A Fairy Tale prince reads his options:
"Who rides straight forward shall know both hunger and cold.
Who rides to the right shall live, though his steed be dead.
Who rides to the left shall die, though his steed shall live."
Why did his brothers turn back at this point?
"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."
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. In simpler terms, the Threshold Guardian exists to make sure the Hero is prepared for his adventure.
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
— next, the hero will end up in the Belly of the Whale
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.
In Video Games
, these guys may be responsible for a Broken Bridge
. Also, compare Beef Gate
, which is more on the game mechanics side of things than the more plot-centric Threshold Guardians
A guardian challenging an Anti-Hero
may provide them with the opportunity to prove their willingness to perform morally questionable
or outright evil
acts, such as sacrificing others.
Compare Ancient Order of Protectors
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Anime & Manga
- The many Sanctuary challenges in the Saint Seiya series. Each Gold Saint is a Threshold Guardian by him/herself.
- All the Guardians, Proctors and Test Administrators from Tower of God count as this, meticulously testing every body who wants to reach the top, but Headon deserves special mention as he was the first to test Baam and tested his courage and resolve to find Rachel.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In YuYu Hakusho, Genkai serves this role beautifully for Yusuke in the Dark Tournament arc.
- Yukio is this to Rock in Black Lagoon. Subverted when he decides to Take a Third Option.
- HeartCatch Pretty Cure! does this twice for the heroines' Mid-Season Upgrade - the first is a fight with Tsubomi's grandmother's fairy partner Coupe in a test of resolve just to obtain the item. The second is a fight with their Mirages, representing their major hang ups. The last one doubles as a Secret Test of Character.
- Doki Doki Pretty Cure has Melan who can transform into a dragon. Unlike Coupe, the Pretty Cures cannot defeat her, but they still gain the Legendary Mirror.
- In Digimon Frontier, Dark Trailmon serves as this for Takuya, who at the time is having a Heroic BSOD because of the heroes' defeat by Duskmon.
- Yunan, the wandering Magi is this to Morgiana in Magi – Labyrinth of Magic. She meets him in the Great Cliff between the Dark Continent (the homeland she longs to see) and tells her that there's some Fanalis left in there. But he declares that once she crosses, she'll never come back since war will start soon in the realms from where she comes, where her friends remain. She chooses to return and help her friends instead of finding her origins, and Yunan decides to join her to help.
- Yamori from Tokyo Ghoul unintentionally serves as one to Kaneki, when he captures and tortures the idealistic young man for a week and a half. Kaneki is only able to free himself and defeat his tormenter when he fully accepts his Ghoul nature, and decides to become "someone that hurts" rather than "someone that is hurt". This decision is a crossroads for the series, with Kaneki embarking on a quest to destroy Aogiri Tree that sees him transform into a ruthless and unstable Anti-Hero.
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 does he indicate his preparedness to take on Tai Lung... who may be a Threshold Guardian himself, if the plans for a series of films are any indication.
Films — Live-Action
- Star Wars:
- In A New Hope, Mos Eisley is the First Threshold, and the stormtroopers are its Guardians. Luke's escape from them aboard the Millenium Falcon is his crossing of the threshold.
- 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 Never Ending 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.
- The Childlike Empress' chancellor also acts as a Threshold Guardian, warning Atreyu of the danger ahead, to leave on his quest alone, and to abandon everything but the Auryn. Atreyu unwittingly ignores the caution to travel alone, leading to the death of his beloved horse, Artax.
- 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, and listens to Sir Didymus's statement that none may pass without first asking for his 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.
Sir Lancelot: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Right. Off you go.
- 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.
- It's a Wonderful Life: Inverted with everyone who offers George the chance to left Bedford Falls. It seems that George does a Refusal of the Call every time. The truth is that his true call is staying and looking for his hometown.
- The Banshee in Avatar. It chases Jake away from the group, causing him to head deeper into the forest. This is how Jake eventually meets the Na'vi.
- Magali is sort of a threshold guardian in the Astral Dawn series. She watches over the exit of the Way of Ascension, a tunnel of light that funnels ascending spirits into the astral plane. She's the first person Caspian meets after flying through it in pursuit of Ixchel.
- 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 HP 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.
- Hercules in Rick Riordan's The Heroes of Olympus.
- 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 The 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 moral guardian that warns you against the evils of escapism, sex, and The New Rock & 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 Moral Guardians to destroy Don Quixote's delusions, but their Condescending Compassion makes them pull a Revealing Cover-Up that involves A Wizard Did It, enforcing the delusions they were intenting to destroy, making them Threshold Guardians.
- In E. D. Baker's The Wide-Awake Princess, inverted. Annie meets an old woman along the way who asks for some food. Annie hands it over. The old woman contemptuously throws it away — and finds herself with toads and snakes falling from her mouth in the best fairy tale style.
- Zeus Is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure has a number of them:
- The "guardian-tree" at Zeus's old temple.
- Marcus, who runs the ferry to Hades six months out of the year when Charon takes vacation
- Cerberus, guarding the gates to Hades
- The Orthlaelapsian Wraith, which guards the nine cans in which the Titans are imprisoned...in the back room of an antiques shop in Swindon
- Sebastian, the Vorlon inquisitor, in Babylon 5 tests Delenn's commitment.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kalem strays into this in The Legend Of William Tell, especially in Master of Doubt where her goal is to get Will to think about things instead of simply rushing in. Will has to logic his way past the Knights and Knaves problem while his Smart Guy is elsewhere and in danger.
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.
- The Bible: David had two of these:
- The giant Goliath mocked the people of Israel and their God, and not a man in the army would go up against him, and so it fell to a twelve-year-old boy with no military training to do the deed, and so a hero was born.
- King Saul was completely bug-eyed crazy for the last decade of his life, partially because the Lord had already decreed that his son Jonathan would not succeed him as king, partially because the people already loved David more than him, and partially because David sat in his court strumming a harp day in and day out. And so Saul ran him out of town and set to trying to kill him. This forced David to run for years. David could easily have killed him on at least one occasion, but it was decreed, "touch not the Lord's anointed." The Lord knew what was going to happen with Saul, and David had to trust that it would work out.
- The 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.
- Blaze Union: Baretreenu serves this purpose, 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.
- Dark Sector: Features such a guardian; moreover, the level where it appears is actually called 'Threshold Guardian.'
- 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)
Dante: I know why you're here. You're here to ask me some questions. Well too bad, I've already answered them myself. I don't need you anymore.
Shadow: (draws its sword)
Dante: Come on, you poser.
- Lady and Vergil are both Threshold Guardians of the metaphorical sort. Really, the entire game actually serves as this.
- Diablo II: The Ancients in Act 5.
- Dragon Age: Origins: Duncan 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 Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Has one in the main game in the form of Lucien Lachance, 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.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: To even enter the College of Winterhold you must demonstrate to Faralda some skill in magic by casting a relatively basic spell of her request. If you don't have the spell at hand, she'll teach it to you for a very small price. Alternatively, Shouting will be enough to impress her. Also, gaining admittance to the Dark Brotherhood involves Astrid ordering you to kill one of three individuals she's captured and bound up at the moment (though you can also use this opportunity to kill Astrid, setting you up for the quest to destroy the Dark Brotherhood instead). Also, when you enter Sovngarde, you must defeat Tsun, shield-thane of Shor in order to enter the Halls of Valor.
- God of War: In the series, many of these stand in Kratos's way, such as sacrificing a random soldier through incineration. Subverted Trope 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.
- Kirby: Meta Knight acts as this for Kirby. This is most notable in Kirby's Adventure, where Meta Knight sometimes gives Kirby a power-up, sometimes requires you to defeat his minions to pass, and is one of the last bosses to fight.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Midna serves as this in her first appearances and again, the statues in the Sacred Grove are a more literal version.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: The first encounters with both the pirates and the King of Red Lions 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.
- Persona 4: The Shadows 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.
- Pokémon: The Gym Leaders 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.
- Shadowrun: The video game version also includes the Dweller (see Tabletop Games, above).
- Spec Ops: The Line: The game's defining moment counts as a Threshold Guardian.
- 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.
- Norushen is a more traditional example in Siege of Orgrimmar, albeit one that is also a boss battle. In order to enter the room where the Heart of Y'Shaarj was kept and the Sha of Pride now is, he says the players have to purge themselves of their corruption, which involves defeating a large Amalgamation of Corruption that can only take full damage from players who have completed individual trials. A bar is shown to indicate how much corruption the players still have, and that same bar gradually fills during the Sha of Pride battle, signifying that you need to purify yourselves before facing it.
- Dr. Bian Souldark serves as this in every iteration of Super Robot Wars he appears in, challenging the heroes to fight him to prove that they're worthy to take on the aliens.
- The Eidolons in Final Fantasy XIII appear to all L'Cie in times of great emotional conflict. The L'Cie must overcome the Eidolons in a way that also helps them overcome the issues that summoned the Eidolons in the first place. Defeating them allows the L'Cie to summon the Eidolons in times of need.
- Shirou of Fate/stay night crosses a threshold in each of the three routes, and his decision in each defines his relationship to his ideal of becoming a hero.
- In Fate, Shirou is confronted by Kirei and his own memories of the fire which destroyed his original life. Faced with the choice of following his ideal without regrets or changing what has already occurred, he chooses to move forward.
- In Unlimited Blade Works, Shirou is confronted by Archer, his future self, and the knowledge of how pursuing an impossible ideal will break him. Shirou refuses to accept defeat and pushes on toward his dream because it is worth pursuing, despite the cost.
- In Heaven's Feel, Shirou is confronted by Archer and the choice of saving Sakura or the hundreds she may kill during her rampages. Faced with this choice, Shirou abandons his ideal in order to save the girl he loves.
- A far more chilling reaction and immediate end to the story is if Shirou chooses to kill Sakura and follow the same path as Kiritsugu.
- 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.
- The Teen Titans episode "The Quest" is really one big Homage to this trope.
- Yugo meets a Threshold Guardian in the person of Adamaď, his dragon brother, and the improvised golem 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. Aang is one of the heros who is defeated and symbolically killed at the Threshold, as fleeing the Threshold Guardians gets him frozen in ice for a hundred years until he wakes up in the Belly of the Whale.
- Zuko has to defeat Commander Zhao before proceeding with his quest to find the Avatar.
- The Order of the White Lotus, Lin Bei Fong, and Tenzin later serve as Korra's threshold guardians in The Legend of Korra.
- 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.