The back of the wardrobe gives way, and you are in Narnia. You become a hero, but then you return to the real world forever changed. Literary portal fantasies are thrilling, but what happens when their aftermath is tragic? What happens when Fairyland rejects you? How do you cope with being in uncharted territory, having acquired a fantasy-land skill set that serves you poorly in the real world?
When COVID-19 hit, I was finishing out a tough semester, teaching full-time (aka four classes a semester) at a small liberal arts college. With the stress of moving all my courses online with little notice, and then learning that I would not have my contract renewed for the fall, I dove into novels on my Kindle. The books could be classified as escapist fantasy, but they resonated with my situation in uncanny ways, making me feel both better and worse about seeing my dream job, eight years after finishing my PhD and scrabbling for full-time work, vanish.
When I wasn’t on Zoom, or frantically revising assignments to reflect our new reality, I read. I had my Kindle with me at meals, while sitting on my front porch, at my bedside. The books I read the most fervently were The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, Come Tumbling Down from the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire, and The Folk of the Air trilogy by Holly Black (spoilers for all will ensue). And the thing that gets me is…I’m a folklorist. I study fairy tales. I’m the intended audience for stories about stories, for plots structured like fairy tales with characters from myth and legend. Do I like this stuff? No shit. But these particular stories got me, and they got me good, and I think I know why.
What these works all share is worldbuilding that points us towards something special and rare: the Goblin Market, the mysterious Moors, a Faerie land, a magical library full of all the world’s stories. We see humans enter, transgress, be barred forever (or not). We see the human characters make choices, choices that have consequences, consequences that haunt them forever. For a spell to work, a sacrifice must be made. For one door to open, another must close.
McGuire’s Wayward Children series is about kids who find their doorways to Narnia or the Goblin Market or other fantastic worlds, and who are ejected, returning to our world totally maladjusted. One child who survived her trial and grew old established a boarding school for these kids, which is where the books in the series take place. In Come Tumbling Down, McGuire returns with readers to the Moors, a world where mad scientists, vampires, and wolves prowl moonlit and stormy nights, vying for power. It sounds horrifying, but the Moors were also beautiful with a “wistful wildness,” and when twin sisters Jack and Jill fell into the Moors as children, the “world they’d found on the other side of their door had made monsters of them both.” As someone who spent the bulk of my life in academia—in libraries more than labs, lost in texts rather than taxidermies—I recognized something of myself in the sisters who opened a door to a world that molded them into frightful people who pursued knowledge at the cost of all else.
In Come Tumbling Down, Jack returns to the boarding school on Earth for help because her sister Jill and her vampire overload have conspired to steal Jack’s happily ever after. Before this crisis, Jill thought she’d come home forever: “…working together beneath the biggest, most glorious thunderstorm I’d ever seen, and it was paradise, it was everything the Moon could possibly have promised me, and it was mine. It was my happily ever after.” With nowhere else to turn, Jack opens a lightning door to the boarding school in true mad scientist fashion and recruits her classmates—a temporarily bipedal mermaid, the crown prince of a goblin kingdom, and a candy construct brought back to life—to help. It sounds ridiculous, but the rejects of different fantasylands band together to help Jack by opening a lightning door into the Moors and waging a war against the vampire lord holding Jack’s happily ever after hostage. Diving through a portal (a la Narnia) and going on a quest with unlikely heroes (as in The Lord of the Rings) works in this novel because it’s always worked: it’s a satisfying plot structure, to see an odd group assemble and succeed. The fact that McGuire’s fantasyland reject crew includes queer kids, kids who aren’t white, kids who tangle with the monstrous…that made the book resonate with me even more. Jack wins her happily ever after in the end, while her friends return to the boarding school, each still yearning for their own door back home. I’m yearning, too, after being locked out of the door I’d wanted most—my career. I was grateful to see one happy ending, even as the rest of the cast was left still in limbo, still waiting for a door to take them each home.
Other doors to Fairyland are even less hospitable. If the children in McGuire’s fantasy world are rejected from their adopted homes, the children in Black’s world are outright threatened by it. Black’s vision of Faerie is hostile if not deadly to humans; they are conscripted as servants, fed faerie fruit that loosens their inhibitions, and worked to death without a second thought. In the first book of Black’s series, The Cruel Prince, Jude and her twin sister Taryn—both human—are abducted into Faerie along with their half-sister, Vivienne. Vivienne’s Redcap father, Madoc, has come to Earth to kill their errant mother, and feels obligated to take the human children while claiming his heir Vivienne. As humans in Faerie, Jude and Taryne are vulnerable to its charms, and constantly fight to withstand the bullying from Fae nobility while not drowning in the eddies of their political intrigues. By the third book of the series, The Queen of Nothing, Jude has made a bid for power, aligning herself with the eponymous cruel prince, now High King, Cardan. He, in turn, exiles her from Faerie on pain of death.
Jude is torn. Though she biologically belongs among humans, her heart is swept up in the magic of her adopted home: “As a child, I imagined returning to the mortal world…I dreamed of iced tea, reconstituted from powder, and orange juice popsicles. I longed for mundane things: the smell of hot asphalt, the swag of wires between streetlights, the jingles of commercials. Now, stuck in the mortal world for good, I miss Faerieland with a raw intensity…I feel as though I am dreaming away my days, restless, never fully awake.” (Wow, does a better description exist for those of us laying around during a stretch of pandemic employment?) Her return happens due to a combination of chance and prior initiative: in earlier books, she’d become a prince’s spy and acquired the ability to resist glamours or spells. Her twin sister, still living in Faerie, shows up asking Jude to take her place in an interrogation. Of course, nothing goes as planned, but Jude wrests her life in Faerie back, cunningly (and sometimes stupidly) rushing into danger so that her banishment will be lifted. Jude’s exile was temporary, but it also tempered her, instructing her in what she truly loved and teaching her how far she would go to return to her adoptive home. Like Jack in Come Tumbling Down, Jude became even more brutal in her quest for home…and it worked.
