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Lev Grossman lists his 5 favorite magic portals in fantasy fiction

Illustration for article titled Lev Grossman lists his 5 favorite magic portals in fantasy fiction

With Reading List, The A.V. Club ask one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.


The reader: Lev Grossman had an instant hit on his hands with his 2009 fantasy novel The Magicians. In it, a troubled young man named Quentin Coldwater comes to find he’s a magician—and furthermore, that he’s able to cross over into Fillory, a magical, Narnia-like land that he thought only existed in a series of children’s books he loved as a kid. The story continues in 2011’s The Magician King as well as the final book in the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, which comes out August 5. It was also announced last month that Syfy has ordered a pilot for an adaptation of the series. When The A.V. Club asked Grossman for a Reading List, he picked out his five favorite magic portals between worlds in fantasy fiction, a subject near and dear to both his heart and his work.

The Subtle Knife in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

Lev Grossman: That’s just a piece of genius. It feels so utterly real. It’s a great setpiece, the first time they use the Subtle Knife. They go through this whole sequence of feeling around in the air for this seam. I think Pullman compares it to picking at a seam in a piece of clothing. And then he finds the point, and he makes the cut, and reality sort of falls open. You can see through to a new reality. Pullman is a writer of perfect things, and that’s one of them. Every fantasy writer at some point gets called upon to get his characters from one dimension to the other, and you have to sit down and rack your brain about how they’re going to get there. I realized only after the fact that I borrowed from Pullman a bit when I gave someone a key to poke into the air, to find a lock. Then they turn the key, and a door appears. It’s that same action, of searching for the tip of something. I stole that from Pullman. But it’s too late. He can’t have it back.


The A.V. Club: Why are you drawn to writing about worlds with these kinds of portals, as compared to, say, George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire, which exists in its own self-contained reality?

LG: There’s an appeal to those portals, and it’s always been extremely primal to me. Even when I was 8 and read The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe for the first time, it hit me like a truck. Of course this can’t possibly be all there is. There has to be some alternative to this world that’s all around me. If I could just look in the right direction, I could see it. There’s something so seductive about that idea, and I knew I had to write about it at some point. I remember reading [the first book in] A Song Of Ice And Fire in the ’90s and thinking, Martin has remade epic fantasy completely. He’s taken the Tolkien tradition and transformed it. Nobody had done that for the C.S. Lewis tradition, which has always had more of an air of middle-grade fiction about it. Could you take that idea of the portal fantasy and drag it into adulthood? What would it look like? That’s where The Magicians came from, trying to reengineer that subgenre for adults.

The magic rings in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew


LG: C.S. Lewis is the all-time untouchable champion of interdimensional travel. Just to show off what a genius he was, he never did it the same way twice. One way he does it with these magic rings, these yellow and green rings. It’s an extremely intricate mechanism that takes you to this in-between world, The Wood Between The Worlds, from which you can then proceed to your final destination. One of my original thoughts when I wrote The Magicians was to build on that. In Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, they wind up burying the magic rings. I thought, surely 75 years from then, someone’s going to dig up that yard with a backhoe. These rings are going to come to light again, and they’ll, you know, circulate on the black market. I ended up using a button instead of rings, but it’s fairly clear that Lewis’ rings are what I had in mind.

Those rings are really marvelously magical objects. They—he described them—they were almost like hard candy. I always imagined them as kind of lickable. I don’t know if that’s how he thought of them, but that’s how I thought of them. I also thought, what an enormous potential for abuse those rings had. I felt conscious that he had to get rid of them by burying them. Unlike, for example, the painting in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, which is clearly a one-off portal, the rings are a much more mechanical means of getting between worlds. With those rings, you could presumably get to Narnia whenever you wanted to. You don’t have to wait for the summons from Aslan. You can just sort of nip over whenever the urge struck you, which is no good for the basic storytelling mechanics of the Narnia books. The rings kind of break Narnia, which is why I see he had to get rid of them. The rings are also a rare example of Narnia having actual magical objects. Lewis didn’t like magicians. If you’re going to have magic powers, mostly you’re going to be Aslan. But in this case, he obviously couldn’t help himself.


In an early draft of The Magicians, I’d actually set a scene in The Woods Between The Worlds. I figured since it was a setting and not a character, there wouldn’t be any copyright issues involved. I was surprised at how vehemently my publisher’s copyright lawyers disagreed with me. [Laughs.] I was forced to rewrite it. But on my hard drive there were lots of descriptions of the characters from my books hanging out in Lewis’ The Woods Between The Worlds. I was at pains to point out during legal hearings that Lewis had himself swiped the idea from somebody else. There was a book [by William Morris] called The Wood Beyond The World, which Lewis clearly repurposed for Narnia. But that argument cut no ice with the lawyers, I’m afraid.

