“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. :)