Russell F. Hirsch
The Hero’s Journey – Crossing the Threshold
The end of the beginning is nigh!
We move on to the third stage of a Hero’s Journey plot line, “Crossing the First Threshold.” This stage gives us some of the most iconic images in the history of children’s literature. It marks the moment when the plot of a story transitions from the Beginning (Act 1) to the Middle (Act 2).
So far, we have seen how a character in their everyday situation, or ‘Ordinary World,’ receives a Call to Adventure that thrusts them into a new situation. They may have their doubts about tackling this new situation and need encouragement or inspiration from another character before ultimately deciding to set off.
Now that they are ready, it’s time for them to actually enter that new situation!
I said this stage provides some of the most iconic moments in Children’s Literature, and its true—especially in children’s fantasy because in these stories the new situation is often literally a whole new world. Characters really do cross a threshold from our world into a new one and authors have come up with all sorts of inventive portals and hidden doorways to get characters from one world to another. One of my colleagues and good friends (you know who you are!) has several of his favourite portals tattooed on his chest!
Indeed, this is the stage when Alice goes down the rabbit hole, when the tornado sucks up Dorothy, and when the Pevensie kids find out what happens when you touch antique furniture.
CS Lewis gives his characters a variety of ways to get to Narnia, including the beloved wardrobe!
Though it had been going strong for two hundred years, children’s fantasy snowballed in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s, thanks mainly to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and of course, Harry Potter. Both series feature doorways between our world and others.
Fred–or perhaps George–Weasley in fine threshold-crossing form. I’d give him a score of 9.75 for this attempt…
The 2nd book in Pullman’s trilogy, The Subtle Knife, is named for a tool the characters use to cut windows into other worlds.
Characters don’t literally have to enter a new world to move into the Middle phase of a story. Sometimes they could just imagine it–or is he imagining?
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around– Maurice Sendak
Or they may really stay firmly in their world, but be thrust into a part of it they have never experienced before. In Avi’s Newberry Medal-winning novel, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, the protagonist is a young boy living in Medieval England. He is wrongly accused of stealing and has to flee the only village he has ever known. Avi reinforces the threshold-crossing moment by noting the border marker at the edge of the village.
Soon Lord Furnival’s manor house loomed before us. Light beamed through a window upon the road that ran before it. The light illuminated the boundary cross and I could see the mill just opposite the manor. To see the cross moved me greatly. It meant I was truly about to leave. (p. 50)
This is quite common. Writers—through their characters—often draw attention to the moment when these thresholds are crossed, signalling readers and viewers that the story is moving into a new phase.
Contemporary, realistic fiction involves crossing thresholds as well. Last post, I mentioned Junior, the protagonist of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior has not journeyed that far geographically-speaking in the story, but it’s essentially like he has entered a whole new world when he leaves his on-reservation school to go to the white school in town. Alexie spends an extra moment or two with the crossing of this threshold, as Junior finds the doors to the school locked when he first shows up and must wait for the janitor to come let him in. The locked doors are also symbolic of how entering a new situation has its share of barriers and obstacles.
In some cases, a character doesn’t travel to a new, special world, but rather, something or someone new enters their world. The children’s classic, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, is a fine example of this. Mr. Popper paints houses in New Jersey and likes reading about polar explorers in the evenings. Then, to his astonishment, a famous admiral answers his fan-mail from Antarctica by sending him a real penguin to take care of and the shenanigans are on!
Mr. Popper’s new pet penguin, Captain Cook, is very excited to enter the story!
And sometimes we’re the ones bursting into the Ordinary World of different creatures!
How do you handle a new situation or find your footing in a new world? With some ups and downs—as we’ll see in the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, Tests, Allies, and Enemies.
For these are some jolly good pictures, that nobody can deny!
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