“Labyrinth” (1986) and Fairy Tales – By Simon Maass

While no hit immediately upon its release in 1986, the motion picture “Labyrinth” has since garnered the status of a cult classic. This belated popularity is not highly surprising – directed by Jim Henson, executive-produced by George Lucas, starring David Bowie and a young Jennifer Connelly, the project was hardly short on talent. Indeed, many are those who claim to descry intricate hidden meanings and brilliantly profound subtexts in this bizarre fantasy production. What follows will comment on some such efforts, as well as on how the film relates to other artworks, and to the fairy tale in general. First, though, a spoiler-heavy overview of the movie is in order.

Fifteen-year-old amateur actress Sarah seems stuck in her childhood, reluctant to assume responsibility. She resents her stepmother and infant half-brother Toby, whom she is obliged to babysit as her father and stepmother go out for the evening. Half-believing in the potency of her summoning entreaty, she calls on the Goblin King to spirit Toby away, but promptly regrets her rash words when that is precisely what happens. To retrieve the baby, Sarah must traverse Jareth’s (the Goblin King’s) Labyrinth and reach his castle at the centre. En route, she gathers a small band of companions: the dwarf Hoggle, a tiny knight named Sir Didymus, and the gentle giant Ludo. Things get especially unsettling when Jareth arranges for her to bite into a special peach. The fruit sends the girl into a trance, which shows her transported into a ballroom full of sexual imagery, where the Goblin King attempts to charm her. Yet ultimately, Sarah finds Toby, Jareth is (somehow, confusingly) vanquished through the phrase “You have no power over me,” and Sarah abruptly finds herself back home. In the last scene, many of the cretures she met in the Labyrinth appear in her room and a party ensues.

When it comes to elements in “Labyrinth” which seem inspired by earlier works, viewers tend to point to L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and the MGM movie based on it. The core motif of a girl who journeys through an enchanted realm while gathering a motley band of chums is the same. Yet Henson’s creation does what Baum’s could not: it feels like a fairy tale while transcending that genre’s limitations. Though intended to be, in its author’s words, “a modernized fairy tale,” and despite its many merits, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” ends up being a disharmonious jumble of ideas that would have made the Brothers Grimm roll in their graves. The idea of the Scarecrow’s coming to life is magical, but his meticulous account of how he was made invites rational analysis and, in consequence, leaves one wondering why his maker apparently did not anticipate his enlivenment. The Tin Woodman’s backstory suffers from the opposite problem. At bottom, it is a science-fiction narrative about a man whose body parts are replaced by tin prostheses, but Baum’s awkward whimsicality robs it of the logic that science fiction should possess as the character’s whole body is replaced, yet he remains the same person and survives without a brain and a heart. Incidentally, tin does not rust, which is why the Soviet knockoff penned by a man with a background in metallurgy features the Iron Woodman instead. In the preface to his “Wonderful Wizard,” Baum scoffs at “the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy” as creatures to be “eliminated,” yet his own Munchkins, Winkies, and Quadlings are scarcely more than especially generic dwarves, with their pointed hats and the favourite colours which act as their main distinctive traits. The book’s literary theory, it seems, is shakier than its economics.

“Labyrinth,” to its benefit, was conceived in a mind frame much more respectful of old folk tales. In conceptual artist Brian Froud’s account of the film’s genesis, he “had an instant vision of a baby surrounded by goblins, which I thought would look really striking. In European fairy tales, that’s what goblins do – they steal babies.” Who could question the psychological, archetypal resonance of this trope, whatever the reasons for it are? Maybe it works so well because the impish wights embody the chaotic, animalistic forces mankind faces, both without and within itself (note their resemblance to wild beasts). The theft of human offspring, then, represents the constant danger to humanity’s survival, from which only our courage and wits can rescue us. Perhaps the legendary beings stand for the alien, corrupting influences which societies face, and from which future generations must be protected if civilisation is to be upheld. It is doubtful whether anyone can fully explain why the theme is so potent, but potent it is. Whereas L. Frank Baum’s superficial survey of fairy-tale figures drove him to discard what could have been helpful influences, Froud had his antagonists act in a certain way because “that’s what goblins do,” and the results were brilliant.

Magical logic also works far better in “Labyrinth” than in Oz. Why are some of the goblins, Sarah’s tormentors throughout most of the plot, partying with her in the final scene? Because adversity is part of life, and people learn from it and grow by overcoming it. Therefore, having vanquished her otherworldly adversaries, our heroine can welcome them into her home as benign influences. The plot point makes more sense archetypally than literally (though it is not absurd literally, either, a testament to the fine balance the movie strikes between straightforward reasonableness and mystical meaning).

