The hero’s destination (AKA, the great unknown) is a land where events are often chaotic and uncontrollable, operating through rules and processes the hero does not understand.
In older stories, we symbolize this place as a dark wood, the sea beyond the horizon, the faerie ring in the meadow, or simply the world outside the village.
In terms of the psyche, the unknown symbolizes man’s unconscious mind; while this realm might contain magic and treasure, it might also contain monsters and daemons and traps from which one might never escape.
Since the unconscious is a dangerous place, the psyche guards the entrance to the deeper level of mind with a Dweller of the Threshold. If we blunder upon that entrance or arrive there intentionally but are not ready to proceed, the Guardian will chase us away.
When we are ready, we can pass by, perhaps not without a fight, and then learn who we are at our deepest levels.At the threshold, mythic heroes may have to take a leap of faith, make a strong, logical decision, and/or contend with guardians there between the known and unknown worlds.
Joseph Campbell (1) writes that beyond the threshold guardian is:“Darkness, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the member of the tribe. The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored.”
The threshold is a point of no return. Once the hero steps through it or past it, the die is cast, the next phase of the adventure begins, and quite likely the man or woman stepping into the uncertainty of next experiences will never be the same again.
The threshold in the myth about the Athenian youth Theseus is represented by his moment of choice: he must either set out on a quest to slay the Minotaur that lurks in the labyrinth beneath Crete or stay home. His father didn’t want him to go. When he decided to get on the boat with other men and head for Crete, he crossed the threshold.
Likewise, in the myth about Perseus and the Medussa, the threshold moment is a time of decision. When Perseus told King Polydectes that he would accept the challenge to bring back the head of the Gorgon Medussa, he crossed the threshold.
Down through the years, parents have said that various monsters lurk outside in the dark as a means of dissuading their children from sneaking outside at night. Village elders often told the populace that monsters roamed the area outside the village gates to keep people from wandering off into the woods.
Joseph Campbell (2) notes that “the Arcadian god Pan is the best known Classical example of a dangerous presence dwelling just beyond the protected zone of the village boundary.” Humans encountering Pan tended to run in panic, yet he could be a friend to those who paid him the proper respect.Sometimes the threshold is represented as a place.
In the movie Star Wars,“The people at the threshold are the ones who have gone to the other side and come back. They are worldly as opposed to the hero who is still innocent. The experience of the threshold passage is truly strange and exotic. Those at the threshold have seen amazing marvels such as the Hero has never witnessed. Joseph Campbell often commented the threshold passage is one of the most dangerous ‘because it is where one passes from this realm of the reliable world we know, into a realm completely beyond our powers.’” (3)
Reg Harris, (4) co-author of The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life sees the threshold as the place where we choose to move ahead in our own lives when the time is right:“Often at the threshold, we encounter people, beings, or situations which block our passage. These ‘threshold guardians’ have two functions. They protect us by keeping us from taking journeys for which we are unready or unprepared. However, once we are ready to meet the challenge, they step aside and point the way. More importantly, to pass the guardian is to make a commitment, to say: ‘I’m ready. I can do this.’”
(1) The Hero With a Thousand Faces
(2) The Hero With a Thousand Faces
(3) Stocker, Brian, Star Wars and the Mythic Quest – An Interview with Jonathan Young, http://www.castlebooks.com/.
(4) Harris, Reg, “The Hero’s Journey – Life’s Great Adventure,” adapted from Harris, Reg and Thompson Susan, The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life.