New Worlds Theory Post: Liminality

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Liminality has come up in these posts before, in the context of rites of passage. But it’s a concept with much broader application than just that area, and since we’re almost to New Year’s Eve — the transition from one year to the next — this seems like a good time to pull the idea of liminality out and take a closer look at it: what it means, and what you can do with it.

The word comes from the Latin for threshold, limen. Liminality is the quality possessed by things that sit on or transgress the boundaries between things. And since we’re very much wired to categorize our world, to put things into boxes and then use those boxes to sort and process our experiences, liminal things are . . . well, there are a lot of words you could use to describe them. Unsettling. Confusing. Powerful. Dangerous.

Interesting. 🙂

Liminality is a fabulous concept to play around with in fiction. It’s especially great to use in fantasy, because you can work it into all kinds of magic and supernatural things, building the idea that they carry more force because of their liminal associations. After all, if that’s true folklorically, why can’t it be true fictionally? But you don’t need the story to feature actual spiritual events for liminal associations to play a part. The power of the idea is psychological, too.

Since I mentioned New Year’s Eve, let’s start off with the ways you can time events in your story to make use of this effect. Having an event take place at a transitional moment of some kind, a period of time that transgresses boundaries, can help create the feeling that your characters or your world are a little bit unmoored, ready for transformation.

Why is midnight the witching hour? Because under our time system, it’s the boundary between one day and the next. Dawn and dusk are also good, the shift from light to dark and back again. Ditto the equinoxes and the solstices, or eclipses, the transgression of one celestial object on the light of another. In the Mesoamerican calendar, the months work out to 360 days; then there are five intercalary days (like our Leap Day) to fill it out, which used to be seen as a time of cosmological danger.

You can even make use of it on a more personal scale, the moments in a character’s life where they’re undergoing a rite of passage or some less formalized translition. We love to have major story events happen on characters’ birthdays for a reason. Dramatic interventions happen at weddings (at least fictional ones) not just because that’s the romantic equivalent of the “ticking clock, down to the wire” bomb scenario, but also because the bride and groom are unmoored from their usual states, ready for a sudden and life-altering change. The entire tradition of Carnival is based in the notion of a breakdown of boundaries, letting go of your usual identity and social structures: during carnival you can mock authority, violate taboos, and otherwise cut yourself loose.

Or you can have the event happen in a liminal location. Literal doorways, the origin of the word, are obvious candidates, which is why you get things like warding magic at the threshold, or a groom carrying his bride into their new house. So are shorelines, where water meets land. So are the boundaries between kingdoms or other units of land. Parlays between opposing armies often happened on the field between their lines of battle, in the “no man’s land” where transformation of the status quo from war to peace or back again became possible. The ocean is liminal; “international waters” belong to no country, and so are prime places for lawless activities, whether that’s piracy or gambling, because that’s where society breaks down.

There’s a major example of this kind of thing in the story of the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes: he is unable to be killed during the day or the night, indoors or outdoors, riding or walking, clothed or naked, or by any weapon lawfully made. Sounds like he can’t be killed at all, right? But he reveals to his traitorous wife that it can be done . . . if it happens at dusk, while he is wrapped in a net, standing with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat, and the weapon is a spear forged while people are at mass. In short: he can only be killed when he is in a (very thoroughly) liminal state.

Certain things can, in and of themselves, be seen as transgressing or falling outside the symbolic boundaries of our world. The anthropologist Mary Douglas once theorized that the random-seeming list of abominations in Leviticus offer insight into the conceptual categories of ancient Hebrew society; those things which are abominated are the ones that don’t respect the categories. Whether she’s right or not — and it’s worth noting that Douglas herself later retracted the idea — there’s definitely some truth to the underlying concept, which is that societies and individuals tend to feel unease around things that challenge or violate their mental map of the world. Julia Kristeva developed this idea to discuss horror in her theory of abjection.

One of the obvious places this shows up is with gender. Delving properly into the topic of gender will have to wait for a later post — or more likely, several posts — but for now I’ll note that this can play out in a variety of ways: the bad manifestation is fear or hatred of those who violate gender norms and efforts to force them into a recognized box, while on the other hand a society may ascribe supernatural merit or power to the state or act of transgressing those boundaries. Shamanic traditions often make use of this, either by recruiting genderqueer people to become shamans, or by incorporating crossdressing and other such behaviors into their rituals. (In the Japanese film Onmyōji 2, the magician Abe no Seimei saves the world by dressing up as a Shinto shrine maiden and dancing.)

Liminality is part of why you get chimeras, using that word in the broad sense of mythological creatures that appear to be stitched together out of pieces of different animals. (I think it also happened because if you saw or heard about an animal unfamiliar to you, sometimes the only way to describe it was to compare it to a patchwork of things you did recognize.) Undead monsters are liminal: neither alive nor dead, and horrifying as a result. If you want a creature in your story to feel unsettling or numinous, finding a way to place it on the boundaries between existing categories can help you do that.

That’s only scratching the surface of all the different ways this permeates our storytelling, but it should be enough to give you a sense of the concept, and an eye for where it crops up in the narratives you read or watch or write. And I think it’s important to be aware of it. I said at the beginning of this post that liminality is dangerous: it exposes the categories you’re using to think with, and because its effect is often disturbing, leveraging that can easily equate to treating your liminal object as horrific. My short story “The Mirror-City” is about gender and genderqueerness . . . which is why I backed away from writing that idea for a horror anthology. It would have been incredibly easy to make it work — but then the story would have been about how genderqueerness is horrifying, and that was not a story I wanted to tell. (So instead I wrote about the liminality of time, during the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, on the night that St. Teresa of Ávila died.)

Basically: use with caution. But do use it, because its effect can be amazing when you do.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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12 Responses to New Worlds Theory Post: Liminality

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    I love liminality, and also the concept of equipoise–I think these are wonderful concepts that particularly lend themselves to fantasy.

  2. Alyc says:

    Mmm. Liminality is my crack. There’s a gorgeous passage about liminality, faerie, and foxes (or ‘Noman’s Dog’) in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter that I think I need to go reread right now.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Liminality - Swan Tower

  4. Anthony Docimo says:

    And there was the tale of an early English king who tried and failed to command the tides – some people say it was a lesson in humility; but maybe it just meant he couldn’t command liminal things. 🙂

    Can liminality also be exceptions to a category? (not just in between two categories)

    I think the movie _Loving Leah_ qualifies as liminal romance, given its plot device to get the couple together is a levirate divorce marriage.

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