Gate 4: Senior Field Agent


Assignment: Read “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire. When you have completed the reading, please prepare a ~3000 word response to the novel in which you describe how it relates to fairy tales, what you have already learned, etc. You may also consider where you fall in the axis suggested in the book.

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway was a great read! Honestly, it’s probably not something that I would have picked out to read on my own, as I typically avoid anything that might keep me up at night. Every Heart a Doorway definitely had a few tense, suspenseful sections – however, I’m very glad that I had the chance to read this story. Not only was it well-written with intriguing characters and an enthralling concept, but it was also reminiscent of the fairy tales we’ve been studying in our course.

I suppose that begs the obvious question: is Every Heart a Doorway a fairy tale? Of course, this simply brings up the old debate over what exactly is a fairy tale, anyway? I think that Every Heart a Doorway could be a fairy tale depending on how strictly you wanted to define fairy tales. Obviously it’s not a story for children – its content is quite dark at times and there’s some language in the book which is definitely not suitable for young kids. However, unless we adhere strictly to the Bettelheim side of the spectrum, this darkness should not preclude Every Heart a Doorway from being considered as a fairy tale. In fact, death and darkness are found in many classic fairy tales we’ve read. Some of the Grimm stories come to mind immediately.

Further, I think there is a parallel between Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid and the wayward children in Every Heart a Doorway. The little mermaid’s determination to get to the world that she wants to join is extreme, as are the lengths to which she is willing to go in order to live there. The wayward children in Every Heart a Doorway share a similar situation in their desire and desperation to rediscover their doors. Certainly, Every Heart a Doorway shares some story elements with fairy tales.

But even beyond that, I think there is good reason to consider Every Heart a Doorway to be a fairy tale. The portal worlds that exist within it are certainly magical, inexplicable, and varied. The universe that the story resides in is certainly one that we might expect to find in a fairy tale – and I think it’s also important to note that it isn’t just the portal worlds that contain traces of magic. The wayward children retain traces of the magic of their worlds even in the “real” world – Nancy’s stillness and Christopher’s flute are two examples that illustrate this particularly well.

However, although I think that Every Heart a Doorway has enough in common be grouped with the fairy tale stories, I’m not sure that the famous authors we’ve read would agree. Bettelheim’s writing emphasized the importance of fairy tales for children, and since this is decidedly not a children’s story I can’t really be certain whether Bettelheim would approve. Further, the characters in Every Heart a Doorway are by definition travelers – I wonder if this would disqualify the story from meeting Tolkien’s specifications, as I suppose it could be considered a travelers’ tale, in a way. However, that said, I also think that Every Heart a Doorway would strongly qualify under Tolkien’s definition of a fairy tale in that it has a “eucatastrophe” at the end. Even though there are some events in the middle of the story that are less than happy, I would consider the ending to be a happy one – and it certainly caught me by surprise. The ending of Every Heart a Doorway is actually a really good example of eucatastrophe in my opinion, with what seems like a set of coincidental circumstances leading to the ultimate resolution of the story.

Another element of Every Heart a Doorway that reminds me of fairy tales is the way that other story elements are incorporated. Fairy tales often share elements of other tales, or else retell older fairy tales or evolve out of their folk story roots. Every Heart a Doorway also borrows elements from other stories – the twins Jack and Jill are an obvious reference to the nursery rhyme, for example. I also really liked the variety of portal worlds that exist in the story – there’s a variety of different ways to represent fantasy and fairy tale worlds and I think that the mapping of the worlds onto directions really seems to encompass a lot of the different types of fantasies and fairy tales that I would tend to think of.

That said, Every Heart a Doorway is also unique and more forward-thinking than most fairy tales that we tend to come across. The story has a more diverse cast of characters than we would see in traditional fairy tales, which is refreshing and modern. But even more than that, I liked that this was a story where the heroes were a group of misfits. After all, it’s too often in fairy tales that the heroes are princes and princesses – anyone else is cast as a villain or a peasant. But Every Heart a Doorway does so much better than that, with a small group of misfits who end up doing good in spite of the expectations of those around them. It was really nice to see that those from wicked worlds and underworlds could still be the heroes, and I thought that this was a lovely message for the story to have. I always like protagonists who seem to find their voices and their strength throughout the story, too. I think Nancy was a great example of this, as she seemed uncertain and shaken upon arriving at the school at the start of the story, but more and more sure of herself as the story progressed. This is also a progression that we have seen in characters like Gerda from Kelly Link’s Travels with the Snow Queen and Lissar from Robin McKinley’s Deerskin. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether this type of character progression is something that see in all stories, or if perhaps it is more common around fairy tales. Regardless, it has been a common element in modern fairy-tale-esque stories and I find that I tend to enjoy it.

