When Joseph Campbell first wrote of The Threshold Guardian, he wrote of a guardian to what he called The Zone of Magnified Power; an obstacle to the hero’s progress. Campbell wrote of an obstacle that tests the hero, and one that, if overcome, can provide both knowledge and increased power to the triumphant hero on his or her journey to the elixir.
In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler provides a more down-to-earth interpretation of Campbell’s work and identifies many feature film characters who conform to the archetype. Each can vary enormously in power and stature. The villain’s humble bodyguard in an Ian Fleming yarn first tries to eliminate the hero, James Bond. It is only when he fails, and instead stands staring apprehensively at the barrel of Bond’s Walther PPK that he says. . . “Don’t kill me, Mister Bond, and I will tell you where Blofeld is hiding”.
Then we meet more benign Guardians who may wield more power, but offer lesser power magnification. ‘M’, who tells Bond to achieve the seemingly impossible, and save the world from certain destruction without upsetting the establishment, is a form of Threshold Guardian, but is also a powerful ally . In my own novel The Folks at Fifty-Eight we meet the sombre and pretentious Daniel Chambers, a Threshold Guardian who places all manner of obstacle in the path of the hero Hammond.
Outside of novels and cinema screens, we meet many of these people in the course of our daily lives, but seldom recognise them as such, and often consider them villains. The bureaucrat who insists on an orgy of form filling, before he or she will consider progressing your application. The pharmacy assistant, who insists you answer a series of inane questions, prior to dispensing an over-the-counter remedy. The committee member who blocks your membership of the sports club. The interviewer who turns down your application for that dream job. The slush-pile reader who rejected your cherished book proposal.
It is only by learning to negotiate these ‘obstacle placers’ that we are able to progress and enrich our daily lives.
However, not all are necessarily forces for evil or negativity. Occasionally we meet Threshold Guardians who may at first seem to be hindering our progress, but in truth are simply maintaining standards and culture.
How many times have we returned to a favourite place, some years after our initial visit, only to find that it has altered out of all recognition. Rarely is this metamorphosis for the better. It may have succumbed to the demands of commercial enterprise, or criminal activity, or become so popular that its original charm has been lost. It may simply have become worn out, or run down, or been modernised into blandness.
I can think of many such places from my childhood.
Benidorm, a once quaint fishing village, on Spain’s Costa Blanca, is now a nightmare hotchpotch of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. Streets that once charmed visitors, with all that was wonderful about ‘the essential Spain’ are now awash with ‘all-day breakfast bars and drunken British tourists. Puerto Banus, on Spain’s Costa del Sol, appears to be on the same tragic path to crassness, and is in imminent danger of becoming a garish monument to all that unfettered greed, organised crime, and corporate commercialism brings.
In France, on the hugely expensive Cote d’Azure, we see other examples; the brash commercialism of Nice and its famous Promenade des Anglais, sitting just a few kilometres along the coast from the quainter and more-appealing Croisette in Cannes.
Britain is not immune to the perils of commercialism and greed. As a lover of golf I have watched what I consider to be the decline of one of Britain’s greatest golf clubs. The beautiful and world famous Wentworth Club has improved its facilities, but somehow lost its uniqueness in succumbing to the dictates of commercialism, while a couple of miles away, the equally beautiful and famous Sunningdale Golf Club has retained its charm, defended its honour, and kept its soul.
Some will disagree with me. They will claim that Nice is more fun, or that Marbella is now less stuffy and more affordable, but I know which I prefer. Many will claim that Wentworth is more famous and more prestigious than Sunningdale, with finer facilities, a tougher test of golf, and a more welcoming atmosphere. They are entitled to their opinions, but I know where I would sooner be a member.
Some of this degeneration can be attributed to the cruel gods of progress and modernisation. Some can be attributed to growth of population, and the ravages of time, but whenever we return to a favourite haunt, and find it transformed into ugliness, we will usually find the absence of strong Threshold Guardians.
And, just as I highlighted in the previous paragraphs on the archetypal Threshold Guardians of novels and feature films, these powerful and influential characters, who protect our heritage and thwart this so-called progress, come in many shapes and guises.
On Spain’s Costa del Sol it was a man called Jesus Gil, who took time off from being the archetypal ‘villainous mayor’, to ensure both the safety of local residents and the cultural heritage of Marbella. Some refer to him as a Mafioso-style crook, who got but never served the prison sentence that he was undoubtedly due. Others remember him as the man who made Marbella safe for families to enjoy, without the unwanted attention of those drug pushers, prostitutes, petty criminals, and sleazy bar owners who are once again beginning to infest and infect the lovely Puerto Banus.
Jesus Gil. An archetypal villain? Perhaps, but without doubt a Threshold Guardian of the finest kind.
In the more tranquil and rarefied atmosphere of the Surrey countryside, Sunningdale Golf Club also has its Threshold Guardians. The committee at Sunningdale may be considered privileged and pretentious by many, and may or may not warrant that description, but those of us who fondly remember Sunningdale and Wentworth clubs, in days gone by, and who love the history and heritage of the game, are grateful for them.
And so next time you are thwarted by a Threshold Guardian, just remember that not all are forces for evil, and many are indeed forces for good. Think back to the places you loved as a child, remember how change is not always to be admired, and then think kind thoughts of those who seek to guard and protect.
Have a good one.