Unlike Black’s and McGuire’s worlds, Morgenstern’s novel does not bifurcate its realities between this world and a fantasy land (much). In The Starless Sea, we meet acolytes, keepers, and guardians of a subterranean, mysterious, library-to-end-all-libraries, and we get snippets of invented folktales and myths about imprisoned pirates who woo their captors, sculptors who get their hands cut off for treason, and moon maidens who marry innkeepers. We also follow a graduate student studying narrative game design who gets wrapped up in all this, who belatedly finds his door there and falls in love with a man who becomes both his rescuer and his betrayer.
The nested narratives of The Starless Sea—what folklorists would call a frame tale, which we also see in action in The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights (and, for that matter, The Neverending Story and How I Met Your Mother)—create a sense of unreality, of uncertainty. After all, even the most reliable narrator might have their own reasons for changing the stories-inside-stories a bit. But frame tales also allow for a more complex kind of storytelling, a way of drawing parallels without being too on-the-nose about it. Grad student Zachary in The Starless Sea is not exactly retracing the footsteps of other characters in the books who lived centuries before him in another metaphysical plane of existence, but when he decides to rescue a mysterious masked man, we see echoes of the courtship of the Moon and the innkeeper, and of Time and Fate, and of the pirate and one of his captors. But the overlapping of these narratives, the way they interlace in the novel without explicitly happening in the same time line, makes them echo and refract one another in meaningful ways. Zachary’s decision to research a one-of-a-kind book takes him to an outpost of a sacred library, though this occurs alongside others’ decisions, setting events into motion that would reverberate through other storylines. In tried-and-true fashion, Zachary goes on a quest to learn more and set things right, but even then, he begins to doubt his sanity: “This is a story…This is a story that I’m telling myself,” he whispers, trying to evade a trap that has been set for him. Zachary sees his quest through, retrieving bits of story throughout, for which Fate thanks him: “You can’t end a story when parts of it are still running around lost in time.”
Unlike in the previous works under discussion, there is not a clear villain in this book. Everyone makes choices that have consequences, sometimes harmful—yet injustice simply occurs sometimes, as in the real world. One character, Allegra, has left the library and created a secret society in our world meant to keep humans from these mystical libraries, for fear of what greed and destruction will wreak, but even she is a sympathetic character. Who doesn’t want to protect libraries, especially special ones? I, too, feel protective of all the knowledge I acquired during my time in academia, and uncertain of how to proceed using it well—or at all. Reading these books made me think of the contractual nature of academia, how it purports to be a meritocracy where we maintain balance by promoting and paying those who do good research and publish widely…but of course, that’s not how the real world works, so perhaps I found comfort in these narrative constructs that emphasized balance, accountability, and contractuality.
For all that the Moors are terrifying, they have a natural balance to them. For every vampire Master ruling a town, there has to be a mad scientist in a tower to keep the peace. Yet none of the solutions were perfect; more often than not, characters were left scarred, with nightmare fodder lodged in them, and perhaps that felt realer to me than the promise of balance and justice. In Come Tumbling Down, one of the boarding school kids, Cora (who’d gone to an undersea world and returned to ours, ungainly on two feet), is snatched by the eldritch Drowned Gods of the Moor. Jack plans an excursion to ask for her back, “or, if they refuse, I want their help in setting things right.” The acolytes of the Drowned Gods help Jack storm the vampire master’s castle, and Cora is returned…if not unharmed, unscathed. Knowing how to manipulate the natural balance of the Moors helps Jack win in the end, but the accruing cost of these actions leaves Cora with a disconcerting rainbow sheen in her eyes, and memories of being abducted into an ocean that is not her own, that is colder, older, scarier. Other magical worlds are also bound by balancing forces; Jude learns early on in Faerie to extract specific verbal promises from the Fae, since they cannot break their word, nor lie. Zachary pays the ultimate price—death—but is resurrected because Fate’s missing heart was sent to him, to be put inside him, as a way to rebalance the scales.
I thought I had found my happily ever after: being employed full-time as a teacher, in subject matter I was trained for and among colleagues who valued me. When the doors to my fairyland crashed shut, I had to pick up the pieces somehow. I read about Jack’s grim determination to salvage her fairyland, by storming the Moors with her freaky boarding school friends and being willing to go so far as to shed her own heart’s blood. I followed Jude as she was raised in Faerie, kicked out by the object of her machinations, and schemed and brutalized and bled her way back in. I rode along with Zachary as he descended into madness and honeyed seas and faced death, but still emerged with his true love and a new configuration of the vaunted library. Whether they were children, young adults, or adults, these characters showed me that trauma (in our world or fairyland) inevitably fucks you up, but there is always a way forward.
It might be fueled by spite (as with Jack and with Jude) or relentless, stubborn curiosity (as with Zachary). It might not look like what you thought Fairyland was when you first imagined it; it might be more brutal, it might cut out your tongue or your heart. But when Fairyland kicks you out, there is still a you, and there is a life after for you, one that you can claw or bite or mad-science or scheme your way to, eventually. With my life in shambles, I need this message right now. Maybe you do, too.