Of Doors and Thresholds, Magic and Stories and Change

Very, very mild spoilers for The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Starless Sea, and The Magicians.

I have been thinking a lot about doors and thresholds. We pass through them all the time, entering and exiting buildings and rooms without thought. Metaphorically, doors represent beginnings or endings or changes, and thresholds represent the in-between place before we make or retreat from a decision. Going in, going out, or refusing to do either provide rich symbolic fodder despite the banality of doors in our daily lives.

I have been thinking about doors and thresholds as a metaphor for human choice. We often talk about “the journey,” with choice represented by crossroads or forks, forests or other barriers, or simply the winding pathway that represents a human life. But we also use doorways in stories to describe that transition point from one state to another. A person was one place, whether outside or in, and then they decided (or decided not) to go through, to enter another place. You can be invited into or booted out of doorways, you can force your way in. Doorways represent change, which propels story while remaining inherently scary to most of us in real life.

I have been thinking a lot about doors and thresholds since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January. In this novel, set in the early twentieth century, Doors exist all over the earth that lead to other worlds. These worlds may be hideous or dangerous or beautiful or banal but we need them regardless. The Doors leak a bit, you see, they seep, and stories are the result. We need these fresh and alien possibilities to thrive but in the novel a villainous someone prefers order and control over the chaos of seepage and is finding and closing the Doors.

“Because there are ten thousand stories about ten thousand Doors, and we know then as well as we know our own names. They lead to Faerie, to Valhalla, Atlantis and Lemuria, Heaven and Hell, to all the directions a compass could never take you, to elsewhere. … ‘It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.'” — The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, a shadowy group has also tasked themselves with closing doors. These doors lead not to the mysterious Starless Sea, as one might expect, but to a Harbor, overseen by an irascible Keeper and a clowder of cats. The Harbor represents a bibliophiles dream, rooms and rooms full of books and other fantastic examples of stories, more than anyone could ever possibly read, plus a kitchen that sends up anything you’d like to eat, upon request. As with The Ten Thousand Doors of January, doorways represent the entry point to stories. However, the villains of The Starless Sea claim they close the doors in order to protect the Harbor and the Starless Sea from, we ultimately learn, the story ending as always stories must.

“We’re here to wander through other people’s stories, searching for our own.” — The Starless Sea

The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman also merges the wonder of stories with the “real world,” only in these texts the magical comes with all the pettiness, petulance, and selfishness of real human life. The first book in particular, The Magicians, resculpts two beloved YA fantasy series: Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Brakebills is like Hogwarts but for college students and Fillory is a magical realm from children’s fiction full of talking animals and earth-born kings and queens. Like The Starless Sea and The Ten Thousand Doors of January, The Magicians uses readers’ love of stories as its sandbox but submits that all worlds, magical or otherwise, are only as idyllic as those who imagine and people them, which is to say, they are messy, complicated, capable of both evil and nobility and bearing the scars of existence. Doorways in The Magicians (whether fancy gates or pools to other worlds) are used to keep people out, to exclude, and to control.

All three of these texts use doorways as metaphors for choice, for change, for propelling our story forward. As Quentin, the anti-hero of The Magicians says, “The danger would be going back, or staying still. The only way out was through. The past was ruins, but the present was still in play.” They also engage with the vitality of stories themselves, how much we need them to understand ourselves and our world. Even as Grossman takes a darker view than do Morgenstern and Harrow, all three lean into how stories shape us.

I have been thinking a lot about doors and thresholds as a symbol for how we are avoiding doing what needs to be done in terms of global warming and inequality and all sorts of things. It feels as we are collectively sitting at a threshold, unwilling to make the choice to go through the door because doing so means tumbling into change and the unknown. But we should be wary of lingering too long. As Harrow articulates in The Ten Thousand Doors of January, “Thresholds are dangerous places, neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt. You can’t fear the in-between.” To stand too long at a threshold, refusing to choose, is to court peril.

Nearly all fantasy relies on the quest, on the characters fighting and sacrificing for the greater good against insurmountable odds. This is true of Narnia and Middle Earth and Midworld and Earthsea and Svalbard and Hogwarts and even gritty, messy Westeros. The Magicians, The Starless Sea, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January do the same but they claim stories themselves are what propel us, that they are the talisman or world or ideal worth fighting for.

All three books also include a warning to not get lost in the stories, to not make stories into a simulacrum of life. Put another way, we should make stories into a door, a call to action and change, as opposed to stasis-making thresholds. And I appreciate these novels for that take because what we need now—more than ever and as much as we need any other tools—is imagination, the ability to create alternate realities and new possibilities. We need the courage to enter into awe and wonder and uncertainty.

Wheelhouse = Fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world; Literature that is aware of literature; Stories that explore ideas.

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