Portal Fantasy vs Immersive Fantasy

‘…there are essentially four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal. These categories are determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world. In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world, in the liminal fantasy the magic hovers in the corner of our eye, while the immersive fantasy allows us no escape.’ – Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), introduction.

I haven’t read Rhetorics of Fantasy yet – but I’m very much in love with Mendlesohn’s classification system and I’ve been using it in my head for a while. It’s so neat and tidy.

My preference, both as a reader and a writer, is for full-blown fantasy worlds, not for our world with some fantasy elements. As far as I’m concerned, the most interesting – or at least the most fun – of Mendlesohn’s categories are portal and immersive fantasy. Or, to give some examples, respectively Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to choose between portal and immersive; not only which one I like better, but which one is (for want of a better term) ‘better’ at creating a fantasy world. My favourite book of all time is Northern Lights, and immersive fantasy – I’d argue one of the greatest works of immersive fantasy. But its sequel, The Subtle Knife, is portal fantasy, and beautifully executed portal fantasy. The scene where Will first finds the portal to Cittagazze? Goosebumps, every time.

Yet The Subtle Knife is generally considered a weaker book than its predecessor; The Amber Spyglass, also a portal fantasy, is extremely divisive. I’m not sure if there’s a connection to be made between the apparent decline in quality and the (sub)genre shift. After all, the portal fantasy in both books is excellent; it’s everything else that’s the problem.

Portal fantasy is extremely popular in the YA bracket, allowing as it does for the lead character to be a pleasingly accessible ordinary teenager. It’s hard not to see it as childish. I think for a long time I thought of it as the ‘lesser’ approach to fantasy world-building, the easy way out for writers.

Then I tried to write a portal fantasy. And it is hard. It’s not hard to get in exposition and world-building, but hell if it isn’t harder to make it feel natural. I tip my hat to you, J.K. Rowling. I don’t know how you do it. I’d have given up on my portal fantasy by now were it not so alluring.

Because portal fantasy has an endless allure to it. As stylish as immersive fantasy is, give me a well-executed fantasy world and a reader avatar to view it through and I’ll be happy. But it’s sure as hell not the easy way out – so why do so many people write it?

I think the answer is that portal fantasy is, in fact, easier to write than immersive fantasy. It’s just harder to write well. Good portal fantasy is very hard to come by.

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