Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Night Journey

The NJ constitutes a central moment in the Rite of Passage undertaken by fantasy protagonists. The journey referred to is usually but not always depicted as a literal act of travel. The protagonist travels into a dark country, which may be the underside of the Land or some interior territory occupied by his or her Shadow. Here matters of significance to that protagonist's life are met, confronted and defeated (or, possibly, not defeated). Recognition scenes attend or follow NJs. No protagonist who survives an NJ does so unaltered.

The term is used tellingly by P C Hodgell in her essay "The Night Journey in 20th Century English Fantasy" (Riverside Quarterly 1977), but she tends to restrict it to Christianizing work (see Christian Fantasy) and to journeys involving engulfment, whether Underground or inside beasts. The term is used in this encyclopedia in a broader sense: the main characteristics of an NJ are that it is awesome, to both protagonist and reader, and that it is instructive. Because the turning of the Seasons is an apt symbol for the process of turning from ignorance into wisdom, NJs may be associated with solstices, as in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) and Sir Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage (1955) (see Opera). The darkness of the NJ may be symbolic of the state of ignorance which the instruction is to relieve, but not necessarily. And darkness is not essential to an NJ: Sam and Frodo's time in the Marches of Mordor and the Dead Marshes is an NJ even though some of it takes place in bright sunlight.

NJs are undergone by Obsessed Seekers and Accursed Wanderers; a significant aspect of Hodgell's own heroine, Jamethiel, who has elements of both in her makeup, is that her predestined role as the champion of her people makes her intrinsically asocial and incapable of complete integration into any of the societies in which she moves. In the works of overtly Christian writers like C S Lewis and Charles Williams, NJs are certain to culminate in Christianizing arrivals, but we should note that perhaps the most crucial of all NJs is not at all Christian, being that of the prophet Muhammad from the Dome of the Rock to the Empyrean.

The NJ may take place in a realm that is intrinsically one of shadow or delusion; Hodgell argues that William Hope Hodgson's Night Land and Borderland and David Lindsay's Arcturus are both of this kind. Here the instruction is primarily that of the will to pierce through shadow and delusion, or to accept that there is nothing else; whether this acceptance is seen as bracingly tragic or merely as a failure of nerve depends on philosophic perspective. Childes – such as Stephen King's Gunslinger – can be seen as taking an NJ of this kind, but usually only to the extent that they learn that a childe is indeed what they are. It is only because Genre Fantasy is ultimately consoling that NJs generally have fortunate culminations.

Sometimes it is not the principal actor alone who undergoes NJs, nor do characters necessarily undergo just a single NJ: in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) the Fellowship of the Ring are put repeatedly through NJs collectively and severally – whether in the Paths of the Dead or the Marches of Mordor.

NJs are rare in pure Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery because the lively intelligence of the classic adventurer is too busy searching for something to purloin or someone to knife in the back. However, NJs are likely to occur whenever metaphysics starts to form a part of the Template. Michael Moorcock's Elric is manipulated to make him the hero of Law and the victim of the Sword Stormbringer, and thus his entire life can be seen as an NJ. Even more relevantly, the extended NJ which forms the overall subject of Louise Cooper's Indigo sequence (1988-1993) regularly provides the protagonist with one important moral insight per book as she learns to fight the Demons she has released into the world – demons based on aspects of herself.

The NJ is often a feature, perhaps the controlling image, of a Bildungsroman, whether that which is being made or forged is the protagonist of heroic fantasy or the chastened, sometimes metamorphosed viewpoint-figure of Instauration Fantasy – though in the latter instance the NJ is likely to be subsidiary and largely a matter of passive endurance, as with Auberon in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981) and Sweeney in Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1995). [RK/JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.