November 18, 2010

archetypes - threshold guardian

After that nice little break yesterday, let’s have a short post about Threshold Guardians. You can also read the earlier posts for the Hero and the Mentor archetypes.

All heroes encounter obstacles on their journey, and at each gateway to a new world, there are powerful guardians, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. If properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies.

Threshold Guardians are usually not the main villains or antagonists in stories, but sometimes they work for the villain or are simply neutral characters that have their own motives for blocking the hero’s path. The main point of the Threshold Guardian is to block the hero, to test them, to see if they really are worthy or committed enough to pass the threshold into the new world. There are of course several ways to deal with these Guardians… They can avoid the Guardian and abandon their path; they can attack the Guardian, bribe them, or befriend them.

The Guardians represent ordinary obstacles as well as the hero’s internal demons: emotional scars, vices, dependencies, and self-limitations. When heroes confront one of these figures, they must solve a puzzle or pass a test. For example, the sphinx that tests Harry Potter in Goblet of Fire asks him a riddle that he must solve before he can pass into the next part of the maze, where the Triwizard Cup is waiting. Professor Slughorn, in Half-Blood Prince, acts as a sort of Guardian seeing as Harry must procure a memory from him before his path in defeating Voldemort can continue.

 In stories, they take on a wide array of forms. They can be guards or sentinels, bodyguards, bandits, doormen or bouncers, or anyone whose function is to temporarily block the way of the hero and test her powers. Any character that acts as a barrier in the hero’s journey is a Threshold Guardian, even if that character is not a character at all. It could be a great wall, a labyrinth, bad weather, disease, a pack of rabid wolves, etc… anything that threatens the hero’s forward motion or inhibits change.

Read the next post about the Herald.

[This interpretation of the archetypes comes from the Hero’s Journey, a universal structure found in mythology and organized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.]


  1. Brooke, what an excellent explanation of an archetype that's not always easy to recognize or employ. This is SUCH a great series!!!

  2. Really enjoyed this explanation about the guardians and their role in the evolution of the story. Thanks!