A portal is defined as a recognisable object or symbol which has the unexpected attribute of transporting a reader’s or viewer’s attention into a totally different framework. Examples include the TARDIS, Lewis’s wardrobe and Tolkien’s Ring. Examples also include works of fiction and works of art themselves, since a work of fiction or of art itself transports its audience (if it is successful).
By ‘framework’ is meant a set of references which amounts to a genre or world-view. There are four basic frameworks or genres: the most common is the Epic framework in which a mainly sane leading character progresses through a mainly sane world to an ordered and victorious end. A Tragic framework has a leading character go insane in a world that remains basically sane, while an Ironic framework has an insane leading character going through an insane world. Finally, in Comic frameworks we see a largely sane character moving through an insane world. In short, Tragedies and Epics are characterised by being set in a world where order triumphs; Ironies and Comedies take place in worlds where chaos triumphs as the norm (which is why a Comedy ends when, after a series of ridiculous mishaps, marriage and a final return to order takes place).
It is not difficult to see that within each genre a sub-framework exists representing one of the other frameworks or genres. The friction between the ‘master framework’ and the ‘sub-framework’ forms the background for the story. Thus in the Epic The Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s intention to create a dark, Ironic reality that undermines order in Middle-earth powers the whole plot; conversely, in most detective fiction, it is the detective himself who drags a chaotic world of crime and murder back into an ordered framework of light and justice.
Portals exist on the frontier between these frameworks. The wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a gateway from war-torn Britain to the magical land of Narnia; within the tale, Aslan is the portal standing on the edge of the Witch’s Ironic and endless Winter, leading to a life-giving Spring.
In Doctor Who, the TARDIS acts as a portal between one adventure and the next. The ‘different framework’ to which it takes its occupants (and the viewers) teeters between being another Ironic one or an Epic one, depending on the writer’s view of the world. In other words, sometimes a Doctor Who adventure finishes with order triumphant, and sometimes it gives us a bleaker view of the universe. In many cases, the Doctor’s time/space vehicle is the gateway.
In Tolkien, we are placed by the author into an Epic framework which is being challenged by Sauron’s Ironic one. The device of the Ring takes its wearers into the Ironic world and out of the Epic framework of his Middle-earth: when wearing it, users see the world of ‘shadow’, perceiving everything from a dark and Ironic point of view in which order and goodness fail. So, when Frodo puts on the Ring on the Hill of Amon Hen, for example, he sees not the wonderful Epic world of Middle-earth but a dimmed and corrupted version of it:
…everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes. Under the boughs of Mirkwood there was deadly strife of Elves and Men and fell beasts. The land of the Beornings was aflame; a cloud was over Moria; smoke rose on the borders of Lórien. Horsemen were galloping on the grass of Rohan; wolves poured from Isengard. From the havens of Harad ships of war put out to sea; and out of the East Men were moving endlessly: swordsmen, spearmen, bowmen upon horses, chariots of chieftains and laden wains. All the power of the Dark Lord was in motion.
Wherever there is a clear transition between one way of looking at the world and another, we can expect to find a portal of some kind.
Part of the characteristics of a portal is that it seems unassuming and ordinary. Its transportive quality is always unsuspected. This is because it must exist in two worlds: it must be a relatively mundane part of the world in which the viewer or reader exists, and it must also be a thing of power, part of the world into which the viewer or reader is to be taken. If it were too clearly visible as part of the world into which the viewer or reader is to be taken, it might be either too imposing or frightening a thing to be approached by the viewer or reader or invisible to the viewer or reader. Thus we would never expect a wardrobe, made to contain clothes, to open up onto a snowy wood; the last thing we would expect from a police telephone box, designed to confine and imprison, is a gateway to all of time and space; and a simple, beautiful golden ring surprisingly is a window onto total evil.
Works of fiction or works of art as portals must appear familiar enough or contain familiar elements at first in order to secure attention; then, at first with an initial surprise and then using various techniques, they engage emotional commitment and develop an inertia capable of transporting the viewer or reader.