AVC: Out of all of Lewis’ portals to Narnia, why didn’t you choose the big one: the wardrobe?


LG: Yeah, why didn’t I? The rings are such a great example of where Lewis’ imagination runs away with him. He winds up breaking the rules of the world-building that he’s done. When supernatural things happen in Narnia, they tend to be miracles. They’re one-offs, and they come to you unbidden, if you’re worthy. Magic is a completely different thing than miracles. Magic is mechanical. It’s repeatable. It’s like a tool or technology. As soon as Lewis let a little bit of magic in, I think he must have realized how totally those rings would have remade the world he was building. It’s like putting in bypass that goes straight to Narnia. He immediately had to cover his tracks.

AVC: It also ties into Lewis’ faith. If you have magic talismans that allow people to ritually summon supernatural powers to use as they want, that can be slightly problematic in Christianity.


LG: Definitely. Maybe that’s why the Christianity of the Narnia books doesn’t bother me. It’s fascinating to watching Lewis the Christian at war with his pagan subconscious. That tension goes all the way through the books, and it’s a lot of fun.

The tollbooth in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth

LG: Norton Juster got it so right. This kid, Milo, gets a present. Then there’s this whole bizarre sequence where he assembles the tollbooth that’s in the box and drives through it with his toy car, which I very much envied him for as a child. There’s all this other wonderful window dressing that goes along with it. He gets this beautiful map, drawn by Jules Feiffer, which I also always wanted a copy of. I met Feiffer recently, and I didn’t ask him about the map from The Phantom Tollbooth. I thought he might say, “That was 50 years ago. I don’t want to talk about it.” But now, I regret it.


And there’s all the other stuff, too. There are these coins that Milo gets to put in the slot at the tollbooth. It’s sort of arbitrary why there’s a tollbooth. There’s no particular reason that it had to be there. But it becomes this magnificent ritual of border crossing, which has this incredible romance to it. There’s a moment in my books where the characters are in a pub in Fillory, and they buy some beer. They pay with gold, but they get these strange coins as their change. I wanted to figure out some way to make those coins be the same ones that Milo had in The Phantom Tollbooth. I couldn’t make it work. In my mind, though, they were the same coins.

The rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland


LG: I had to put it on the list. All other portals come out of that portal. What I love most about it are all the things that don’t need to be there in that hole, all the strange bric-a-brac and furniture Alice passes on her way down. It’s the kind of thing that you read right past, but later you find yourself thinking, whose were those? Whose books were those that were on the shelves? Who came by and put them there? Who reads them? Of course you never know. But it gives you this amazing sense that there’s a whole ecosystem of Wonderland that Alice only ever sees a small part of. It’s this perfect dream-logic that Carroll is following.

AVC: You’ve mentioned that some of your favorite portals are intricate, involved mechanisms. But even with all the detail Lewis uses to describe the rabbit hole, it’s basically just that: a hole you fall down.


LG: And the fact that you fall down it rather than climb down or just blithely step through. It’s a sense of total abandon, which becomes a metaphor for reading a book. You have that same sense when you really get wrapped up in a novel. You’ve fallen into it. While Carroll was writing that, he must have been thinking that on some level, how he wanted people to feel when they were reading it.

Corwin’s ability to pass between worlds in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles Of Amber


LG: I feel these books are slightly neglected or out of fashion now. They’re great. The last time I can remember reading The Chronicles Of Amber was when I was living in this horrible slacker house when I was in my early 20s. I’d just finished one of the books, and I needed the next one—I think it was The Courts Of Chaos, which isn’t even really that good—but I couldn’t afford to buy it. I was getting them from the public library. I remember walking through this blizzard for an hour, which took that long even though it was only half a mile away, and of course the library was closed. At the time, there seemed to be nothing as important in the world as getting the next Amber novel. It’s a shame that Corwin kind of talks in this hardboiled, ’60s slang, though, which is unintentionally funny. The constructs and artifacts that Zelazny came up with are so weird. I find them really irresistible. Do you remember the city that’s a reflection in the water next to Amber? Rebma?

AVC: Right, Amber spelled backward.

LG: Yeah. It’s weird and watery, and Corwin goes there, and I think he gets laid there. There’s some kind of sexual moment. [Laughs.] It’s so good. I would give my whole career to once come up with something that perfect. Of course, everyone will see that I stole Zelazny’s idea when I wrote The Magician’s Land. There’s an echo of an echo of an echo of Rebma. But his Rebma will always be the true Rebma.


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