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Game of Thrones as Myth—Alliser Thorne as the Archetypal Threshold Guardian

What is an archetype? In fantasy and myth, certain types of characters constantly reappear: stalwart Heroes, odd Mentors offering talismans, Threshold Guardians and their tests, and more. In this series, we take a fast and fun look at Game of Thrones characters and what traditional archetypes they fall into. This time: Alliser Thorne.

oedipus-sphinx

The Threshold Guardian is a powerful ancient archetype, a being or thing designed to test the Hero at the gateway to the unknown. Examples of threshold guardians abound in fiction, including the Sphinx and its riddles for Oedipus, and the cyclops Polyphemus, who threatened Odysseus in the Odyssey.

“Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three.” —the Keeper of the Bridge, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Threshold Guardian is one of the most common and flexible archetypal storytelling character forms identified by Joseph Campbell (The Hero with the Thousand Faces) and refined by Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey).

“…the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the “threshold guardian,” to the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in four directions—also up and down—standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown and danger…” —Joseph Campbell

Game of Thrones is epic fiction and the character of Ser Alliser Thorne is one heck of a Threshold Guardian. He is the first Threshold Guardian Jon Snow encounters on his Hero’s Journey, literally standing at the Wall’s gateway to the north. Ser Alliser immediately throws obstacles in Jon’s way, vanishes, reappears, and continues to test, finally confronting the Hero with the ultimate obstacle: death.

Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow practice

As Vogler attests, Threshold Guardians are usually not the main antagonists or villains of a story: their primary dramatic function is to test the will of the Hero. Ser Alliser Thorne is not a major character in Game of Thrones. When we first meet him at Castle Black, he is the Master at Arms and second-in-command of the Night’s Watch under Lord Commander Jeor Mormont. Thorne is responsible for training recruits at Castle Black and takes an immediate disliking to Jon Snow, whom he mockingly calls “Lord Snow.”

Ser Alliser has reasons to hate Jon Snow: he despises Ned Stark (Jon’s father) because Ned was instrumental in Robert Baratheon’s rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen. Thorne fought for the Targaryens, so when they lost, he was exiled to the Night’s Watch by Tywin Lannister.

We can split Ser Alliser Thorne’s role as a Game of Thrones Threshold Guardian into two parts: before Jeor Mormont sends him away to King’s Landing, and after he returns. In part one (Season 1), Ser Alliser immediately begins tormenting Jon Snow by forcing the new recruit to humiliate his peers during swordplay practice. Soon enough, those peers try to murder him. Jon later rankles Thorne by shielding Samwell Tarly from Ser Alliser’s cruelty, so Thorne goads Jon in the hopes that the disillusioned young man will desert the Night’s Watch, an offense punishable by death. Ser Alliser apparently has Jon assigned to the order of the Stewards, crushing his dream to become a Ranger. He openly taunts Jon over the arrest of Ned Stark, attempting to trick him into striking a superior officer:

“Now there’s a rare sight. Not only a bastard, but a traitor’s bastard. Blood talks. You’ll hang for this, bastard.” –Alliser Thorne to Jon Snow when Ned Stark is arrested for treason (S1/Ep8: “The Pointy End”)

Alliser Thorne against Jon Snow

He may be something of a monster, but Ser Alliser Thorne is complex. As usual, George R. R. Martin, along with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, present us with a well-realized character who also possesses redeeming qualities. Despite his exile and obvious bitterness, Ser Alliser is fully committed to the Night’s Watch, and to shielding the realm from the evils beyond the Wall. He recognizes Jon Snow as a disruptive element, a man who will never fit into the coarser cloth of the brotherhood, a man who protects weaklings like Samwell Tarly, whose incompetence stands to get everyone killed. Ser Alliser appears to be a skilled ranger, a man whose company managed to survive the last winter trapped north of the Wall despite terrible odds.

Once Jeor Mormont sends Ser Alliser away on a mission to King’s Landing (S1/Ep9: “Baelor”), Jon Snow’s decision-making crisis reaches critical mass. Sir Alliser almost wins in absentia when Jon learns of Ned Stark’s execution and deserts the Night’s Watch (S1/Ep10: “Fire and Blood”), but Jon is returned to the fold by his black brothers. Then, freed of his Threshold Guardian, he crosses the threshold into the unknown by joining Jeor Mormont’s expedition, passing through the gate and traveling north beyond the Wall.

