Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Threshold Guardians and the Forbidden Door

As writers, whether consciously or unconsciously, we employ the use of archetypes to transport our characters better into the reader's mind. In my understanding, there are two types of archetypes: those I like to call character archetypes which distinguish personalities (the nurturer, the librarian, the femme fatale, the bad boy), and another set I call storyline archetypes (the hero, the trickster, the shadow, the mentor, the threshold guardian) which defines that character's role in the story.

Each of these sets of archetypes deserve a post on their own, which I will do in the future. Today, however, I'd like to focus on one particular storyline archetype--the threshold guardian.

Threshold Guardians are placed at portals to new worlds or gateways to new challenges to keep the unworthy out. A Guardian may be a good-hearted ally of the hero, looking out for his best interest, or he may be an accomplice of the villain, seeking to harm or hinder the hero from completing his quest. Either way, as part of his quest, the hero will be tested by his ability to overcome or win over the many Threshold Guardians he will encounter along the way.

From the Portrait of the Pink Lady, to Dobby sealing the entry to Platform 9¾ in CoS, to the grindylows guarding the “treasures” in the lake during the Triwizard Tournament, Harry encounters numerous thresholds and their guardians throughout the series. However, I’d like to focus on one type of Gateway and Guardian to look at closer.

In his book The Writer's Journey, author Christopher Vogler talks about the Law of the Secret Door (p. 112-113) (also related to Carl Jung's "Forbidden Door"). Many myths include a set-up whereby the heroine is told she must never eat from a certain tree, never open a certain box, or never pass through a certain door, upon pain of death. Of course the myths I’m referring to are Eve in the Garden of Eden, Pandora with her box, and Belle in Beauty and the Beast. We all know what happens, what is sure to happen anytime this sort of situation presents itself in a story. If you have children, you probably have this happen quite regularly in your life as well.

The power of curiosity is universal. In the words of the immortal Dumbledore, "Curiosity is not a sin.... But we should exercise caution with our curiosity... yes, indeed" (p. 598, GoF). Whereas later in the series Harry more strongly develops his own driving need to set the world right by stopping Voldemort, in the first three books, curiosity is one of the prime motivators driving on Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

It seems to me there is a forbidden door in each book, and a guardian to go with it. This forbidden door leads directly to the Inmost Cave where the Ordeal (part of the Hero's Journey that we will discuss in another post) occurs:
  1. PS/SS -- Forbidden Door: right hand side of the third floor corridor that they are forbidden from entering
    Guardian: Fluffy

  2. CoS -- Forbidden Door: haunted girls’ restroom (with Percy forbidding Ron to go anywhere near it)
    Guardian: Moaning Myrtle

  3. PoA -- Forbidden Door: The Shrieking Shack
    Guardian: Whomping Willow (and Crookshanks leads the way)
  4. Beyond these first three books, the Secret Door and its Guardian gets a bit murkier, but they’re still there.
  5. GoF -- Forbidden Door: Portal to the Graveyard
    Guardian: Pseudo Mad-Eye. This is an interesting one because not only is Pseudo Mad-Eye the portal’s Guardian, he’s also a shapeshifter in disguise. Talk about combining your archetypes!

  6. OotP -- Forbidden Door: Harry’s mind holds the secret door in this book. His dreams show him clearly the secret door to the DoM, and his mind holds the “forbidden” and dangerous connection to Voldemort.
    Guardian: Snape, through Occlumency lessons, guards the door to Harry’s mind.

  7. HBP -- Forbidden Door: Tom Riddle’s cave is symbolic of the secret door which was forbidden him as a youth and he has explored fully as an adult.
    Guardian: Voldemort has set many protections on his cave to protect his Horcrux, but it seems to me that the Inferi serve as the classic Threshold Guardians.

  8. DH -- Forbidden Door: I would argue that the secret door in this last book is one that Harry, in the end, refuses to break into. It is the door into Dumbledore’s tomb to retrieve the Elder Wand. Voldemort violates this sacred space, stealing the wand, whereas Harry finally gets control over his fears and ambitions and follows Dumbledore’s wishes by focusing on the Horcruxes and leaving the Elder Wand to Voldemort.
    Guardian: Dumbledore would thus be the guardian of this last secret door.
Forbidden Doors are special thresholds and great tools for writers. They set up reader expectation for something powerful and dangerous to occur once that gateway is breached. They pull your readers in, engaging their own curiosity as they urge your heroine on through the secret door, then hold their breath as to what fate will befall her for her trespass. Make sure you have a powerful, interesting Guardian for such a special door.

Can you name some other Threshold Guardians from Harry Potter, both Secret or other? Have you worked with the Law of the Secret Door in any of your work?

Picture credit


  1. Wow! I really love your insight that the forbidden door of the seventh book is one Voldemort walked through, not Harry.

    Very good read!

  2. Thanks so much! I'm glad you liked it. And thanks for visiting. :-)