|Quotes • Headscratchers • Playing With • Useful Notes • Analysis • Image Links • Haiku • Laconic|
"How far are you prepared to go? How much are you prepared to risk? How many people are you prepared to sacrifice for victory? Are you willing to die friendless, alone, deserted by everyone? Because that's what may be required of you in the war that is to come."
—Sebastian, Babylon 5
A figure or event that tests the resolve of a Hero as he pursues his destiny and/or his goal. The Guardian is not necessarily adversarial, but puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome.
Sometimes the Guardian's challenge is an illusion which must be penetrated; when it is not, the Guardian himself is often the challenge, and defeating him can turn him into an ally. Whatever form the Guardian and his challenge take, their defeat forces the hero to grow; heroes that are not yet ready for their journey are forced to turn back until they have matured sufficiently to handle the task.
Physical force is not necessarily the solution. Outwitting the guardian or persuading them to your side may, in fact, be required.
A hero may have more than one encounter with Threshold Guardians during his adventure—each one tests him and at the same time heralds an escalation of the danger (and consequent reward) the hero faces.
The term comes from the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Compare with Secret Test of Character, in which the obstacle put before the character is a moral one. Although this can shade into that, when the guardian is testing courage, perservance, willingness to listen to advice, or courtesy.
Anime & Manga
- Subverted in Bleach—when Ichigo encounters a Hollow trying to catch a lost soul, Rukia tries to turn the fight into his Threshold Guardian event, demanding that he either let the Hollow eat the ghost or vow to protect all souls. It flops, as Ichigo shuts her up mid-sentence and saves the soul because he wants to.
- The spirit in Ichigo's Zanpaktou tests Ichigo several times.
- Each of the planets in Transformers Cybertron involves an encounter with a threshold guardian, as well as several other points in the show. The most interesting example is Override, whose challenge was neither an illusion nor a fight, but a race that served as a coming of age for the rookie Hot Shot. Optimus Prime tended to face the other Threshold Guardians, generally with Leobreaker or Wing Saber.
- The heart shard of Fear in Princess Tutu serves as a Threshold Guardian for both the main character and Mytho. When Ahiru hears Mytho say that he's "afraid of Princess Tutu" she almost gives up, even tossing away her pendant. Mytho also is forced to decide if he wants to continue receiving heart shards, even when they restore emotions that could hurt him. Both characters eventually choose to continue on.
- In Yu Yu Hakusho, Genkai serves this role beautifully for Yusuke in the Dark Tournament arc.
- The Gym Leaders of Pokémon can be seen as a form of this for trainers in the anime and games: despite their status as the strongest trainers in an area, they aren't (normally) antagonistic to their challengers and even skew the rules of the battle in the opponent's favor, but if you can't beat eight of them you won't get anywhere near the Pokémon League.
- In Mahou Sensei Negima, Evangeline's filled the role a few times. Characters about to become better acquainted with themselves (or her) keep encountering progressively scarier versions of her.
- The title character of Naruto needed to overcome Yami Naruto, the incarnation of all of his darker emotions, before he could challenge the Kyuubi. Only by accepting that darkness back into himself rather than rejecting and repressing it could he break the Kyuubi's hold on him and face it in a fair battle.
- In Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird, and the Gray Wolf, the three princes each come upon a stone with three warnings; two decide to chose none, and turn back, yet Prince Ivan presses on.
Who rides straight forward shall know both hunger and cold.
- Of course, the Hero in this fairy tale goes on to cheat, steal from, and otherwise defraud several other innocent people of their rightful belongings. It looks like he gets his comeuppance when his brothers murder him, but everything turns out to his benefit by the end. The defrauded tsars get nothing.
- In The Bird Grip and The Golden Bird, despite warnings, the older princes go to the merry inn, where they forget their father, and their quest. The youngest goes to the dark inn and travels on to complete the quest.
- In The Seven Foals, an old woman tries to lure aside the men set to watch the king's foals all day. She succeeds with the older two of three brothers, but the youngest runs by her.
Films -- Animation
- Master Shifu is Po's first threshold guardian in Kung Fu Panda, and only by choosing to overcome Shifu's Training from Hell and eventually besting him in a sparring match over a dumpling indicates preparedness to take on Tai Lung... who may be a Threshold Guardian himself, if the plans for series of films are any indication.
Films -- Live-Action
- Star Wars: The cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke battles an illusory image of Darth Vader. Notably, Luke fails the test by not understanding the lesson, foreshadowing tragedy when they fight for real later in the movie.
- In the film The Neverending Story, Atreyu is required to pass by two golden sphinxes. As he gets closer to the Threshold Guardian sphinxes, he views the fallen bodies of those who went before him who didn't have the faith to pass. In the movie, "having faith" meant "running really fast".
- The implication is supposed to be that Atreyu essentially lost faith in himself halfway through. Had he kept faith, the Sphinxes never would have opened their eyes. Had he lost faith in himself before starting, they would have opened sooner and blasted him no matter how fast he ran. He seems more or less fine until he sees what was left of the previous visitor—which is Nightmare Fuel incarnate, so no wonder he got afraid.
- Michael Ende's original book portrays the various guardians of the Southern Oracle in a much more dramatic, heart-wrenching fashion.
- In Labyrinth, Sir Didymus guards the bridge that must be crossed, though rather than defeating him in combat or other traditional means, Sarah remembers her lesson to not take things for granted, thereby passing by asking permission.
- The old man guarding The Wall in the Stardust movie. Turns out rather atypically since he actually prevents Tristan from crossing, so Tristan has to get around him with his dad's help.
- Tyler Durden sets up one of these in Fight Club for Project Mayhem. All applicants are initially rejected as too young, old, fat, thin, etc. If they stand on the porch for three days and nights without food, shelter or encouragement, they are allowed in.
- Spoofed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Bridgekeeper: Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
- Casablanca has an interest variation where the Guardian guarding the two MacGuffins that The Hero and Big Bad want is the main character and The Hero's love rival, and thus has a personal stake in who he wants to give the MacGuffins to or keep one for himself. Rather than physical conflict between The Hero and the Guardian, the story plays out as an emotional conflict between the Guardian and the Love Interest, while The Hero is mostly powerless.
- The Mercy Thompson book Blood Bound, the killing of the second vampire starts Mercedes on her genetic duties.
- In Robert Charette's Never Deal with a Dragon trilogy of Shadowrun novels, the protagonist Sam encounters a literal threshold guardian that bars his way to the Astral plane. He's eventually shown to be a psychic manifestation of the villain, and once his corrupting influence is removed the guardian returns to his normal, though unhelpful, self.
- In Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear, Jack lampshades this by actually telling the psychologist who is evaluating his fitness for duty that she is serving this role.
- In H.P. Lovecraft's Beyond the Gates of the Silver Key Yog-Sothoth appears as a literal threshold guardian on Randolph Carter's astral journey, marking the point where Carter must choose between returning to his normal life or exploring the universe (but risking never getting back).
- J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone: Though done quite subtly, this is Draco Malfoy's function throughout the first book—he offers Harry his hand in friendship and thus causes Harry to openly refuse it and Slytherin House, instigates the Rememberall fiasco that ends in Harry becoming Seeker, tricks Harry into the midnight duel that leads to him finding Fluffy, and practically leads Harry right to the villain during detention in the Forbidden Forest. Basically, if Draco Malfoy hadn't been around in Philosopher's Stone, Voldy might've risen before the school year ended.
- Does this justify the trope Draco in Leather Pants?
- In James Swallow's Warhammer 40,000 novel Red Fury, Gorn insists that Rafen give him the message intended for Lord Seth. Rafen demands to be treated with respect. Gorn's reaction is that he has some fire after all.
- The Wee Free Men has several. First there's the supernatural incursions onto the Chalk, which Tiffany must stand up to to demonstrate she's the Hag o' the Chalklands (Jenny Greenteeth, the Headless Horseman, and the Grimhounds). Then when she's entered Fairyland there's the dromes, which she has to overcome in order to face the Queen.
- Humphrey employs guardians to keep people out of his castle in Xanth. Of course as the Magician of Information, he always knows who is coming to visit and devises the guardians with that in mind. More impressively, he tends to schedule so that his present visitors will prove suitable guardians for expected future visitors. He's managed to at least once maintain the pattern when there were no inhabitants of his castle and it was left technically undefended, even ensuring visitors would receive their answers in his absence.
- In the Earthsea Trilogy, graduating from the school of magic in Roke begins with the realization that it has a Threshold Guardian.
- Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which follows Hero's Journey very closely, puts a number of challenges before young Simon that he must rise to in order to become The Hero. One of these occurs when he is wandering Aldheorte Forest, starving and alone. He encounters a Sitha man trapped in a woodcutter's net. When the woodcutter returns, Simon must make a choice to help the Sitha or abandon him to his fate. Choosing to help gains him a powerful future ally and is the first step to bringing the Sithi out of their isolation from mortal affairs. It also earns him the White Arrow which is instrumental at the climax. That one choice literally saves the entire world.
- Septimus Heap:
- The Toll-Man and the DoorKeeper in Queste of the House of Foryx.
- Tertius Fume in Darke of the antechamber of the Dungeon Number One.
- In Gene Stratton Porter's Freckles, when Freckles looks for work at the camp, the Camp Cook tells him the boss won't take him.
- Don Quixote deconstructs this trope: Where can you find a Threshold Guardian in Real Life? Why, in that condescend MoralGuardian that warns you against the evils of Escapism, SEX, and The New Rock and Roll! After the first sally of Don Quixote he is discouraged because he didn’t find any dragon, enchanter nor any Damsel in Distress. His family asks the curate and the barber help as MoralGuardians to destroy Don Quixote delusions, but their Pitying Perversion makes them pull a Revealing Coverup that involves A Wizard Did It, enforcing the delusions they were intenting to destroy, making them Threshold Guardians.
- In George R. R. Martin's "The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr," the heroine travels between universes by magical Cool Gates, and she's been doing it long enough to know there's always a guardian who'll try to stop her from leaving. This time it's Laren Dorr ... who's come to truly love her, and pushes her through the gate.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Cordelia Chase, in season 1, provides an excellent example of a non-adversarial Threshold Guardian: when she invites Buffy to join the popular girls' clique, she forces Buffy to choose between her calling as the Slayer and her desire to be a popular girl.
- The demon Skip acts as one for Cordelia herself. Making her choose between her dream, or her duty as Angel's seer.
- Of course, as it's later revealed, Skip was one of Jasmine's minions, and was manipulating Cordelia into making certain choices.
- Sebastian, the Vorlon inquisitor, in Babylon 5 tests Delenn's commitment.
- The Gatekeeper in the Merlin episode "Eye of the Phoenix". It was combined with Only the Worthy May Pass because he kept most people away from the Fisher King's lands, but the trio of Arthur, Merlin and Gwaine (Stregnth,Courage and Magic) were the ones he foresaw breaking the curse on the land.
Myths & Religion
- The girtablullus, a.k.a. scorpion-men, who guard the passage of the sun in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
- Almost all of the strange people and creatures encountered by the Knights of the Round Table while on the Grail Quest acted as Threshold Guardians; most knights failed their challenges.
- Mirrored specifically by the Three Trials in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- Hero's Journey is a recommended template for astral quests in the roleplaying game Shadowrun, so you get lots of these. But special mention goes to the mysterious Dweller on the Threshold, encountered at the beginning of every astral quest, who tests both the mage's resolve and their ability. In-universe, it's thought to be there, or possibly have been put there, as a safety precaution to prevent mages from biting off more than they can chew.
- The video game version of Shadowrun also includes the Dweller (see Tabletop Games, above).
- In Diablo II, the Ancients in Act 5.
- In the God of War series, many of these stand in Kratos's way, such as sacrificing a random soldier through incineration.
- Nearly subverted in that Kratos has absolutely no qualms about bashing the guardians' heads to a bloody pulp on the threshold, and then smashing the threshold itself for good measure.
- Dark Sector features such a guardian; moreover, the level where it appears is actually called 'Threshold Guardian.'
- In World of Warcraft, certain raid encounters are known as "gear checks". A Party Wipe on one is a subtle hint from the developers that you might not fare any better on the later encounters.
- Some fights are complicated or unpredictable or require quick reactions. Gear checks, on the other hand, just require that everyone kill the boss as quickly as they can without dying, but they are tuned (boss's damage on the main tank, for example, or maybe a timer at the end of which the boss starts doing massive damage) such that doing so requires some of the best gear available thus far.
- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has one in the main game in the form of Lucien La Chance, your ticket into the Dark Brotherhood, and a second in its Shivering Isles expansion, in the form of Servile Snarker / Only Sane Man Haskill. Both these characters greet you in a conversation after passing a prerequisite for their respective factions, and offer you the archetypal choice of turning your back on them and leading a normal life or undertaking their quests.
- In Devil May Cry 3, Most of the bosses function like this, and Defeat Means Friendship in the Mega Man style. Dante cheerfully tears his way through all of them regardless, but three of the bosses in particular(Ceberus, Vergil (2), and the Shadow) function as true Threshold Guardians. The Shadow gets special mention because it has both literal and metaphorical significance... which Dante promptly subverts.
(after entering a roiling door of shadow, Dante sees his own shadow rise up from the floor and take on his Devil Trigger countenance)
- Lady and Vergil are both Threshold Guardians of the metaphorical sort. Really, the entire game actually serves as this.
- In The Legend of Zelda, these are frequently present, as one would expect from a series focused on Hero's Journey.
- The first encounters with both the pirates and the King of Red Lions in The Wind Waker place them in this role, with the latter asking pretty much the same questions as the page quote. Later on, the Tower of the Gods in its entirety is a more literal version of this trope.
- In Twilight Princess, Midna serves as this in her first appearances and again, the statues in the Sacred Grove are a more literal version.
- The Shadows in Persona 4 are Threshold Guardians that embody everything people don't like about themselves. Denying them is the wrong thing to do and leads to a boss fight. Every party member except the main character has to face his/her personal Shadow and defeat/accept it both to grow as people and to gain their own Personas. The main character's Threshold Guardian, on the other hand, is the entire game itself.
- Baretreenu serves this purpose in Blaze Union, stipulating that her son must battle her to the death if he really wants full access to his demon powers, thus proving his resolve. Unfortunately, in this case it's not so much "resolve" as "abject terror of failing". Gulcasa walks out of this encounter empowered, orphaned, and even more traumatized than he already had been. A little later on in the game, Soltier tries to act as one of these too, but by then Gulcasa has gotten sick of hearing it.
- Duncan in Dragon Age acts as the Theshold Guardian during the Joining Ritual, which tests the resolve of potential Grey Warden recruits. When Ser Jory learns that this involves drinking Darkspawn blood and is potentially lethal, he foolishly draws his sword and tries to back out. Duncan swiftly kills him, hands the Joining Cup to the protagonist and makes it very clear that there is no turning back.
- The wonderflonium heist and death ray construction in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog each represent thresholds on Dr. Horrible's Start of Darkness. The hesitation in the first—and lack of hesitation in the second—signal exactly how far down the slippery slope the hero (er, protagonist) has gone.
- Minus, here. Note that minus is the one conjuring up the guardian and trials, just for fun.
- Order of the Stick: The Oracle of the Sunken Valley uses three tests:
- These keep out those who can't handle the impact of knowing the future... And keep the Oracle from being bothered too often.
- In Endstone, Jon is taking on the guardian to a really powerful stone.
- In Sinfest, Baby Blue takes on this role for a strip.
- The Teen Titans episode "The Quest" is really one big Homage to this trope.
- Yugo meets a Threshold Guardian in the person of Adamaï, his dragon brother, and the Improvised Golems he conjures, who are putting the hero's Eliatrope powers to the test.
- Later, the demon Rubilax himself, usually sealed into a sword, officies as a Threshold Guardian to Sadlygrove, when his master, Goultard, frees the Shushu from the sword. Sadlygrove has to fight and beat Rubilax to earn his respect, as he can't hope staying a Shushu guardian otherwise.
- Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender goes through this in his backstory. The Air Nomads elders decide to take him away from his guardian Gyatso, as they feel that Gyatso is impeding Aang's progress as the Avatar. Notable in that Aang fails at the Threshold; rather than committing himself to the path of the Avatar, he runs away, gets himself frozen in ice for a hundred years, thus allowing the world to go to hell without him. (The sad part is that, had Aang remained, Gyatso would likely have run away with him.)
- In ThunderCats (2011) arc "The Trials of Lion-O", the Spirit Stone makes Lion-O face guardians in the form of the other Thundercats that challenge him to overcome his various flaws. Each guard keys that he must win through defeating their challenges, which then open gateways to proceed further in the trials, given to him to see if he is worthy of a second chance at life.