But the Threshold Guardian Alliser Thorne isn’t done. He shall return to Castle Black and bring even greater tests with him.

Alliser Thorne on the Council

When Ser Alliser reappears at Castle Black in “Two Swords,” the Season 4 premiere, he is now the acting Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, following the assassination of Jeor Mormont. Ser Alliser, now joined by the irredeemable Janus Slynt, is one of the five black brothers seated to judge Jon Snow after his return from the ranks of the wildings. Ser Alliser pushes to have Jon executed for treason but is overruled by Maester Aemon. Thwarted but undeterred, Ser Alliser allows Jon to form a volunteer-only mission to crush the mutineers at Craster’s Keep, hoping Jon won’t survive the operation. He also refuses Jon’s suggestion to seal up the tunnel to prevent Mance Rayder’s approaching army from using it to breach the Wall.

Once again, we see that the character of Ser Alliser Thorne is not entirely without redeeming qualities. He is at his best in the face of overwhelming odds (for he is the defender of the threshold). When he and Jon stand atop the Wall watching the huge wilding army light “the biggest fire the north has ever seen,” he begrudgingly admits it would have been smart to act on Jon’s advice to seal the tunnel. Ser Alliser also allows himself a moment to share the burdens of leadership with Jon:

“Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for the clever little twats, for everyone. This is not the end. Not for us. Not if you lot do your duty for however long it takes to beat them back. And then you get to go on hating me, and I get to go on wishing your wilding whore had finished the job.” —Alliser Thorne to Jon Snow atop the Wall (S4/Ep9: “The Watchers on the Wall”)

Alliser Thorne The Nights Watch

Ser Alliser exhibits great bravery as he leads the defense of the Wall and suffers a wound at the hands of Tormund Giantsbane, but later finds himself in competition with Jon Snow to become the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.

“Who does Jon Snow want to command? The Night’s Watch or the wildings? Everyone knows he loved a wilding girl. He spoke with Mance Rayder many times. What would have happened in that tent between those two old friends if Stannis’ army hadn’t come along? We all saw him put the King-Beyond-the-Wall out of his misery. Do you want to choose a man who’s been fighting the wildings all his life? Or a man who makes love to them?” —Alliser Thorne, on why Jon Snow should not be chosen Lord Commander (S5/Ep2: “The House of Black and White”)

Ser Alliser loses his leadership bid by one vote, and Jon Snow’s election to the position Lord Commander galls him to no end. He continues to undermine Jon among the black brothers of the watch, whispering of Jon’s wilding sympathies.

Alliser Thorne and Jon Snow

Stannis Baratheon, whose army is stationed at Castle Black during this time and who has a better head for politics than Jon, suggests the young Hero send Ser Alliser away to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, but Jon prefers to keep his enemies close. Jon promotes Ser Alliser to First Ranger, both for his experience and in the hope that bestowing such an honor might pacify Ser Alliser and his supporters. It is common for the Hero to attempt to ally himself with the Threshold Guardian as does Robin Hood with Little John and King Arthur with King Pellinore:

“All heroes encounter obstacles on the road to adventure. At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the Hero, but if understood, they can be overcome, bypassed and even turned into allies.” —Christopher Vogler

Jon Snow ultimately fails in his attempt to ally himself with the Threshold Guardian. Alliser Thorne might allow his own lackey, Janos Slynt, to be executed for defying Jon’s orders, but he is more than ready to take advantage of Jon’s further unpopular decisions. Ser Alliser allows Jon to return to Castle Black with Tormund and the wildings he rescues from Hardhome because he knows this is the final straw as far as his anti-Jon Snow supporters go. Ser Alliser uses the recently bereaved boy Olly to lure Jon into a trap, and Ser Alliser is the first to stab Jon, stating “For the Watch” as he plunges the knife home.

