In the previous post on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, I talked about the unknown place that we get to once we leave the comfort of home (or the known). Psychologically, we can see that as a place with monsters and demons conjured mostly by our imagination and therefore not real. The unknown place, often represented by dark places like forests, caves, and the depth of the sea, is never uninhabited. The guardian is waiting to get any hero who’s unprepared to undertake the journey.

The Guardian

The guardian waits either at the threshold or somewhere inside the unknown place. He/she/it has a purpose: to keep those who don’t belong out. Death (or at least a great deal of pain!) comes to those who enter unprepared. At the same time, the hero can’t progress on his journey without getting past the guardian and going through the unknown place.

The guardian, Campbell says, is tricky to deal with. Making it past the guardian takes courage and intelligence, which really means understanding the guardian, why he/she/it is there and how to get past him/her/it. To me, this means examining what exactly is blocking our progress, no matter how ugly it is, so that we can understand how to deal with it.

Let’s say we were raised to believe that some occupations lead to success and some don’t. Being a lawyer, for instance, is preferable to being a teacher in nearly every way, according to many people. So we did law school, we paid some dues, and we’ve now been at a respectable law firm for five years. But then we get the call to action, and suddenly we find ourselves daydreaming about doing something really crazy like traveling the world or starting a business in a totally new field or working on a creative project.

But then there’s that nagging belief that was planted within us so many years ago. None of those daydreams are what “real success” is all about. So we figure we’re just being stupid and go on with our life. Of course the call to action keeps nagging at us, at times worse than others. But then that belief keeps popping up that if we follow our daydreams, we’re throwing away “real success,” the kind that grown-ups have.

The “hero” who continues to deny the legitimacy of his daydreams, no matter how wacko, is unprepared for the journey. Even if he rationalizes the choice to leave the law firm and try something new, he’s going to putter out quickly because he wasn’t truly ready for such a drastic change. Once he meets up with some obstacles, he’ll give up and retreat. The illusion of “real success” acts as a guardian. If he couldn’t break through that and validate his crazy daydreams then he had no business starting out on the journey in the first place.

Screwing Up

Campbell retells a story to illustrate an unsuccessful handling of the guardian. In the first story, a man takes a caravan through the desert. Having been warned of limited water, he takes plenty with him, despite how it weighs down his caravan. An ogre who inhabits the desert spots him and cleverly convinces him that there’s plenty of water down the road so why lug all that water with him? The man believes him and pours it out. When he and his fellow travelers discover there’s no water in this desert, they become too weak to fight off the ogre and his pals later on and become their dinner.

This man’s downfall was believing what he wanted to believe instead of the knowledge he was given (in this case). Sometimes we do receive useful knowledge from others to help us get past the guardian. A therapist, for instance, can illuminate a guardian for an abuse survivor who’s making a journey away from her abuser.

However, we can also get into trouble when we rely too much on other people’s experiences. Knowledge also comes from self-study and our intuition. When we’re dealing with the guardian, we need all the tools we can get our hands on! In addition, we can never be 100% prepared for the truly worthwhile journey, so we need to be flexible, creative, and prepared to do some fast thinking.


Campbell then tells another story to show how victory can be won over the guardian of the threshold. A prince (a past incarnation of the future Buddha) went through training as a warrior and was given five weapons. Despite warnings from the townspeople, he courageously enters a forest where an ogre lives. Upon meeting the ogre, he’s threatened by him but isn’t afraid. Even after unsuccessfully using his five weapons on the ogre, he isn’t afraid.

His courage has already impressed the ogre. When he asks the prince why he isn’t afraid, the prince replies that he knows death isn’t the end, so he isn’t afraid of it. He also has a thunderbolt within him that will tear the ogre to pieces if he devours him. The ogre believes him and lets him go. The prince transforms the ogre into a respectable creature and goes peacefully on his way.

The five weapons, Campbell tells us, represent the five senses or what we experience on the material plane. The thunderbolt represents a deeper knowledge, including the knowledge that this material world is an illusion and greater things await us beyond. Unlike the man with the caravan in the previous story, the prince doesn’t fall for what he’s told, nor does he believe only what he wants to believe. He knows (through the guidance of wise teachers, his own study, and intuition) what’s true and trusts that knowledge, and that gives him courage.

If we see the ogres in these stories as the demons within the mind, we can see two choices. We can believe them and thus be devoured by them, or we can show courage and wisdom, trust what we know to be true, and refuse to give into them. When we’re prepared to do that, we can get past the guardian.