Perhaps even more than that – this story, and in particular this analysis, has helped me to realize just how much I enjoy fairy tales, and just how useful they have been for me through a very stressful semester. Fairy tales really are stories where we see the impossible be made possible, and it’s reminded me not to lose hope in my own endeavors. This semester in particular, I took a lot of upper level courses and also decided to join a collegiate sports team after five years of injury. I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of athletes who come back from that many years out, but I don’t know if I have. People told me it was impossible and it’s been difficult for me to stay positive. However, in fairy tales we find ourselves many characters who didn’t think they could achieve what they wanted to, or who nobody believed in. It’s been a really great experience for me to be around this type of mentality and story, even if I didn’t consciously realize it at the time.

I have also discovered through reading Every Heart a Doorway that I really enjoy Seanan McGuire’s works. I really liked Indexing, but I couldn’t tell if I just liked the book or if my appreciation for it was simply for McGuire’s style as a whole. After reading Every Heart a Doorway, I can confidently conclude that I really enjoy Seanan McGuire’s writing. I also like that both stories have aspects that tie in to our class – both Indexing and Every Heart a Doorway involve the power of the story itself. In Indexing, this power is very obvious and is very central to the concept of the book. Fairy tale stories have an entire government agency dedicated to managing them, so it’s safe to say that they’re very powerful. In Every Heart a Doorway, the story’s power is much more subtle but I think it still maintains a crucial element of the story. As an example, I really liked the following quote: “You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.” In Every Heart a Doorway, the story is less about subduing rogue narratives and more about crafting your own story so as to end up where you belong – it’s much less overt and much less showy, but the power that a story can hold remains.

Another interesting parallel that I noticed between Every Heart a Doorway and Indexing is the role that age plays in stories. Age is not a major theme of either story, but it pops up in both. In Every Heart a Doorway, there are multiple ways that age is addressed – but perhaps one of the most common seems to be that time does not pass equally in our world as it does in the portal world. I thought it was very interesting that children could spend years in other realms only to return at around the same age as they had left home. I suppose that this indicates that age and maturity should not be taken at face value. Likewise, Lundy ages in reverse and also illustrates this very well. Indexing even parallels this with Sloane – I don’t think I recall if we know her actual age, but I believe it is implied that she may be older than she seems. But these stories also have balance – we do not simply see those characters who are more mature than their appearance might imply. I think it is also interesting that both stories show “dangers” of aging. In the case of Indexing, this is with the Peter Pan case that the team encounters in the field. In Every Heart a Doorway, Eleanor can no longer stand to be in her nonsense world because she is too much of an adult. Apparently being an adult has its downfalls, too.

Although Every Heart a Doorway has many similarities with our other stories, it’s also particularly unique in its concept. The idea of numerous portal worlds that open for those who are well-suited to them is not reflected in our other readings, and I find it particularly fascinating. Then again, I suppose that this type of personality-based selection is one that we see in other fantasy nowadays – the houses in Harry Potter and the factions of Divergent come to mind right away. However, I really like that the portals in Every Heart a Doorway are more unique than that – kids are not simply sorted according to where they fall on a spectrum or which values they hold dear. Instead, they’re chosen by very specific worlds, worlds that we do not necessarily see choosing other children. Yet, because the worlds can still be categorized, the reader still has a framework to use to make sense of the worlds.

One of my favorite parts of stories such as this is considering where I might be best suited when it comes to such systems. I think that this is because I find this exercise especially challenging – where other people can pick out where they would fit nearly instantly, I analyze and struggle, and change my mind indecisively. And this isn’t the fault of any of the systems – I think I just happen to be in between a lot of things, which is why I also tend to struggle to get decisive results from things like online MBTI tests and the like.

Anyway, as for the compass – I think I’ll start with the logic and nonsense spectrum. I am inclined to think that I am very close to the middle of this. It’s not that I don’t like logic or nonsense; honestly I rather appreciate both of them. I prefer a balance, and I have the perspective to understand both sides. Certainly, I hope that I understand logic given that I am pursuing majors in mathematics and computer science. But I also think it’s just as important to have nonsense in our lives – if everything was logic, everything would be completely predictable and then where would all of the fun be?

Then, for the virtue and wickedness spectrum, I like to think that I lean heavily towards the virtue side. I definitely don’t think I’m perfect, but I do try to be a good human and it’s important to me to treat others kindly whenever possible and to be treated fairly in return. I think I’d much prefer a virtuous world to a wicked one, though I am sure that there are a lot of middle grounds that I’d happily be able to tolerate too.

That covers the major directions of the compass, but minor directions like rhyme, linearity, whimsy, and wild are also mentioned. However, because we see less of these in the story, it’s harder to figure out what exactly the correlate with. I like to think that I might appreciate a whimsy world, but I worry that I may be too serious for it. I also highly doubt that I’m wild, and I know that I lack skills in rhymes. Still further are the prospective new minor directions discussed near the end of the novel: vitus and mortis. Finally, here’s one that I actually feel quite certain on. I’ve always been an athlete, so it’s always been difficult for me to sit still. I would definitely not be able to conform to death worlds where stillness and darkness are prized. I enjoy moving quickly and often and so I’m quite certain that I’d favor all living worlds over dead ones.