Game of Thrones

With the Hero’s blood on his hands, Alliser Thorne shifts from Threshold Guardian to Villain—or does he? If Jon Snow survives, if Jon Snow returns from death transformed, then Alliser Thorne has served the desired function of the Threshold Guardian: to test and advance the Hero through a journey into the land of death from which the Hero shall return with some special knowledge or ability and thus become equipped to move onto the next stage of his Hero’s Journey.

“One had not better challenge the watcher (Threshold Guardian) of the established bounds. And yet—it is only by advancing beyond these bounds, provoking the other, destructive aspect of the same power, that the individual passes, either alive or in death, into a new zone of experience.” —Joseph Campbell

If Jon Snow does not die, he will most likely return from death a changed man, a man who might have gained an ability to help save the world—the ultimate Watcher on the Wall. Perhaps Ser Alliser’s words “For the Watch,” are far more prophetic than even the Threshold Guardian himself might understand.

The Threshold Guardian Alliser Thorne: Specifics

House: Thorne
Sigil: a silver flail
Animal: we suggest a Wolverine (vicious, unpredictable)
Weapon: Torment
Nemesis: Jon Snow
Sidekick: Janus Slynt (deceased)
Greatest Love: Unknown
Greatest Strength: Battle Bravery
Greatest Weakness: Vengefulness
Color: Gray
Tarot Card: Judgement
Ice Cream: Black Licorice
Future Prospects: not bright, as the man who led the assassination of a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch

Other articles in the Winter is Coming Archetype Series:
Jon Snow as the Archetypal Hero

55 Comments

    • I was browsing some GOT info and came across something interesting. I found some campaign image posters from season three of GOT characters on hitfix. I had to do a double take because I could not believe what I saw.

      Two characters…of all the characters posters had one eye that was fire and one eye that was ice… Those characters were Jon Snow and Brandon Stark … Yes the greenseer little Brandon stark. Look it up for yourself! Does this mean Jon and Brandon are both ice and fire ?!!! Those were the only two characters on the poster that had a fire eye and an ice eye . One was orange and the other definitely blue. Again these were on official campaign posters for season three. I can’t add the link but look up.. Hitfix got season three campaign posters let me know what you think !

  • Does anyone else want Jon to forgive Ser Alliser, and then he becomes one of his most trusted soldiers? I always wanted Ser Alliser to finally accept Jon, and be his bulldog of sorts. Like, what if Ser Alliser learned of Jon’s parentage? We all know that serving the King during Robert’s Rebellion is what got Thorne sent to the Wall. What if he learns of Jon’s heritage, and declares himself for the rightful King? I would love that. Thorne and Davos, along with Thormund, follow Jon to whatever fate has in store for our favorite emo. Fanfiction at its finest. I’m sure Thorne will be beheaded by either Jon or the new LC.

    • I agree that Thorne is potentially redeemable, however unlikable he might be. His valor would be useful once he came to believe in Jon, and I could see that if he witnesses Jon’s rez. I also don’t believe that someone who has transcended the threshold of death and returned will be the thrall of petty motives like revenge. That’s not how Christ-figures operate. A heroic demise in battle against the Others would be, to me, a much more satisfying ending for Thorne than his execution.

      • I believe in human frailty & that to be fallible is to be human, I believe in forgiveness and I believe in intentions being more important than results. Similar to God needing Lucifer, as demonstrated above, Jon needs AT to realise his full potential. AT’s intention may very sincerely be ‘for the watch’ (love the inversion of this in the article btw) and in his ignorance he may have been right, so his intention may have been misguidedly for good. I think redemption is possible and I’m with Firannion & T’uther Matt on this. But yea prolly won’t happen, the mass do like to bray for a bit retributive misery after all.

        George often refers to the human heart in conflict with itself. ‘Grey zone’ characters like AT demonstrate this.

        • I’m not sure i can ever find AT redeemable, no matter what he may do. I hope unJon is able to seek revenge post rez and undertakes that task with justice in the form of “an eye for an eye”. If not Jon (I personally prefer this instead) then Tormund, et al pay back AT and the other murderous traitor NW brothers once they learn of the mutiny against Jon.

