When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gained unprecedented popularity, the world at large was introduced to a “new” concept: a hidden magical society that lived parallel to the everyday world, but scarcely—if ever—interacting with it. The idea of hidden societies, however, is not a new one.
Many fantasy novels of all types include hidden societies. These have been termed “wainscot societies” in John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy, or “wainscots” for short. You may have wainscots in your house: the name also refers to fancy paneling, which is often used to decorate walls. Mice and rats are reportedly notorious for borrowing into wainscotting, to make their own homes inside the walls and cracks. These hidden “wainscots” are analogous to the hidden structure of mouse homes.
Including the wizarding world of Harry Potter, there are 10 wainscots in fantasy literature that I have identified as being either the very famous or very defining. The Top 10 list is probably less than perfect, mind you, and I confess I have not read most of these books. However, I do feel that most of the authors are well-known enough for the list to have some legitimacy. They are in alphabetical order:
1. The Borrowers
Mary Norton’s 1952 book The Borrowers is clearly and distinctly a wainscot society. In this children’s tale, a family of tiny people live within the floorboards of a house in England and must borrow items from the big people who live parallel lives along with them. A great success, this book developed into a 5-book series. The novel was adapted into a 1997 film I remember seeing way back in elementary school.
2. Cthulhu Cult
Cthulhu is an ancient god supposedly dormant in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, who will one day rise and bring about an apocalypse. The creation of H.P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu drives humans mad upon sight, even if they only see a depiction of him in a statue. Furthermore, his telepathic energy affects human around the world on the unconscious level, filling them with terror. The religious societies of people who worship Cthulhu can be considered a wainscot—one you are better off not finding.
“Faery” was used by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe a place, not a magical creature. In literature, fairies are always hidden and when a human ventures into the kingdom of faery, they enter into a dangerous, supernatural world where time runs differently from normal. While Lisa Goldsteins’ Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is not the only story to use faery, I still think it is a defining use of faery as a wainscot—especially in a historical fantasy novel.
In Strange Devices, the Faery Queen enters the court of Queen Elizabeth I in search of her son, King Arthur. Historical reality and the supernatural world are crosshatched here, so that it is not clear whether “our” world or the world of Faery is the “dominant” one.
Faerie also appears in John Crowley’s novel Little, Big, in which Smoky Barnable, the protagonist, encounters a similar crosshatched world, in which he encounters fairy tale creatures invented by his future father-in-law. Although traditional stories about faery were at first simple encounters with invisible realities, more modern stories include complex interactions between our world and the other.
4. King Horrabin’s beggars
Much of the work of Tim Powers contains wainscots, especially in the form of hidden societies of sorcerers living in the historical past. The Anubis Gates (1983) is his most well known story, based on a millionaire’s botched time-traveling plan to send a group of wealthy people to 1810 to attend a lecture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the characters, Professor Brenden Doyle, falls in with the clan of murderous beggars led by King Horrabin, a clown sorcerer. The domain of the king’s kingdom runs parallel with the mundane world.
The tiny people from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels do not quite form their own wainscot. Although the Lilliputians are diminutive people, the existence of whom normal people are ignorant, they live completely apart from human beings. T.H. White, however, turned them into a wainscot in Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946). The home of the Liliputians, two hundred years after Gulliver, is on Repose, an island in the middle of an lake on the estate of Malplaquet, an English house in Northamptonshire. The island is difficult to access and their city hidden within brambles, providing an effective place for this wainscot to hide.
6. London Below
Neil Gaiman’s stories contain many wainscots indeed. The hidden world of deities in American Gods and Anansi Boys is prominent (and similar of the wainscot of divinities in the Percy Jackson series), but Gaiman conjures no milieu more fully a wainscot than London Below in Neverwhere (1996). Beggars and thieves live unobserved in the sewers and abandoned tube stations of London, forming a feudal-based society that revolves around the markets, where various items normally considered trash are traded for other items, or favours. A clan of rat-speakers, a group of beggars who can speak to rats, is a wainscot within a wainscot—to say nothing of the rats themselves, which form their own society.
Terry Pratchett’s Nomes series—Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—involves a group of small people who come from another world. They struggle to survive among humans, but make a return journey towards home once they learn about their origins—from a thing known as the “Thing.” The series consists, of course, of typical Terry Pratchett humour.
8. The Pendragons
C.S. Lewis speculates about the survival of the descendents of Arthur Pendragon in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. The final volume of his Space Trilogy, a science fiction series with theological undertones, Lewis’ novel takes place mostly on earth. His series protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, learns he is the heir of King Arthur and thus “Pendragon” (or king) of Logres, King Arthur’s ancient kingdom. In the Space Trilogy world, Pendragons live in secret in Britain and have risen up in times of crisis to protect their country from evil, without letting everyday people learn of their existence.
Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld contains a secret society of Londoners who live on the city’s rooftops. Robert Linden and Rose Leonard, two outsiders, get drawn into into that world, as the roof-dwellers enter a war over their leadership. I would not be surprised if Neil Gaiman had been inspired by Fowler in his depiction of London Below, especially in the character of the roof-dweller Old Bailey. Roofworld proves that wainscots are not only in walls, or underground, but above our heads as well.
10. The Wizarding World
Last but not least, the world of Harry Potter, meticulously imagined by world-famous author J.K. Rowling, has to be the most famous of all wainscots. Harry first enters the wizarding world through the back wall of the Leaky Cauldron, which opens to Diagon Alley, where he goes shopping for school supplies. Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards—along with the rest of the magical universe—is not visible to Muggles (normal people). Strict laws protect any exposure of the wizarding world to Muggle eyewitnesses. Of course, you probably already knew all this.
Wikipedia, Goodreads, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute.