I’m beginning a series of posts about Archetypes & the Hero’s Journey – elements that I love finding in literature/film and that I infuse into my own storytelling.
Stories of heroes (even realistic ones) begin when the hero gets “a call” to action (I will have a post about “The Call” next week). For now, just know that the call is a request or impulse to begin the journey, accept a mission, or commit to a new goal. Yet even before this happens, we have to get to know our hero and the world in which he lives.
The hero usually begins in an ordinary, mundane world (small town, big city, somewhere familiar and unremarkable). He may seem like a common man and may not exhibit any particular signs of greatness. He is comfortable in this world and these surroundings. It is only in leaving this ordinary world for the sacred world that he can gain new experiences and change. The sacred world is the new world of mystery that will force the hero to change.
The ordinary world does not have to be a world with which you are familiar, but it must seem ordinary to the hero. As readers, we must come to understand this world so that we can appreciate that the hero is suddenly a “fish out of water” when he leaves.
The hero must cross the first threshold in order to begin his journey. A threshold is a dividing line separating one area from another (rivers, doorways, borders, etc.). While the hero will likely cross several thresholds during his journey, the most important one he must cross is the first one: the line that separates his ordinary world from the unknown and dangerous sacred world. The barrier between the two worlds is usually pretty obvious. This is the first test of the hero’s conviction. There may be a person or thing guarding the threshold (the threshold guardian) who will try to stop the hero at this point.
- In Major League, the ordinary world is 1980s pollution filled Cleveland with their long history of losing baseball seasons. Some of the players have been elsewhere (Mexico or a prison in California), but Cleveland is clearly the ordinary world. In this case, the sacred world is still geographically the same as the sacred. The Sacred World would be the world of winning. During spring training, the coaches are threshold guardians who will decide whether or not the individual players make it into the major leagues. After that, the coaches become true mentors while each team they face can be seen as threshold guardians trying to prevent the Indians from winning. There are other thresholds in the story, including: Vaughn getting out of prison, the team climbing up in the standings, and finally winning the division title.
- When we first meet young Harry Potter, he is living underneath the staircase in his step-parents’ home. He isn’t treated well and life could be a lot better. This is Harry’s ordinary world. Note that most of the novels/movies begin with Harry in this ordinary world before he leaves and enters the sacred world of magic. His step parents are the Threshold Guardians who do everything they can from keeping Harry out of the sacred world. The major threshold that he must cross is, of course, Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross train station in London.
- The boys in Stand By Me live in the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. The sacred world is the unexplored path along the train tracks they follow until they find the missing boy’s dead body. When they first step onto the tracks, they pause at the bridge—an obvious threshold separating their hometown from the unknown. Minutes later, they encounter the Threshold guardian: Chopper—the dog in the junkyard. Of course, when they try crossing the big river later in the day, the approaching train becomes a threshold guardian that very nearly kills them.
- As stated in the opening line of The Godfather, the ordinary world is America (“I believe in America”), but the story is really about the sacred world within the Italian mafia (1945 – 1955). Michael Corleone literally sits on the edge of these worlds in the opening wedding scene—sitting with his girlfriend away from the rest of the family. He has one foot in each world: he is a decorated soldier who fought in WW II—clearly a part of the ordinary America that he has defended with this life, but he is also son of the Godfather of the Italian mafia and grew up inside, though not truly a part of, that world. As he explains things to his girlfriend, “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” As this is the story of an antihero, Michael will, of course, decide to join the family and enter the world of crime that he condemns in the beginning of the story. In this case, he has known the sacred and secretive world of the mafia all his life, it is just that he doesn’t want to be a part of it. Michael does not accept the call until about ½ way into the film (normally, this happens at the end of act I, or about 30 minutes in). Michael’s threshold guardians are his own family members who don’t want him in the sacred world: many are happy that he found a life outside of it. Once Michael decides to accept the call, they try to convince him to stay out. Michael’s threshold is a moral one: he kills two people and therefore “crosses the line.”
- In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam leave their peaceful ordinary world in the Shire and embark on the long road to (hopefully) meet up with Gandalf the wizard. As they hike across vast landscapes, Sam stops where the wheat turns a new color and says, “If I take another step, I’ll be farther from home than I’ve ever been.” The threshold guardian is the scarecrow (I love the subtlety). When they cross that line of wheat, Frodo and Sam have entered the new and mysterious Sacred World where they will be tested. There are dozens of thresholds and guardians in this story.
- Batman/Bruce Wayne leaves his ordinary world of Gotham City in Batman Begins, takes a boat to China (threshold = ocean), and has many new experiences in the sacred world as he studies the criminal element and the nature of fear. When he returns years later, he begins a new stage of his life as Batman.
- In the original Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker’s ordinary world is the boring desert planet of Tatooine. Once Luke decides to join Obi-Wan on his mission, they are stopped by the evil Empire’s guards, the Stormtroppers. After Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick on the soldiers, Luke gets in a bar fight with a disgruntled alien who doesn’t like him. After that, there are even more Stormtroppers who try to stop our heroes from getting on a spaceship and leaving the planet. Each person who tries to stop Luke is a Threshold Guardian—attempting to prevent him from leaving his ordinary world and entering the sacred world of a galaxy far, far away.