A while ago, we went on an adventure and traced the lines of The Hero’s Journey. We talked about the hidden pulse flowing through most of the stories we read and see. Today we are going to hit the trail again, and test our mettle against some threshold guardians.
Have you heard of these beasts? If not, strap on your armor, quiff a potion, grab your sharpest quill, and let’s break it down.
The scholar Christopher Vogler penned in his dusty tome, The Writer’s Journey, that, “At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies” (p. 63).
I have created a bestiary of sorts to catalog some of the various types to assist you in your quest. Oh, and for you more seasoned explorers, a threshold guardian is considered by some as a type of archetype. If archetypes are unfamiliar to you, touch this stone, and the information will be telepathically linked into your brain. Now let’s examine some of these garden variety beasties.
The Underling. They haven’t achieved super-villain status yet, but they are trying. You can find them in the tavern throwing darts at pictures of unicorns, boxing unwary peasants, and ordering lesser life forms around. These are your mercenaries in the woods, giant stone golems barring entry into the mine, or the big bosses second-in-command.
The Unwitting Barrier. These foes have no allegiances. In fact, they may not even be foes. It doesn’t mean they won’t test your resolve. Sometimes the jackals feast on the leftovers of the dragon. While the dragon is your enemy, you will still have to contend with those toothy little scavengers – be it by sword, or by cunning.
The Scale of Judgement. You’ve battled your way across the land leaving a trail of destruction behind you. This has attracted the attention of great powers – curious powers. These super-powered entities enforce balance. Even if you slay the dragon, if you destroy the world doing it, you are no better. These entities will appear and test both your heart and your body. Pass their tests, and they will offer knowledge and/or powers. Fail, and be ground into the dirt and serve as cautionary tale to those who follow.
The Switcheroo. Sometimes the underling doesn’t want to be an underling. They were strong armed into it. You can cut them down or enlist them to your cause. Never forget, while sometimes smelly and verbally obtuse, these switcheroos have unique insight into their boss’s inner circle.
The Inanimate Object. Stupid door, wall, mountain, swamp, ocean, rubik’s cube! These may just seem like boring obstacles to overcome, but they are something more. The door can teach you an important lesson about locks. The mountain can offer you perspective on resolve. Not to mention the grip strength. Seriously. Climb a mountain wearing full plate and you will have fingers that can crush boulders. That might be useful for say, a stone golem! Every barrier stopping you is a chance to become stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded.
Yourself. No, not a conjured doppelganger hell bent on your stealing your life, but your inner self. Your own fear and hesitation can serve as powerful threshold guardian. You must take a leap of faith, face your own fears and weaknesses, and transcend. What use is a flaming sword if you fear fire, or the power to walk on water if you fear drowning? Often times, the threshold guardian we conjure in our mind is greater than any perceived foe.
Are you ready? While my bestiary may not be totally complete, (the last two heroes never returned so I didn’t get updated information) it’s a good starting point.
The beauty of examining archetypes, and sub-types, is it opens your mind to the possibilities of merging different concepts. By understanding the sheer number of available archetypes, and blending them in a way that suits our purposes, we can move away from stereotypes and create multi-dimensional characters.
When it comes to threshold guardians, they are the fodder that builds your characters. Each obstacle (threshold guardian), is a chance for you to shape that character in a different way. Think of a door. A character can turn the doorknob, use a key, kick it down, blow it up, remove the hinges, pick the lock, or get someone else to open it up for them. An action as simple as how they approach a door can drastically change the way we perceive them. In this way, threshold guardians have great potential to tell volumes about your characters.
What I love about the concept of threshold guardians, is outside of fiction, we contend with them in our own lives. If we can just be willing to accept that we have the heart of a hero, we can look at these struggles as chances to improve. Do you have some examples you would like to add to the bestiary? Or perhaps some instances where a threshold guardian knocked your socks off? I’d love to hear about it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp.