Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mirrors in fantasy

“Speculum, speculum,” said the Witch Queen to the magic mirror. “Dei gratia.”
“Volente Deo. Audio.”
“Mirror,” said the Witch Queen. “Whom do you see?”
“I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all in the land. But one.”
“Mirror, mirror, who is it you do not see?”
“I do not see Bianca.”
-- Tanith Lee, “Red as Blood”

Mirrors in fantasy worlds are never ordinary. They are portals to other worlds, magical devices which affect whoever looks into them or information transmitters – and even that is just scratching the surface of what they could be.

Tanith Lee’s “Red as Blood” is a dark retelling of a fairytale where Snow White is the daughter of a vampire – hence the mirror’s inability to see her. I also loved the fact that the Witch Queen and the mirror address each other in Latin. It reminds me a bit of that scene in Mary Poppins where Mary’s reflection outsings her and she doesn’t look too happy about it.

Non-sentient mirrors are more common in fantasy, though – especially those acting as gateways. Alice’s passage through the kooking-glass was one of the earliest examples, and in one of Stephen Donaldson’s novels, The Mirror of Her Dreams, the heroine is translated through such a mirror into another world. There’s an art to making such mirrors so that they translate the correct people or things (rather than driving their creators literally insane). And the heroine, alas, isn’t the person they were hoping to obtain.

A mirror can also be a place to hide. When we look into mirrors, we usually see what we expect to see. We see ourselves. Which means someone else in that mirror, behind the shine and the silver, may go unnoticed. In Graham Masterton’s Mirror, a fading child star disappears but is actually living in a nightmarish world behind an elaborately framed, full-length mirror in his house.

And that’s not even getting into the funhouse mirrors which produce bizarre and twisted images – let’s hope the image stays within the mirror, and is never more strange than what can be explained by the construction of the glass. In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Dwarf”, the titular character longs to be tall, but the only way he can do so is to look in one of the mirrors that distorts his reflection.

The breaking of a mirror is usually a portent.

Out flew the web and floated wide.
The mirror cracked from side to side.
“The curse has come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott

Mirrors can reflect what is not in reality, the reverse of what they traditionally do with vampires. They can show people’s worst sides, like the portrait of Dorian Gray. Or conversely, they could reflect what people might have been, or want very much to be (like the Mirror of Erised in the first Harry Potter novel).

One thing that’s always fascinated me about mirrors is what’s reflected if two of them are hung exactly opposite each other. Then again, I could never resist looking at the multiple reflections of myself, from various angles, in changing rooms. :)


Maria Zannini said...

I'm always cautious about using mirrors because they can easily become trope-ish. But the book I'm working on now has a scene with mirrors. I'm using it as a means of transportation--much like a wormhole.

Mary Witzl said...

I love the idea of using mirrors in fantasy; I have a half-written ms with a mirror element. I thought JKR's Mirror of Erised was one of the cleverest things in her Harry Potter series.

That viewing oneself from multiple mirror angles thing gets a little less pleasant as you get older, but the mirror infinity trick will continue to astonish and delight me forever.

Unknown said...

In Stephen King's collection Full Dark No Stars there's a short story where one of the character's believes there's an alternate reality in her mirror. It was well done and felt more psychological than fantastical.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - And it's better than a wormhole in at least one way.

A wormhole is evidently a means of transportation. A mirror? Looks like an ordinary part of the furnishings. I love it when something apparently commonplace turns out to be anything but.

Mary - There are so many ways to use mirrors... for instance, what if a person died but their soul was trapped in a nearby mirror that hadn't been covered?

And I picked up Neuromancer because the heroine was "a mirror-eyed street samurai".

Sara - I missed that! There was a copy of Fully Dark, No Stars in the library, so I sat down right there and read three of the stories, but none of them were the one you mentioned. I'll look for that next time I'm at the library.

Anonymous said...

I don't use a mirror, but a mirror substitute as a gateway to the faerie world in my novel. The changelings in my world keep faerie-gardens where they grow mushrooms and ferns and shade-loving plants. To communicate with the faerie world they have to eat a particular kind of mushroom and look into the wide shallow pool of water in the center of the garden.

I liked Lewis Carol's use of mirrors with Alice in wonderland, and incidentally, I'm going to be running a role playing game where I pull heavily on the influence of Through The Looking Glass.

Anonymous said...

Ah, forgot to tell you the idea that popped into my head when I read this post last night.
Mirrors as a duplication device. Take two or more enchanted mirrors, put them together (My original thought was a five sided box) put something in the middle, mutter the words or spell reach into the box and pull out the infinite reflections of the original item. Great way to build a quick army.

Brittany said...

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Thank You!

Angela Ackerman said...

What a great post on mirrors. Like you, I've always love the 'possibility' of what they represent. I loved facing two and imagining each refraction as a doorway to somewhere else.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Diane Dooley said...

I loved the magic mirror with a sense of humor in Shrek.

Did anyone else have a hard time getting past the 'Speculum, speculum" part of the Tanith Lee quote? I had instant flashbacks to my annual GYN checkups.

Marian Perera said...

Dominique - I like the idea of a mirror replicating something, but I wonder if copies would be flawed in some way? Like photocopies, perhaps they don't match the original exactly.

And are they tied to the mirror in some way? If it breaks, will they shatter too?

Brittany, thanks for the award. :)

Angela - another use could be a mirror that's a window to another world, allowing its owner to look and listen but not actively interact.

Might be equal parts fun and frustration, to watch events happening without being able to participate at all.

Paula - I repeated the line to a friend of mine and it had the same effect on her. :D

Anonymous said...

Well, I've actually developed the idea for a role playing game I'm going to be running. When a mirror is used individually then the copy is obviously made of the same material as the mirror it came from (I've got glass, Silver, bronze, and polished stone). They break in the same way the materials of the mirror would.