By Brad G. Faye
At some point during one’s Hero’s Journey, it will become evident that the world the Hero has always known is about to be left behind. In fiction, stepping onto the Yellow Brick Road is perhaps the best illustration of this stage as it represents Dorothy officially leaving behind the black-and-white world with which she’s grown accustomed and heading towards a new one presented in Technicolor. The Crossing of the First Threshold was also perfectly embodied on the big screen in Steven Spielberg’s adaption of Jurassic Park. As the two jeeps of visitors approach the gigantic gate they must drive through to enter the park, a concerned Lex asks whether or not the doors are going to open in time. Her anxiety is common for one abo
ut to approach what we will come to know as Threshold Guardians.
Threshold Guardians are anybody or anything that attempts to thwart us from partaking on the Hero’s Journey. By taking advantages of our fears and insecurities, Threshold Guardians come in various bullying forms who often try convincing the Hero that they should conform to what they deem “normal.” It is not always will malicious intent that these people, places, or things act the way they do, however. For example, Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle aren’t hell-bent on keeping him on the farm because they don’t want him to be happy, but because they believe what they are doing is legitimately in his best interest.
As is often the case in mythology, stories present these archetypes in more grandiose forms to make things more entertaining for audiences. In Greek mythology, a beast known as Cerberus was said to have guarded the entrance to the Underworld. While his appearance varied in different interpretations, he was most often depicted as a vicious three-headed hound capable of turning people into stone. A more modernized spin was placed on this Threshold Guardian in The Sandlot, where the film introduced a monstrous dog called “the Beast” that protected his owner’s yard.
In The NeverEnding Story, Atreyu sees these Threshold Guardians in the two sphinx statues he must pass through to reach the all-knowing oracle. When watching Atreyu hesitate upon approaching these statues in the film adaptation, a gnome who has befriended the hero shouts, “Don’t start to doubt yourself! Be confident!” Oftentimes, confidence is all it takes in order to move beyond this warden of other worlds, but every now and then it takes a tad more. For example, Oedipus needed to solve a riddle of the Sphinx in order to enter Thebes. The riddle asked him what walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night. The answer provided by Oedipus is “man” – who crawls as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a walking stick during old age. One could even view this riddle as an allegory for what one experiences following their passing the Threshold Guardians and continuing along the maturation process.
In another example exhibiting how universal The Hero’s Journey is, we look to the popular Japanese magna Fullmetal Alchemist. After two young boys, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt to bring their mother back from the dead via alchemy, they find themselves forced to sacrifice parts of their body during the process. In the case of Ed, the older brother loses an arm and a leg while Al loses his entire body (luckily, Ed’s mastery of alchemy allows him to preserve Al’s soul into a large piece of armor). When a visiting State Alchemist by the name of Roy Mustang comes across impressive youngsters following the incident, he decides to train them. Mustang perks the interest of Ed and Al, who while hesitant to become “dogs of the military”, also see the potential to learn more about alchemy by joining him in Central City. In the original animated series episode, “The Alchemy Exam”, Ed is directed to sit in an odd three-legged stool that he is told will not refuse him barring he is a true alchemist. The stool is therefore an inanimate example of a Threshold Guardian, and is similar to the Sorting Hat from the world of Harry Potter, which determines which house new students are assigned to.
In the real world, we are surrounded by examples of Threshold Guardians, many of which are believed to provide protection from evil. Placed outside of churches, temples, and other places of worship, these objects are not necessarily telling us not to proceed as much as they are reminding us to move forward only if our intentions are just. It is not these Threshold Guardians we must be as wary of as it is those who keep their identities hidden from us. People who discourage others from moving forward because they fear being left behind themselves are commonplace as are bosses in the workplace who don’t want their staff recognized over them because they think it makes them look inadequate. The greatest Threshold Guardians, however, often come from within. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Now, author Eckhart Tolle cites that the voice of our Shadow will be louder than ever as we prepare to embark on The Crossing of the First Threshold, stating, “The pain-body, which is the dark shadow cast by the ego, is actually afraid of the light of your consciousness. It is afraid of being found out. Its survival depends on your unconscious identification with it, as well as on your unconscious fear of facing the pain that lives in you.” The good news for all of us is that when we shed a little bit of light onto these real-world Threshold Guardians, we most often find that they are not as intimidating as they seem. The decision of whether or not to move forward in spite of their warnings therefore becomes that much easier.