Gate 1: Tolkien vs Bettelheim (Essay)

Draft an essay in which you form an argument in support of one of the theorists we have discussed (Tolkien or Bettelheim) regarding which theorist you believe has the more accurate understanding of fairy tales and their purpose. 

Part of the magic of fairy tales is that they can be whatever we want them to be. From instructional tales for children to fantastical escapes for all ages, these stories come in many forms and serve a variety of purposes. Given this variety, it is difficult to determine what the specific purpose of fairy tales should be, especially as Tolkien and Bettelheim do not seem to agree on how to define a fairy tale. Even so, both Tolkien and Bettelheim make reasonable arguments, although I find Tolkien’s understanding of fairy stories to be much more compelling than Bettelheim’s.

In the introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help the child to “[fit] unconscious content into conscious fantasies, which then enable him to deal with that content” and further suggests that fairy tales have “unequaled value” in this respect. (7)  Bettelheim sees fairy tales as children’s stories, with their purpose being to aid children in understanding and coping with the world around them.

On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories defines fairy tales in a more complex manner. Initially, it can be difficult to understand precisely how Tolkien interprets a fairy tale, or fairy story as he tends to call them. To Tolkien, a fairy story is a tale involving the Faerie realm, a place that “cannot be caught in a net of words, for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.” (4)  Tolkien also clarifies that fairy tales are not travellers’ tales, stories of Dream, or Beast-fables.

In further contrast to Bettelheim, Tolkien argues that “common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy-stories” but that this perceived connection is without basis. (11) To Tolkien, a fairy tale’s primary purpose is not to instruct children in how to cope with the world around them, rather that the stories offer Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. If anything, Tolkien implies that adults have more need of fairy tales as “children have, as a rule, less need than older people” of the fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation provided by the fairy stories. (15)

Although fairy tales are often perceived by our culture to be stories for children, I disagree with Bettelheim. The fairy tale does not possess unequaled value for children. Growing older does not always cause us to need less guidance in how to cope with the world around us – as our understanding of the world increases, so too does the complexity of the problems we can comprehend and face. Also, there are many types of stories and experiences that children can encounter which will enable their growth and understanding. Fairy tales are certainly valuable to children, but they are not as singularly valuable as Bettelheim would imply. Fairy tales can have great value for humans young and old, and children are capable of understanding other stories just as they understand fairy tales.

In advocating to disassociate fairy tales from children, Tolkien states that the error of connecting fairy tales to children is “one that is therefore most often made by those who … tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” (11)  I strongly agree with Tolkien that children are not so different from the rest of the members in the human family, and I feel that Bettelheim downplays children’s intelligence and perceptiveness in believing that children should only understand fairy tales so well. Children are capable of understanding so much more than fairy tales, and I believe they have much more potential than Bettelheim gives them credit for.

Fairy tales are very valuable for those of all ages. Bettelheim does make a valid argument in pointing out ways in which fairy tales can help children. However, as beneficial as these stories are for the child, I find them to hold even greater importance for the adult. There is much to be Recovered from fairy tales, which allow us to refresh our perspectives on our lives. This may restore the sense of wonder and awe that is generally only attributed to children, or simply cause us to consider our worlds from a different angle, in the sense of someone discovering that Coffeeroom  reads mooreeffoc when viewed from the inside of a glass door, as Tolkien points out.

Fairy tales also provide a means of Escape, not only from the hustle and bustle of modern technology, but also from the hardships of life, including “hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice, death.” (Tolkien, 22) I can attest from personal experience that the escape fantasy and fairy tales provide has helped me to cope with pain and sorrow in my own adult life. The opportunity to leave one’s troubles behind and venture into a story, even if only for a little while, can aid in lessening the pain and alleviating the sorrow.

Finally, fairy tales also bring us Consolation, in the form of a Happy Ending. As for this aspect of the fairy tale, Tolkien expresses that, “Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.” (22) To Tolkien, happy endings and the Joy that the “eucatastrophe” brings are nearly essential to fairy tales. While I may be more inclined to consider tales without happy endings to also be fairy tales, I do agree that the quintessential fairy tale should have a happy ending. My favorite fairy tales, the stories that I most enjoy revisiting, whether rereading or rewatching, all contain the common element of the happy ending. Happy endings also help to enhance a story’s Escape and Recovery in that the happy ending gives hope to those seeking to evade their troubles and provides inspiration of what could be to those who may have lost sight of such possibilities.

Overall, though I do not discount Bettelheim’s argument, I agree more with Tolkien as to what a fairy-story is and what purpose it has. Fairy tales have so much more to them than their guise as simple children’s stories would imply. Certainly, fairy tales offer significant value to children, but they also possess at least as much value for the adult.