GOBLIN KINGS AND CHILDISH THINGS – REVISITING LABYRINTH AFTER 35 YEARS
Jim Henson’s Labyrinth was released in 1986 and only grossed around half of its original budget, but in the many years since it has become something of a cult classic. Popular for its puppetry, musical numbers, and a vibrant array of diverse characters, it features the late great David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, while Jennifer Connelly launches her acting career as Sarah, navigating the labyrinth to rescue her baby brother and facing “dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered” along the way.
“What do they mean, labyrinth?”
Of course, it’s a metaphorical journey as well as a physical one, Sarah moving from childhood innocence into adulthood. She’s indulging in fantasy as a form of play when the film starts, reciting lines as a means of escapism. What she seeks to escape is a family dynamic that is undergoing a dramatic change. Her father has remarried, a woman Sarah treats “like a wicked stepmother in a fairy story”, and there’s a new sibling, too. It’s a lot for young Sarah to deal with.
Sarah’s most obvious fantasy is to be rid of Toby and she literally wishes her baby brother away, the Goblin King appearing to make her wish come true while a storm rages outside to reflect Sarah’s inner turmoil because it’s a wish she immediately regrets and tries to undo. This, of course, is the driving focus of the film and as she travels the twists and turns of the labyrinth, so she develops as a character in a metaphorical journey towards maturity.
In psychoanalytical terms, Labyrinth is an exploration of sibling rivalry and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Sarah resents her younger brother and her father’s new wife, rivals for her father’s attention, and notably the stepmother’s first action in the film is to banish Sarah’s dog to the garage, a significant action considering how dogs often represent loyalty. Her father shows little concern at Sarah’s upset, added to which one of her favourite toys has been stolen, given to Toby. Sarah’s mother has been replaced and now the same thing seems to be happening to her.
Labyrinth as a psychological character study is suggested by one of the film’s early scenes. A slow panning shot in Sarah’s bedroom shows us an array of items which relate directly to the events that follow Toby’s abduction. There are toys resembling characters we are yet to meet, books like The Wizard of Oz and various fairy tales providing intertextual references, a bookend that resembles Hoggle. There’s a music box, a striking Bowie-esque doll, an Escher picture on the wall. Everything here is significant, not simply as a means of foreshadowing events to come but as inspirations for Sarah’s fantasy and as representations of her self.
“Things are not always what they seem in this place”
Take Hoggle, for example. When Sarah first meets him he’s urinating into a pond. After that, he sprays fairies with pesticide. He’s a grotesque figure, ugly in appearance and in his initial actions, and as such stands for Sarah’s idea of her self, having wished her brother away. He’s a self-confessed coward who flees from trouble, something Sarah is arguably doing by indulging in fantasy. Her repeated failures at pronouncing his name indicates a reluctance to identify with him, though Hoggle seems to know her right away. He even recognises one of her flaws, which she immediately dismisses. She’ll learn the truth soon enough.
Sarah has to learn to differentiate between honesty and lies if she is to proceed on her journey of self-discovery, and one of her first challenges is a riddle that addresses this. Though she succeeds here, admitting “I could never do it before”, the result plunges her into an oubliette, “a place you put people to forget about them” which reflects the fear she feels at home. However, escape is possible if you’re willing to pay the price. Sarah gives up her imitation jewellery, something seemingly precious that is in fact fake, in a step towards understanding.
With this development, this sacrifice, comes strength, and so Sarah discovers a new friend, Ludo. Ludo is physically formidable and can “summon up the very rocks” which marks him as a solid, reliable presence, and although this strength leaves her temporarily for her encounter with the Fireys (perhaps because it isn’t yet tempered with the bravery of Sir Didymus) it does return shortly after and remains constant throughout the rest of the film.
Speaking of the Fireys, they provide one of the more disturbing scenes of the film, dismembering themselves, removing limbs in a visual deconstruction – and reconstruction – of the self. They make monstrous combinations of themselves as they literally play with their bodies (which may represent a sort of sexual awakening, too, especially considering the common metaphor of fire as passion) but Sarah resists their games because it would be dangerous for her to do otherwise: she needs to keep her head. She is not yet willing to deconstruct herself so obviously.
The idea of deconstruction and fragmentation runs throughout the entire film, with isolated body parts appearing at various points, such as eyes on stalks, helping hands, and faces on doors (one of which can’t speak while the other can’t hear, symbols of denial she must pass). In one striking scene we have a rock face (literally) that begins fragmented, takes the shape of a face, and loses it again as the camera moves past. The face here, though, is Jareth’s.