  • Certainly makes me look at Alister Thorne in a new light. Is he a man who realises he is wrong once Jon returns? I hope so for all his faults he is committed to the Watch and they need someone like Thorne to defend the Wall when the White Walkers come.

  • Alliser Thorne deserves to die. He led an insurrection against the Lord Commander of the Nights’ Watch and murdered him.
    He is NO BETTER than Karl Fookin Tanner of Gin Alley and deserves a traitors death.

        • The guy MURDERED his commander…
          Since when is murder justified because you disagree with the decisions of your boss???
          He deserves to die, plain and simple.
          This isn’t harsh, this is justice.

          • Westeros is a violent and vicious place, especially at the wall. The wildlings, the relationship with Stannis, the pink letter, the depletion of resources with winter coming, freeing Val, mercy killing Mance…..it’s possible to think Jon really had broken his vows and become a threat to the watch. Other than assassination, if you held this view, what could you do? Launch an inquiry? Call the press? Bring in the investigators? AT is not one of the most likeable character but even the likeable ones are murderers. Tyrion, Bronn, the hound…not well can’t be bothered to think of more, but you get my drift.

          • Westeros being a violent and vicious place no more excuses Thorne as it does Joffrey.
            Alliser Thorne kills Jon Snow because he thinks HE should be the Lord Commander and he enlists those who voted with him to help him in the deed.
            It would be no different then if Jon had Murdered Thorne for not filling in the tunnel like he had suggested.
            Karl Tanner killed Mormont because he didn’t want to fight anymore…can hyou really blame him after what they saw at the Fist of the first men?
            In a military type environment, you can’t have this.

          • You a military man yea?

            That’s what I mean about intentions. If his intentions were just to usurp – then yea, off with his head. If he thought it was for the best reasons then, hmmm maybe just a bit of a spanking.

            Karl was different league, yea I agree I wouldn’t want to fight any longer either and Craster was a twunt but Karl threw in a bit of a rape for good measure and had plans to kill Sam out of nothing but spite.

          • What do you think Thorne would have done to Sam with Jon gone???
            Who do you think Karl Fookin Tanner and the guy who kept calling Sam little piggie looked up to??? Thorne was their guy….

    • Gandalf – renowned for his wisdom and a transcender of death himself- put it better than I ever could:

      “Deserves it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends.”

  • Yeah I think he will die quickly after the start of season 6. I think all of the betrayers are doomed. Thorne is beyond redemption I think. Also if Jon comes back, I think he might change somehow as Beric did. Perhaps it will make him colder and more pragmatic. Kill the boy, and let the man be born. I hope Jon comes back as a badass lol. We’ve already seen his transformation into a pretty formidable hero. I think this will hone his talents and instincts as the strong leader he was meant to be, given his true parentage. IMO Jon is Azor Ahai and this is his time. (Sorry if I’m ridiculously obvious)

    • “Perhaps it will make him colder and more pragmatic. Kill the boy, and let the man be born.”

      I don’t see how this follows. How is becoming colder and harsher and more punitive a sign of maturity? I would call it regression to a more bestial state of being. What’s the point of transcending death if the experience doesn’t confer greater wisdom, compassion, empathy etc.?

      • Hi Firannion, your posts are very interesting. A disquieting answer to your question– perhaps because, dying, one is no longer human, and therefore no longer subject to human moral enquiry. Unless ‘dying’ is merely metaphorical…(you seem to be equating it with maturation, passing from one to another life stage, but still within the realm of the human?) Put another way, does every change/transition guarantee improvement?

  • Good read – very interesting. I still think Jon Snow’s importance is overrated though, heroic as he his.

    One thing I’ve been wondering about is the fate of Jeor Mormont. We all know what befell him in the end, but what actually made him join the Night’s Watch in the first place? The head of House Mormont and Lord of Bear Island was no Targaryen loyalist. He is said to have joined the black brothers shortly before Robert’s Rebellion and to have rosen quickly through the ranks.

    With the risk of adorning my head with a tin foil hat, I’m wondering if the enigmatic Bloodraven may somehow be involved in this. I’m thinking here of the speculations in regards to the old bear’s pet bird. The idea might in fact raise more questions than it answers. And in the end, in could well prove completely unimportant.

