Thresholds and Worlds Beyond

The expression "Beyond the Fields We Know" was coined at the turn of the last century by the Irish peer, Lord Dunsany, a gifted playwright and master storyteller, who used it in many of his tales to describe the realms which lie beyond the world we live in, Elfland or Faerie being just one such world beyond.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a friend of Dunsany's, once said wistfully that he (Dunsany) wrote from "a careful abundance", and more recently, Lin Carter called Lord Dunsany a magnificent storyteller, and one of the last great masters of English prose, superior even to J.R.R. Tolkien in subtle artistry. Dunsany 's work has been a major influence on most, if not all of the fantasy writers who followed him, and "The King of Elfland's Daughter" rivals anything else ever written in the field of fantasy literature.

What separates us from Elfland and the other realms beyond the mundane one we inhabit? At the edge of the fields we know lies a hedgerow, a very ordinary sort of hedgerow containing a rustic gate. Hedgerow and gate mark the presence of a place which is not here and not there, not up and not down, not in and not out, not real and not imagined.

The hedgerow and its rude gate are a threshold or liminal space, and like all such places, they possess strong magic. They are not simply a barrier between here and there, as they seem to be at first glance, but a corridor or passageway into the unknown (but occasionally glimpsed and heard) mysterious worlds which lie beyond the mundane fields we know. Beyond the hedgerow and its gate are worlds rich and strange; dimensions which are by times, extraordinary, enlightening, creative, ecstatic, exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.

Thresholds are compelling places, and they can exert a powerful tug on the sensibilities. Every hero's journey or heroine's journey begins with one, with a call to adventure, one breathtaking, serendipitous, watershed moment in which she or he discovers a threshold, responds to its eldritch music and steps across it into another realm.

Mircea Eliade wrote of doors and thresholds as being potent mythic symbols and passages, corridors where passage from the profane to the sacred becomes possible. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described thresholds as joinings or spaces between two worlds: potent common or middle grounds which hold, join and separate two different realms, all at the same time. Thresholds are sacred places which form a boundary between what is "here" and what is "there", but they are, in themselves, neither here nor there.

"Here be dragons" was an expression used by early map makers to indicate that some of the regions shown on their fanciful creations were unknown (and possibly dangerous) territory, and they are also good words for journeying beyond the threshold. Traveler beware - dragons may await you on the other side, but there are wonders to be seen, and wisdom, adventure and enlightenment await at every turning. To cross the threshold and go through the gate is to set off on a grand creative adventure.

Within the seemingly empty space of a doorway or a threshold, one sometimes senses ancient, wild and chaotic forces in motion. Thresholds have the power to open a cranny between this world and others, letting those tumultuous otherworldly forces blow through. The ancients assuredly knew it, and they undertook special measures to secure their thresholds, carving arcane protective sigils on door lintels, placing sprigs of rowan and Brigid's crosses in the doors, burying pins and needles under their hearth stones, sweeping and blessing their thresholds and mounting horseshoes over their doorways to keep the fey without. They considered sunrise, noon, twilight and midnight to be threshold times of day when divination and magic could be worked by those skilled in such arts — such times would have been fearful for those without magical gifts or the protections of the Craft.

Sleeping, dreaming and awakening are threshold (or liminal) states, and so is the very act of breathing. Doors, windows, hearths, labyrinths, mazes, tors, barrows, stone circles, caves, bridges, crossroads and bogs are thresholds opening into other realities and other modes of being and thinking — as are quiet woodland trails, oak groves, springs and mountains. (I find myself thinking of the Queen Mother of the West and the mythical Peach Blossom Spring here.)

The old fire festivals of the Celts are perhaps the most powerful threshold times of all, for the four feasts of Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day) and Lugnasadh (Loaf Mass or First Harvest) fall at the times of the year when the veils between the worlds are thin and magic is indeed afoot in the great beyond.

For students of Zen, thresholds, doors and gates are powerful symbols and metaphors for mindful living and the plane of earthly existence. Buddhist literature contains an abundance of references to such places, and there are reams of commentaries on them. In Buddhist practice, anything at all may be a threshold, door or gate, and beyond each and every one, enlightenment and the Buddha are waiting to be discovered. Through the simple act of entering a doorway or stepping onto a threshold, one acknowledges and makes a commitment to something which is at the same time smaller and greater than the self. One contemplates the intrinsic nature of the threshold, the random thoughts which form there and are held within the space, those who traveled the path before us and came to this place and those who are yet to come. When one is thinking kindly of other beings, doorways and thresholds become gates of compassion and realms of Tara.

Most of the thresholds we encounter in our mundane lives are physical objects like gates, doorways, chimneys and windows, but there are times when thresholds are intangible and invisible to the human eye — interstitial moments rather than physical places. These tiny "aways" allow us to transcend ordinary life for a brief intense interval and go somewhere else entirely. Anyone who has ever been carried away entirely by a gnarled tree in a hidden grove, a limpid forest pool, a fey breeze or a wild orchid blooming in a sunlit summer fen knows the feeling very well.

Ours is a winding trail holding wonders and surprises, and whether or not we realize it, we all encounter thresholds from time to time. Sometimes it is only a few steps from here to there. We need such places in our mundane lives in order to survive and evolve, to become authentic beings and exercise the creativity which is our birthright. Thresholds allow us to step out of the ordinary world for a while, and into the rich realm of the archetypal, the strange and the creative.

When one is attuned, the siren voice of the liminal is everywhere. We approach the liminal in our own way and our own time, and the lens through which we filter our experience is a unique and very personal thing. For some of us, the gateway lies through church services and collective ceremonies — for others, it is private prayer, meditation and stillness — for still others, the way is through art, communion with the natural world, carefully crafted rites of passage and the old seasonal festivals.

In my own life, I encounter the liminal in art, books, photography and stillness, in lighted candles and incense, in deep twilight and the perfect shapes of trees, in strong coffee and the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti, in winter days in the shire when the air is so still that one can hear snow falling among the trees, in herons and loons (anywhere, anytime) and walks through the oak woods in late autumn, in the creaking timbers of old log barns, wood smoke, dark chocolate, good cognac and the fragrances of bergamot, lavender and rosewood.