“Don’t defy me”
Jareth is clearly an authority figure. He is the Goblin King, after all, and to Sarah represents something of a father figure too, hinted at by his claim “he has my eyes” when talking of her younger brother. By no means overt – this is a children’s film, remember – it is nevertheless apparent, however, that this figure harbours desires for Sarah not altogether paternal. Indeed, he lures her away from her friends with a magic peach, the fruit providing a clear biblical parallel regarding temptation and forbidden knowledge. It transports Sarah away from everything childish to a lavish ball scene populated entirely by adults, adults in masks, for of course adults are never what they seem to a child. The only person without a mask is Sarah because she doesn’t belong here, further illustrated by how she is surprised and frightened by a phallic creature that thrusts at her, much to the amusement of the adults. This is not her world. Not yet.
Jareth, suitably demonised by his mask, watches her from a distance until finally they dance, an intimate scene with elements of courtship. However, considering Sarah’s age and Jareth’s role in her life, this makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing. As Sarah notes of the peach that brought her here, this scene “tastes strange” and when she later looks at the fruit she’ll see that it’s bad, worm-infested. Like Laura in Rossetti’s poem ‘Goblin Market’, Sarah has tasted the goblin fruit, but like Lizzie she is able to resist its lure; she is not ready for this adult world (as established early in the film via her reluctance to date) and with her awareness of this comes the chiming of a clock, Cinderella-like and indicative of time passing. She’s running out of time in which to preserve her innocence and so breaks free, significantly smashing a mirror to escape.
She escapes to a junkyard where a strange woman laden with garbage leads her to an exact replica of her room where she thinks for a moment it was all a dream, but before she can “go see if Daddy’s back”, the garbage woman intrudes, encouraging Sarah to forget why she’s here, loading her with previously treasured items, sitting her before yet another mirror with some lipstick and instructing her to “make yourself up”. But Sarah’s been doing that all her life. The temptation here is to forget her purpose, forget her quest to rescue Toby, and to selfishly take pleasure in the items of her own childhood, but she resists and smashes this mirror, too, using the music box that represents the masked ball to do so thus confirming the progress she made in that scene. Sarah realises her true self at last and her quest through the labyrinth resumes.
“For my will is as strong as yours”
Now that Sarah has taken a more active role in her own development she is reunited with her companions; the strength that is Ludo, the bravery of Sir Didymus, and the loyal dog Ambrosius. Hoggle too, eventually, who is no longer the coward he once was. Sarah has successfully navigated the labyrinth, which has always represented the complexities of her own mind, and with her allies she proceeds to the castle. The pace here quickens with a sense of urgency as they storm the Goblin City, but there’s also a sense of resolve, Sarah more driven than ever to complete her quest.
Of course, Sarah has to face Jareth in order to succeed. She does this alone, not abandoning her friends but recognising they’re part of her anyway, and the final confrontation occurs in another labyrinth, this time one of Escheresque staircases that illustrates the topsy-turvey distorted relationship she shares with Jareth. Face to face, Jareth tries to reinforce his authority; “you cowered before me, I was frightening”, he reminds her (note that past tense) before ordering, “fear me, love me, do as I say”, but Sarah realises, “you have no power over me” and so her time in the labyrinth comes to an end. She has remembered a vital line, but more importantly she has realised its truth and so order can be restored, a new kind of order in which patriarchal authority has been overcome by her own feminist power.
“Should you need us…”
At the beginning of the film, Hoggle advised Sarah to “ask the right questions”. The question Labyrinth answers is, “Who am I?” and it’s something Sarah had to find for herself. Now free of the labyrinth, she returns to her bedroom where she puts away the pictures of her mother, not because she’s letting go of her memory but because she no longer seeks to be her. Her jealousy of Toby is also gone, shown by her gift to him of Lancelot as she lets go of childish things and transitions into adulthood.
Not that she’ll always be without her labyrinth friends. In a final mirror scene, Ludo, Sir Didymus, and Hoggle all appear to tell her they’ll always be there for her, “should you need us” and Sarah admits, “I need you, all of you.” She will need the qualities they represent, yes, but the implication is that she’ll also need the escapism of fantasy they represent, a healthy coping mechanism that allows for a better understanding of herself and the world around her. It’s a wonderful closing scene, showing us precisely why we need films like Labyrinth, however old it – and we – might be.