Homepage


Course Page


Dr. J. Michael Stitt
phone: 702 895-3909
fax: 702 895-4801
e-mail:
jmstitt@unlv.nevada.edu


syllabus

index
THRESHOLDS AND LIMINALITY

The Latin word limin, stands for the threshold of a doorway. Derived from the word limin, the term, liminality, refers to a "threshold period." This is a time of transition and transformation; a betwixt and between, no-longer but not-yet. A person in liminality no longer participates in the normal activities in daily life but slides into a world where the "rules" no longer apply. Soon after the passage, the individual will reenter daily life where rules and obligations again apply. Many people live their daily lives in liminality. For example, a police officer goes to work every day and deals with criminals who are not law abiding, and he is often times put in situations where the law is bent and changed, such as shooting an individual for the protection of others. In his personal life, this police officer is a law-abiding citizen; he does not shoot people outside his work. However, at the times when he is arresting or defending, he is a position where he is betwixt and between. He is not a criminal, but may need to act like one. He is a law abiding citizen, but needs to break a law in order to obtain order. Daily rules do not apply to him at this moment in time.
The term threshold means the sill of a doorway. Literally, it is the place a person must cross under in order to enter a house. There is a point of decision between each of the persons who meet at the threshold. A person can decide to allow someone to enter their private home, or business, or rather reject them, not allowing their entrance. And once a certain person crosses the threshold, they are subject to the rules and obligations that the household implies. When a groom carries his bride over the threshold of their new home, it is symbolic of the new life the two will enter into; the life that comes with new rules than one might not have had on the other side of the relationship.
A major element in Fantasy Literature is the use of the limin or a character's liminality. Often times, a character will come to a threshold in their life that must be either crossed or turned away from. These thresholds can be internal decisions, such as Froto accepting, or not accepting the task of The Ring, or they can be the crossing of a physical threshold such as Grendel crossing the doorway into the hall, Heorot. In most writing however, the crossing of the threshold (either physical or mental) represents a point where two different worlds collide. Physically, the outside and the inside, as for Grendel, or mentally, with the possibility of two alternate endings based on a decision in Froto's journey.
Anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, says that there are three phases to crossing the threshold. The first phase is separation; the second is transition, and the final stage is incorporation. The second stage of transition is the stage in which liminality becomes possible. It is during the transition state that a person remains uncertain because they have been separated from their world, but aren't yet connected to a new one. To Van Gennep, this place can be dangerous because the daily routines of life are put in limbo. Therefore a person who is in transition doesn't have their daily guidelines to follow anymore and this could possibly have a negative effect not only that particular person, but also those who are in their surroundings.
Van Gennep's thoughts on thresholds were taken more in depth by Victor Turner. Turner said that during the transition stage a person becomes liminal. Because the person is neither attached to their previous way of life nor attached to their future way of life, they become neutralized. Turner, in his book, The Ritual Process, says the characteristics of a liminar "are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial."
According to Victor Turner there are three kinds of liminality. The first kind is "ritual liminality." This is when the person is placed in transition due to a right of passage, often times concerning a maturity ritual. In this kind of liminality, the person will always be expected to reenter the society, as their transition is just temporary. A young boy in a tribe who is involved in a maturity ritual may not have to subject to the rules of his tribe while being involved in this ritual. After his manhood is obtained however, he is expected to return to his tribe, now as a responsible man.
The second kind of liminality is "outsiderhood." Outsiderhood involves a person who becomes part of the "anti-structure" either voluntarily or involuntarily and either for a short time or permanently. A good example of a person, who is involved in this kind of liminality, is a highly religious person, such as a monk or a nun. They may (or may not) chose to live outside the boundaries of normal life, by living in a monastery or nunnery. This person does not follow the rules and guidelines of the outside world, but is not in beyond them either. They are between the two, in a sort of limbo. Often times, a person in this kind of liminality will chose not to return to the world they once knew, either because they enjoy their life outside the "structured world" or because they do not fit into the world from which they came.
The third and final kind of liminality is the "marginal." In Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, Turner says marginals are, "simultaneously members (...) of two or more social groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often even opposed to, one another." These kinds of people do not seem to fit into in facet of society. They are like the outsiders who cannot live in harmony with the structure around them, but marginals do, although they may feel unattached or uncomfortable with the structure. Turner also says they cannot be fully integrated to one side or another, which is what defines them as marginal rather than outsiders. The marginal is always on the edge of both worlds. Another author, Robert Park, says these people are often smarter and have a more objective viewpoint of their society. The example of the police officer used earlier is a marginal liminal. He knows both societies and because of his work will never belong to one side fully. He will live on the edge of both worlds and can often travel easily between them.
Regardless of which form of liminality, Turner believes that all liminals have several things in common. First liminal people do not hold any sort of status with in the structured world and because of this, they regard all other liminal characters their equal. Secondly, Turner says that liminals are "positive forces" in their worlds because they have the ability to question the culture's sets of standards and rules because they do not feel attached to them. These people encourage critical thinking and question "norms" within their culture. And finally, because they do not hold a status within the culture, they are able to question the social status of that culture. All of these elements can be very useful with in a fantasy novel.
Liminal characters are often the most exciting characters to work with within a fantasy or any other kind of novel. The marginal liminal is the character most popular within a storyline. The character often lives on the edge, and slides almost effortlessly between two different worlds. He or she is able to get along with characters in different worlds (be it the Shire or Middle Earth, or "the fields we know" or Elfland), and can relate to each of the worlds but does not feel fully apart of either one. It is because of their marginal liminality that they can feel both saintly and evil. These characters are easy to cheer for and to encourage in their personal journeys.
Liminal characters move the plot and question the motives of the other characters within the novel. They represent a danger that the reader may not relate to in his or her world but in the fictional world feels right at home with. The reader wants to relate to the character - he or she wants to be a part of the journey, a part of the soul searching, and finally, a part of victorious triumph of good over the ever impending evil.

Dr. Stitt's Homepage | Course Homepage | Syllabus | Papers Index