The ‘Threshold Guardian’ from The Hero’s Journey
First, a snippet of background before I get to my favourite aspect…
The Hero’s Journey is one of those classic, prevalent narratives found anywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to the first Star Wars and onward. An early work important to its development might be Carl Jung’s archetypes, which were then further explored and used by Joseph Campbell in his Hero with a Thousand Faces; an exploration of what he termed the ‘monomyth’. (Writing students are probably also familiar with Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which is in turn adapted from Campbell.)
The Hero’s Journey is typically broken into stages and obstacles — here are the twelve stages which Vogler adapted from Campbell’s original seventeen:
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of The Call
4. Meeting with The Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
10. The Road Back
11. The Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir
Such a structure will probably be familiar to many readers and film fans (especially Disney fans). Another clear example is The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, it’s clear that Gandalf acts as both ‘Call to Adventure’ and ‘Mentor’ while other stages should be recognisable without me summarising the whole story — something I’m far too lazy to do! (But I will say that what I liked best about what Tolkien does with the structure might actually be when Frodo returns (with Elixir/Dirt) and finds yet another problem in the form of Sharkey.)
But my favourite stage is Five and the one I wanted to highlight — where the hero will typically encounter a Guardian of the Threshold, often a physical enemy but something which can also be represented through an internal struggle (a great visual example of the Guardian is probably the Sphinx/Oracle scenes in The Never Ending Story). This is one of my favourite aspects because it allows a hero to really show the reader what they’re made of — are they strong, powerful or rash, clever, resourceful or kind? I learn a lot about my favourite heroes when I see how they deal with Threshold Guardians.
The example I wanted to chat about just a little is Sen and No-Face from Spirited Away.
For those who have seen the film, obviously it isn’t until after she literally crosses a threshold to enter the bathhouse that she encounters No-Face properly. At that point she has already faced various guardians and trials, but it is No-Face as much as Yubaba that stands in the way of her goal. No-Face is constantly seeking her, offering her what he thinks she desires, No-Face terrorises the bathhouse and if not dealt with, it will be No-Face that prevents Sen from saving the stricken Haku.
And then comes the telling moment, a test of the hero’s mettle perhaps — Sen sacrifices medicine she won from the River-Spirit, medicine she had been saving for Haku — and with it, uses her kindness and compassion to not only pass beyond the Guardian, but transform him into a friend. From that point onward, Sen looks after him and his rage is eased.
Such kindness is actually a hallmark of a many of director Miyazaki’s heroines and something you’ll rarely encounter in say, an action blockbuster that follows the Hero’s Journey.
As it turns out my favourite Threshold Guardians are often those that are transformed after coming into contact with the hero — take Inigo from The Princess Bride or even Puss in Boots from Shrek 2 as film examples, both become strong allies of the hero. What I love about this as a writer, is that the transformation often equips the hero with better knowledge that can be used against the villain, knowledge he or she would have lost had they simply slain the Guardian.