Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes: The Dursleys, the Threshold Guardians
In a weekly series, contributor Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: The Dursleys
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In some ways, the threshold guardian serves as the hero’s ultimate test, even more so than the villain or antagonist. TV Tropes defines the archetype as such: “The Guardian is not necessarily adversarial, but puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome. In simpler terms, the Threshold Guardian exists to make sure the Hero is prepared for his adventure.”
The threshold guardian can take many forms. They exist as concepts, inanimate objects, and human characters alike, Examples include Mr. Slugworth in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Inigo Montoya and Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, Walter Peck in Ghostbusters, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the Underworld, particularly in the case of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
They often appear throughout the story at different junctures in the hero’s journey. Whenever the protagonist is on the verge of passing the threshold into another main event of the narrative, this guardian may appear. In this way as well as others, the Dursleys function as the threshold guardians to our titular character in Harry Potter.
Traditionally, the threshold guardian stands in the way just as the hero’s journey begins. Afterwards, they act as a series of tests the hero must pass in order to progress. Harry’s life with the Dursleys was something of a test even before he first leaves for Hogwarts. In the context of the narrative, Vernon and Petunia test Harry, but try to prevent him from passing or even know that he’s being tested at all. This is perhaps most succinctly summarized in Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry thinks, “Don’t ask questions—that was the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys.”
Before his first Hogwarts letter arrives, Harry is left in the dark with no opportunity to learn about who he is and what that means. The Dursleys refuse to offer him any courtesies, least of all the truth that would have prepared him for his journey early on. Instead, Vernon, Petunia, and even Dudley—who is just as ignorant of Harry’s history as Harry himself—deliberately demean and discourage him.
“I had a dream about a motorcycle,” said Harry, remembering suddenly. “It was flying.”
Uncle Vernon nearly crashed into the car in front. He turned right around in his seat and yelled at Harry, his face like a gigantic beet with a mustache: “MOTORCYCLES DON’T FLY.”
Dudley and Piers sniggered.
“I know they don’t,” said Harry. “It was only a dream.”
But he wished he hadn’t said anything. If there was one thing the Dursleys hated even more than his asking questions, it was his talking about anything acting in a way it shouldn’t, no matter if it was in a dream or even a cartoon—they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.
That last paragraph especially exemplifies the core of Vernon and Petunia’s mission: to force Harry into normalcy, which, in turn, would prevent him from embarking upon his destined path. Even when the Dursleys’ efforts prove fruitless and Harry learns who and what he is, they try to prevent it from escalating further:
“We swore when we took him in we’d put a stop to that rubbish,” said Uncle Vernon, “swore we’d stamp it out of him! Wizard indeed!”
“Haven’t I told you he’s not going?” [Uncle Vernon] hissed. “He’s going to Stonewall High and he’ll be grateful for it.
In the books that follow Sorcerer’s Stone, the Dursleys continue their efforts to wear Harry down. These are setbacks Harry must overcome if he is to return to Hogwarts, where his main challenges await. In Chamber of Secrets, the Dursleys lock him in his room and bar the window. Harry defeats this test with the help of the Weasleys, who come to rescue him. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Vernon bargains with Harry’s Hogsmeade permission slip. Harry, however, fails this test when he mistakenly blows up Aunt Marge.
However, this last instance still works to propel the narrative. In fact, the Dursleys’ refusal to sign the form is to Harry’s benefit. When he first sneaks into Hogsmeade, he is forced to hide from Fudge, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Flitwick. Harry then has a front-row seat to the tale of his parents’ relationship with Sirius Black. This information compels Harry to seek revenge, thereby continuing his adventure to ultimately learn the truth.
Whether the threshold guardian proves to be an asset or a hindrance to the hero, it serves as a warm-up for the hero’s final battle. Like the villain, the threshold guardian can be bested physically or intellectually, but they cannot be avoided. Running away is not an option, which is a fact that is solidified for Harry in Order of the Phoenix. There is no escape from the Dursleys, because his mother’s lingering protection exists within her sister’s home. Likewise, Harry cannot shed his identity in the Wizarding world; he must face his ultimate enemy and destiny.
Throughout the series, Harry must overcome the Dursleys in order to face enemies more prevalent to his journey. These include Malfoy, Snape, Umbridge, the Ministry, and Voldemort. Harry may hate the Dursleys—and rightfully so—but he doesn’t turn to that hatred to survive. He turns to his friends, his found family, and it’s in this way that the Dursleys help Harry to defeat Voldemort. Despite their neglect and abuse, Harry goes on to love freely and to care about others. He stands as a champion to the downtrodden like himself. His inner strength is insurmountable; he endures the Dursleys’ tests to his will and he goes on to survive and thrive in equal measure.
Even though for the entirety of his childhood, Harry has only known pain and isolation, he doesn’t carry that with him. Rather, he boards the Hogwarts Express with an open heart and a fresh perspective. The Dursleys’ abhorrence never broke him, regardless of their efforts to do so. Harry defeats his threshold guardians not in any sort of skill, but in his own nature and resilience. Indeed, the Dursleys serve as the core of Harry’s entire journey: to turn to love to save him, no matter what has been done to rid him of that feeling and the belief that it’s real.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.