Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey Series #4: The Threshold Guardian
By Leigh Holland
The Threshold Guardian is a character who functions as a minor antagonist. The purpose of this character is to provide conflict and obstacles to the hero along the way. We identify with the misfortune the hero faces when encountering these obstacles, because we believe that if anything can go wrong, it probably will. This holds true for us, so it should hold true for the hero, too. This character can additionally let important information slip, leave clues behind in error, or through his death provide the impetus for the antagonist to raise the stakes for our hero.
The Threshold Guardian(s) are at times lower ranking associates of the primary antagonist (The Shadow), his ‘thugs’. But this is not always the case. For instance, in “Romeo and Juliet”, Mercutio’s death sets all manner of complications in motion for Romeo, and Mercutio is his best friend. Mercutio’s death sends Romeo into a mad revenge spiral in which he kills Tybalt, the cousin of his true love, Juliet. I suggest that both Mercutio and Tybalt are Threshold Guardians because these deaths lead us from one part of the tale over the threshold into another- from families snubbing each other at public events into the savage world of out-and-out warfare. Had Romeo handled things differently, the story could have been about the enduring power of love instead of the wasteful, tragic death of two star-crossed teens.
Another example of an unconventional Threshold Guardian is that of the character sent to test the hero’s mettle. The guardian is often sent by a mentor, a king, or a deity. Sometimes the guardian is just doing his job, a sort of bridge keeper. An example of the ‘just doing my job’ guardian is the delightful scene with the bridge guardian in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. To cross the bridge each knight must answer three questions. Some are super easy while others are impossible to answer. In the end, Arthur beats the guardian at his own game by tricking him into not being able to answer a follow up question to his original question.
When using multiple guardians, make sure they build in level of challenge for the hero and that the results raise the stakes in the tale. An example of this is found in the myth of the twelve labors of Hercules. Each labor or test becomes increasingly incredible and impressive once Hercules succeeds. At the same time, as the tension builds, the recipient of the myth wonders if Hercules can survive the trials. A fun representation is found in the Disney film “Hercules” when Herc tries to defeat the hydra, only to discover strength alone won’t solve this test.
Check out “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Vogler at Amazon.