On the other hand, “Labyrinth” does sometimes feel a bit cofused, possibly a result of the multiplicity of creatives who helped to shape the final plot. For instance, is the adventure in the titular maze a dream or not? Brian Froud says of the Goblin King’s design: “We’re not looking at reality, we’re inside this girl’s head.” In a similar vein, Shiloh Carroll writes: “Nearly everything in Sarah’s room is reflected in the Labyrinth in some way, indicating that her journey through the Labyrinth is a journey through her own subconscious.” Notwithstanding, she acknowledges this: “Despite the internal nature of the journey, it appears very external; Sarah leaves her house through a window.” Indeed it does. There are several elements in the film which are awkward to reconcile with the reading of the girl’s quest as a figment of her imagination:

  1. The ballroom scene is given a dreamlike, hallucinatory feel. If the main character is asleep throughout the whole adventure, this amounts to creating a dream sequence within a dream sequence – a questionable creative decision.
  2. In the junkyard scene, Sarah temporarily gives in to the comforting delusion that she merely dreamt her supernatural experiences before accepting the harsh reality that they actually happened. The thematic point of this section is undercut if one interprets the bulk of the movie’s plot as indeed being only imagined.
  3. Carroll speculates that Jim Henson had his protagonist access the Goblin King’s domain through a window rather than by “falling asleep and finding herself in or near the Labyrinth” because such a transition is “much more visually interesting.” Yet this does not explain why, when the villain is defeated near the film’s end, his world appears to crumble, and Sarah does simply appear in her home, the white owl which has been shown to be the antagonist in disguise flutters around her and out a window. This detail seems to have been deliberately included to imply that Sarah’s encounter with the supernatural was genuine.
  4. Again, characters from the Labyrinth appear in Sarah’s room in the final scene. If her spell in the Labyrinth was just a dream, what parts of the film are supposed to be real?

Personally, I get the feeling that the Labyrinth and its denizens are mostly meant to be real in-universe, but the movie nonetheless operates on dreamlike logic. Those visual elements in Sarah’s room signal to the audience that features of the Labyrinth are relevant to the troubled teenager’s personal struggles, but her trek through the treacherous maze also truly happens. There may be a figurine resembling Hoggle and a toy that looks like the Fireys in her room, but those characters also themselves appear in that same location.

While the goblins’ depiction is pleasingly faithful to their roots in folklore, there is a degree of divergence from those origins. Jareth, King of the Goblins, appears not as a grotesque imp, but rather a tall, attractive, and seductive man. While an earlier version of the script strongly implies that this is not his true form, the fact remains that goblins are not generally portrayed as seducers in popular culture or folk tales. So what is going on here, thematically? W. A. Senior’s overview of some appearances of the word “goblin” in literature provides some clues as to what may have inspired (however directly or consciously) the motion picture’s creators. Senior notes that Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is called a “goblin” and a “hobgoblin” in the play, and John Milton applies the former term to hell’s gates’ guard, whom he describes as loking like a beautiful woman from the waist up, in the second tome of his “Paradise Lost.” It follows that Milton’s version of a goblin is more humanoid and more intimately connected to sin than the traditional image. Puck likewise exhibits some features that are echoed in “Labyrinth”: though he is not a king himself, he serves one (Oberon); he comes across as more sophisticated and humanoid in behaviour than fiction’s typical goblin; he uses a flower to make a character fall in love, somewhat akin to the peach’s function in “Labyrinth.” Further, Puck reveals that Oberon is after a “lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king” and desires to “have the child / Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild.” This is similar to Jareth’s plan for Toby. Of course, Brian Froud’s account suggests that he got the idea of a child kidnapped by goblins straight from folklore, rather than from Shakespeare. However, it seems quite possible that the plot point of a goblin monarch’s being behind the kidnapping or his intention to assimilate the youngling into his subjects’ ranks was subsequently borrowed from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

     Another major literary treatment of goblins, which Senior also mentions, is Christina Rossetti’s nineteenth-century poem “Goblin Market.” This thrilling ballad contains a shocking quantity of sexual references, often in connection with the fruit the goblins sell, which seems to have intoxicating effects. Though non-human in appearance, the outlandish beings are described as “men,” and young Laura is somehow corrupted by eating their exotic merchandise. Additionally, the theme of sisterhood, which is so central to “Labyrinth,” is prominent here as well, as Lizzie must rescue her sister from the sinister salesmen’s enchantment. Note, moreover, the final lines:

“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

So what is the connection between goblins and sexuality? In Shakespeare, it is comedic. In Milton, the common denominator seems to be sin. In Rossetti, goblins seem to have been chosen as agents of corruption because of their impurity and alien, half-animal nature.

One of the most in-depth non-academic analyses of “Labyrinth” I could find was an extensive video essay by one J. D. Hansel. While the author of said presentation clearly thought deeply about the film’s meaning, there are some points on which he is wrong.

