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.
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.
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”)
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.
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”)
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.
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.
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
Sigil: a silver flail
Animal: we suggest a Wolverine (vicious, unpredictable)
Nemesis: Jon Snow
Sidekick: Janus Slynt (deceased)
Greatest Love: Unknown
Greatest Strength: Battle Bravery
Greatest Weakness: Vengefulness
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