This is # 11 in the Crossing the Threshold series.
Act Two: Descent and Initiation
Crossing the Threshold
The first four stages of the Hero’s Journey comprise Act One in the story and they are about separation. Now the moment comes when the hero must actually Cross the Threshold from the Ordinary World and go into the Special World. There is always some sort of a boundary that separates these two worlds. It may appear as a door, a bridge, a wilderness, an ocean, a forest, a river, it can be almost anything. However it appears it is the demarcation between two worlds. Harry Potter runs into a brick wall at Platform 9 ¾, Rapunzel leaves a stone and mortar tower and touches grass, Mattie and Rooster Cogburn ford a river into Indian Territory, Moses crosses a desert and leaves Egypt, Hero Boy steps onto the Polar Express. Sometimes the boundary crossing results in a crash. Chuck Noland’s plane crashes in the ocean, and Balian’s ship to the Holy Land is crushed by waves, both men wash up on distant shores in new worlds. Whatever the threshold is there is no doubt that the hero is out of his mundane world and has entered a new one.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The Special World is very different from the Ordinary World. Think of Dorothy waking up in Oz or Jake Sulley landing on Pandora in the movie Avatar. Both characters arrive in worlds that are radically different from the ones they left behind. The new environment of the special world forces the hero into a series of tests that actually serve as training for what lies ahead. He will also be forced to make new allies while being confronted with powerful enemies for the special world is not a safe place. This stage can go on for some time but it is always going in one direction…downward. If Act One is separation, Act Two begins with a descent.
Approach to Inmost Cave
The hero is pressing into the very heart of the new world where as Mr. Vogler writes “the greatest treasures are guarded by the greatest fears.” This is a dangerous journey that often goes underground to where the object of the quest is hidden. It can even be a descent into hell itself.
The Ordeal is where the hero hits bottom. It is the crisis of the heart; the facing of the greatest fear which usually is a death of sorts. It can be facing a failure, a death of a relationship, or an inner struggle. Whatever it is it becomes the turning point of the story.
My favorite Ordeal scene is the unmasking of the gladiator in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator. After winning ‘The Battle of Carthage’ in the arena Maximus is ordered to remove his helmet and reveal his identity to the emperor. When he does he comes face to face with Commodus the man who murdered his wife, son and the true emperor Marcus Aurelius. This is a life and death moment, for Commodus now has the power to execute Maximus on the spot.
Having survived the Ordeal the hero takes possession of the treasure. For Maximus it is the crowd’s approval. Proximo his mentor told him “win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom”. This special weapon (love) is one that Commodus is powerless before. As the whole arena erupts in chants of live, live, live, Commodus has no choice but to demur to the crowd’s demands and give Maximus the thumb’s up sign. Great jubilee breaks over the arena as Maximus marches off triumphantly. Celebration is typical for the ending of the Reward stage. Act Two is now complete and the final act begins with a turn toward home.