    In any case, I’m intrigued by these little mysteries and riddles in the storyline. In some cases, I’m sure GRRM have put them in there very intentionally. How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have? A thousand eyes, and one.

  • I think Jon Snow will be resurrected as Jon Stark/Targaryan(R+L=J) but, I believe that Jon will march south and with Grenn dead the new lord commander will be Edd Tollet. Jon will leave the fate of Ser Allister and his supporters in the hands of Lord Commander Tollet and he will execute all of them.

  • Great article!

    Thorne is a unique character that has really come alive in the show. Hope to see more of him in season 6.

  • To further you analysis of Alliser Thorne’s archetype, let me point out the serendipity of Janus Slynt’s name, as this sidekick bears the name of “the [Roman] god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby of gates, doors, doorways, passages and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past.”
    More information can be had at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus
    It is fascinating, how many layers one can find to look at, if one but takes the time to reflect upon it…

  • I agree that AT could prove useful if he did turn his loyalty to Jon, but unfortunately a murderous traitor has to die because his intentions will never really be viewed as trustworthy after said traitor behavior. There will always be second guessing as to IF he has truly turned his loyalty all the way around. Personally I want to see him flayed for killing (attempting to kill) JS.

  • AT is needed to fight against the Others for sure. I hope Jon isn’t the Lord Commander anymore. His watch ended when he died and after the resurrection he should go to Winterfel. Without Jon, who else could lead the Night’s Watch????? They need AT. Besides, they need familiar faces in the Wall when it falls … I think Jon won’t be there …

  • Alliser is a pretty interesting character. In the show more so then the books. He’s a dick but he is brave and capable. He probably thinks in his mind that what he did was justified. And I’m not so sure that he hates Jon the same as before , just sees him as young and reckless and therefore dangerous to the watch. He even says you’re a good man Jon Snow but you’ll get us all killed.

    Now having said all that Alliser is probably a dead man walking. Jon isn’t going to be as forgiving and pragmatic as he was before. I think we’ll see a helluva fight between the though as Thorne is no slouch with a sword.

  • If Jon was the 998th lord commander, and now AT is the 999th.. Who will end up as the 1000th (thtjhg?) lord commander? Got a feeling this is going to be the last lord commander and that the nights watch will be gone after the “song of ice and fire”..

    • I’ve thought about this. Some possible candidates if they rebuilt the wall and have a 1000th Lord commander.

      Jamie Lancaster

      Roose Bolton

      Edd Tollett

      Samwell Tarly

      Loras Tyrell

      Bran Stark

      Davos Seaworth

      Of course it would all depend on the survival of any of these characters. And maybe you’re right and they don’t rebuild the wall at all.

      • I think Jon should be the last Lord Commander. The NW should not exist after whatever cataclysmic are about to fall on Westeros. I suspect some noble houses will go extinct as well (Baratheon, Bolton, Frey, Arryn, Greyjoy?).

      • Don’t think the WW will be destroyed though, think it will be like a truce in the end or something. I think we’ll learn a lot more of them now that Sam is a POV character and off on his quest for higher knowledge..

      • You’d do that to Davos? I wasn’t under the impression that he is willing to live far from the sea for too long. He’s a salty dog, that won’t ever change.

  • Alister thirne should be thrown of the wall the cunt as for the rest of them let the wildlings boill them or whatever the night watch men proclaim they do to death . Does he learn about jons parentage maybe maybe not . wen Rhaegar took lyanna he was accompanied by his half a dozen of his closest friends was alister 1 of them perhaps.

  • Thank you. Very interesting article. Black Licorice ice cream, lol.

    No Thorne should not be forgiven.
    Was he a steward? I can’t remember.

    Have wondered why Jon was the 998th commander. Odd number. Got to be significant though.

  • Cold as in how Beric changed. He became different with each rez. The same way LSH changed. I wouldn’t call it regression . I would call it growing. On planetos, naivety, and hubris, and trust get you killed, as happened with Jon. I think death will make him less trusting of his two faced allies. This to me is progression of his character.