keeps a tenuous link between the fantasy world and our own. It is possible to travel between the worlds, and each world may effect and shape the other. The journey to the other world often becomes a journey of self-discovery and heroism.

Some limitations of portal fantasy can its focus on the traveller to the new world than the world itself, and its often linear plot (the hero's quest to return home, for instance, as with the movie version of The Wizard of Oz), but this certainly isn't always the case. For instance, in Anne Hamilton's Daystar, the plot is more complex.

More recent portal fantasy by Australasian Christian authors include Paula Vince's Quenarden series, Anne Hamilton's Merlin's Wood and her award-winning Daystar and also A Swirl of Purple of Jessica Scoullar. One could argue that US author Ted Dekker's The Circle series is portal fantasy (the portal being Thomas' transition between waking and sleeping).

Secondary World Fantasy

Strange Visions, water colour by Jeanette O'Hagan
(inspired by Rachel Sutherland)

In secondary world fantasy, the world is that is separate or other than our own. (In a way, portal fantasy is a subset of secondary world fantasy - but there is still that connection between the two realities.) Classic examples include Tolkien's Middle Earth (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings), Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, Emily Rodda's Deltora Quest or Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The secondary world may be very different to our own (for instance, Discworld) or it may have stronger parallels with our known reality (Tolkien's Middle Earth). Sometimes, it's easy to trace the correspondence between the real and imagined worlds. George R R Martin's Westeros has clear echoes of Eurasia, specifically Great Britain - a popular choice also seen in Patrick Carr's Cast of Stones and John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice.  The TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-on, The Legend of Kora echoes Asian cultures (Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan and Inuit).

Good alternative world fantasy makes a strong investment in world building, with many aspects covered (geographical, cultural, political, technological, metaphysical, historical, magical). Plots and themes are often complex and/or epic in scale. They usually blend the strange and astonishing with the familiar, so that the reader has something to relate to.  Perhaps more than any other genre, secondary world fantasy can whisk us away from the ordinary world into a world of wonders. The degree of magic and the tone (uplifting, heroic or cynical, dark or satirical) varies. Westeros is a very different place than Middle Earth.

Some readers can find secondary world fantasy confusing or overwhelming. Sometimes the investment in world building and plot leave characterisation wanting  - though this is obviously not always the case when one remembers Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, or  the narrative arcs of Ang and Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender.

Recent secondary world fantasy by Australasian Christian writers include The Firelight of Heaven by Lisbeth Klein, Brockwell the Brave by Jenny Woolsey, 'The Last Blood Moon' by Charis Joy Jackson,* 'Stone Bearer' by Kirsten Hart,* and my own fiction set in the world of Nardva such as Heart of the Mountain or Lakwi's Lament or 'Ruhanna's Flight'*.

* Found in Glimpses of Light anthology.

Not all fantasy contains epic battles, strange names or sword & sorcery. In fact, most people have read or watched fantasy, maybe without realising it (Peter Rabbit, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story etc). Fantasy (like historical fiction) is a genre in which the place of religion, faith, and the supranational is not usually questioned (though religion is not always presented positively). It also has a great capacity for symbolism, of inspiring the imagination. While I can understand that some people prefer realism (of sorts), I can't help but think they are missing out on something wonderful.

I take a more thorough look at fantasy here and here. This post has also been published on ACW.

Images: 1) Gate; 2) Sky Bridge & 3) Strange Visions © Jeanette O'Hagan 2017

Jeanette O’Hagan first started spinning tales in the world of Nardva at the age of eight or nine. She enjoys writing secondary world fiction, poetry, blogging and editing.

Her Nardvan stories span continents, time and cultures. They involve a mixture of courtly intrigue, adventure, romance and/or shapeshifters and magic users.
Recent publications include Heart of the Mountain: a short novella, The Herbalist's Daughter: a short story and Lakwi's Lament: a short story. Her other short stories and poems are published in a number of anthologies including Glimpses of Light, Another Time Another Place and Like a Girl. Jeanette is also writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series—a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements.

Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and a Master of Arts (Writing). She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

Find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on Amazon or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes . if you want to stay up-to-date with latest publications and developments, sign up to Jeanette O'Hagan Writes e-mail newsletter.  


  1. That's a fascinating post. For many years, I was certain I preferred portal fantasies, for the reasons you've mentioned. But I've been challenged to open my mind more toward the secondary world, and have been loving some of them. Either way, what a pleasure to immerse ourselves in such imaginary worlds.

    1. Thanks Paula. I like reading both but love writing in my own world. I think the closest I'v come to writing portal fantasy is Heart of the Mountain - as Zadeki is a stranger in an unfamiliar world. But then his world is unfamiliar to my reader too. I do understand that being plunged into a fantasy world 'in media res' can be confusing yet, if we go with the ride & not try to understand every small detail from the first, it can be exhilarating as well.

  2. Really enjoyed your post Jenny. I didn't know about the two types of fantasy so thank you for spelling it out for us. I loved your artwork too Jenny. How gifted you are! Great stuff! I've usually been hooked on real world stories more than fantasy but I can also understand the thrill of walking through imaginary lands. Thank you Jenny - you might make me a fantasy writer yet! :)

    1. Thanks Anusha - love to convert you to fantasy. Of course, there are a multitude of sub-genre's in fantasy but these two are my favourites. I'm thrilled you like my artwork. You might be interested to know that they were actually inspired by Rachel Sutherland's water colour sketches in Sri Lanka in 1993. I turned one upside down and suddenly saw a different world - come to think of it - maybe that's a metaphor for secondary world fantasy :)

  3. Thanks Jo'Anne. Some many well loved stories include fantasy. I love that you are rediscovering the joy of reading it. Anne Hamilton's Daystar is a delight and the Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are classics. I have a big smile seeing Lakwi's Lament in your list. :) I hope you go on to have many more fantasy adventures :)

  4. Thanks for that overview Jenny. I'm reading a second-world fantasy right now :)

    I've always thought of science-fiction as being separate to fantasy, but going by your descriptions above, there's a lot of overlap. Tons of TV sci-fi shows and movies have portals to other worlds (e.g. wormholes in Stargate-SG1, Stargate Atlantis, and Sliders; and the Tradis in Dr Who). Others are set in different worlds, though maybe an extension of our current world (e.g. Sanctuary, Blade Runner). The Lunar Chronicles series probably also fits the second-world fantasy genre. So it appears I've been a fantasy fan without knowing it - LOL

    Thanks for a great post. Looking forward to seeing your epic fantasy series in print :)

    1. Thanks Nola. And yes, that's a great point. Sci-Fi can have portals and/or secondary worlds too. There can be a great deal of overlap - the difference being in how things are explained - whether by some science or science sounding mechanism - or by a non-scientific or magical or supernatural mechanism. Advanced science often looks magic to less advanced civilizations. Of course, hard science fiction keeps as close to natural known laws as possible.

  5. Great post Jenny. I love the artwork that you put into it. I also really appreciated your clear explanations about the differences in portal and secondary world fantasy. Isn't it amazing how fantasy creeps into stories that we are so familiar with and yet don't recognise the fantasy element. This is one I am going to re-read! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Linsey. Love that you appreciate my artwork - I hope some day to have a bit more time for dabbling. And yes, we often take for granted the fantasy elements in classic or popular tales. It's a great genre to write in.

  6. What a great distinction between portal fantasy and secondary world fantasy - I'd never considered this way of conceptualising it. Dare I say I found it a fantastic post? (Sorry!) Seriously Jeanette, I really enjoyed it and it's broadened my attitude to this genre.