One of the movie’s main messages is that life is unfair, and that it is part of growing up to accept that. Throughout much of the narrative, Sarah repeatedly utters her catchphrase “It’s not fair!” (In the previous iteration of the screenplay, the sentence was “Why does everything have to happen to me?”). At one point, Jareth challenges her regarding this statement. “You say that so often,” he remarks. “I wonder what your basis for comparison is.” Our heroine seems unable to answer that. Soon after, when it is Hoggle who makes the accusation of unfairness, Sarah responds: “No, its isn’t [fair]. But that’s the way it is” with a look of realisation on her face. The phrase does not appear from that point on. Clearly, the message is that the real world simply is not just. Unfairness is not an abnormality, but rather the normal state of the playing field we all navigate, and should to some extent be accepted.

Yet Hansel bizarrely tries to argue this moral out of existence. In the fifth section of his video, he refers to a book chapter by academic Jennifer Marra Henrigillis. As he quotes her, she writes:

Freedom itself isn’t enough to make you happy. You also have to be willing to let go of the need to control everything. It is this realisation that enlightens Sarah […] toward the end of the film[. She has] been free all along because freedom does not equal absolute control. […] Our imaginations and our refusal to take responsibility for ourselves lead us to create monsters out of people – people just as free and just as responsible as we are. We learn that our suffering and unhappiness come from the desire to make everything fair[.]

(The square brackets are mine, and the original passage may have looked slightly different because I transcribed this from Hansel’s verbal delivery). Now witness Hansel’s odd rebuttal:

This is a very strange reading of “Labyrinth,” seeing as how the film is about a girl who dislikes her circumstances, namely that her brother has been kidnapped, but refuses to accept them, instead forcing a king to bend to her will, destroying his kingdom as needed along the way.

What is truly strange here is Hansel’s understanding of Henrigillis’s argument. When did she suggest that all unpleasant circumstances had, according to the movie, to be accepted? She interprets the film as saying that we cannot reorder the world all around us to be perfectly just – which Sarah indeed does not do. Besides, Sarah is not entirely the victim of “circumstances” unjustly imposed upon her.  Toby is abducted in the first place because his half-sister invoked the Goblin King to do so. Also, is the ruination of the goblin kingdom in quest of the baby fair to all the goblins affected, some of whom were probably not even involved in the kidnapping or the attempts to stop Sarah? On the individual level, it may be unfair. In the grand scheme of things, it is what has to be done. Hansel has another objection to Henrigillis:

In the context of adulthood and maturity, however, my problem with this reading is that it is simply not clear how learning to steal from your friends and to manipulate others constitutes becoming an adult. This seems like somewhat childish behaviour, yet it is the direct result of Sarah’s realisation that life is not fair.

True, Sarah steals Hoggle’s jewels to make him continue to guide her through the Labyrinth. However, she does this right after it hits her that he has swindled her. We live in a dog-eat-dog world. Anyway, would J. D. Hansel not steal and manipulate to rescue his baby half-brother? What a strikingly Kantian stance.

Although the film offers many opportunities to go half mad puzzling over the philosophical and psychological issues it vaguely hints, much of the fantasy and comedy it delivers is more straightforward. Take the character known as the Wiseman. In the movie, despite his image of great wisdom, he provides Sarah with an unhelpful platitude, then promptly extends a donation box. Is this a satire of our education system, consulting companies, organised religion, or simply a certain kind of person? Whatever the case may be, it certainly feels like light satire of some sort, hardly surprising given scriptwriter Terry Jones’s background with Monty Python and not unprecedented in conjunction with fairy-tale material – recall the political messages in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene.” In the aforementioned earlier version of the screenplay, this character does not solicit a payment, and his vaguely intellectual-sounding babble is of a different nature: instead of sounding like a motto from a fortune cookie, it consists of synonyms, definitions, and allusions to what others have said on a given subject. For example, Sarah’s first interaction with the “WISE ONE,” as he is there called, goes like this:

SARAH: Excuse me, Sir. Could you tell us the best way to get to the castle?
WISE ONE: The best way to the castle, hmmm. I’m glad you asked that question.
WISE ONE: A castle, or fortress, or as it is sometimes known, a stronghold or citadel — or, that which has a turret and barbican, but usually not a portcullis …
WISE ONE: … often there is a rampart or bulwark, and then a parapet — perchance an actual vallum or counterscarp …

and so forth. As I still clearly remember having to write a social-scientific literature review, this hit home for me, and gave me the impression that the “WISE ONE” was indeed a parody of parts of academia.

This highlights another of the movie’s virtues: while its myriad of subtexts is positively labyrinthine, it is mainly a light-hearted, humorous fantasy film.

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