It’s rare to find somebody my age who didn’t see The Dark Crystal as a child. Produced by the Jim Henson Company, the film is markedly different from the majority of childhood films at the time — films which actively protected children from ever experiencing fear or distress.
The story is set on a fantasy planet called Thra which is home to several races of creatures. The planet is dominated by a group of raptor-like creatures called Skeksis. The Skeksis live in a castle, drape themselves in fine clothes, and are served extravagant feasts by a host of enslaved creatures. They control an artefact of power — the Dark Crystal — which they use in various rituals.
In a valley far away from the castle live the Mystics (‘urRu’). Where the Skeksis are reptilian, the Mystics are distinctively mammalian: big round noses, horse-like hair, gentle hands. Although their culture is seeped in ritual, it’s the non-linguistic magic of song — similar to the concept of song in Tolkien’s Simarillion.
Between the urRu and the Skeksis live two races of minor sentient races. The Podlings — a race of bubble-headed, Croatian-speaking imps — and the Gelflings — an all but extinct race of elves. Although the Skeksis are depicted as cruel, they had the foresight to understand that the only good elf is a dead elf. The Gelflings, formerly a highly structured, advanced society, have been all but wiped out. The urRu adopt a young Gelfling, Jen, and protect him from the Skeksis’ attack. According to a prophecy, Jen must complete a quest to prevent the Skeksis from ruling Thra forever.
The traditional interpretation of the film is that the Skeksis are evil and that the Mystics are good. Jen represents the hero who has to walk a dangerous path between these two forces in order to bring harmony to the world. A closer reading demonstrates that this reading is perhaps naif.
As the story progresses, we discover that Jen is not the only surviving Gelfling. A female, Kira, has been raised by the Podlings and lives in hiding. The Podlings have taught her how to talk to animals. She is a skilled hunter (can take down bats with her bolas). As a female Gelfling, she has wings and is capable of limited flight. At one point in the film, Kira is captured by the Skeksis. Using only her knowledge, self determination, and willpower, she frees herself.
Jen — the Gelfling chosen by the prophecy to save the world — plays a mean flute. That’s about it.
Indeed, Jen is so incompetent that he dropped the all-important Crystal Shard moments before the big moment. Kira has to fly down into a room full of Skeksis (where she is stabbed) in order to salvage it. This wasn’t the first time Kira sacrificed her interests for Jen’s. Earlier, Kira and Jen were captured by the disgraced chamberlain Skeksis. Kira attacked the Chamberlain and was taken off to be tortured so that Jen could escape. Even earlier, Kira abandons the Podlings to a Skeksis attack so she could smuggle Jen to safety.
The only motivation for Kira to sacrifice her interests in this way is that she accepts the prophecy told to her by Jen which, in turn, originated with the (male) urRu, the ‘Wisest of the Mystics’. When Kira was told the story, she ought to have weighed up the evidence objectively. Here’s the script:
So the Mystics said that you have to heal the Crystal?
Yes, but now that I’ve got the shard, I don’t know what I have to do with it.
Didn’t the Mystics give you any hints?
They taught me numbers and writing.
Words that stay. My master taught me.
Oh, well I have wings and can talk to animals. Also, I have super awesome weapon skills. Also, I’ve lived in the real world instead of in the Thra-equivalent of a monastery. Are you sure that I’m not the chosen one?
Nope, you’re a girl.
Give me the shard before you hurt yourself.
But perhaps that’s just par for course in the Henson universe.
Beyond the gender issue, the Mystics have not equipped Jen with anything remotely helpful for his quest. In one scene, Jen discovers the ruins of a Gelfling community. Upon the wall is a picture inscribed by the prophecy:
When single shines the triple sun,
What was sundered and undone
Shall be whole, the two made one,
By Gelfling hand, or else by none. [Note again that it doesn’t say ‘Male Gelfling’ hand. Pretty sure that Kira has hands which she’s used for a variety of tasks beyond flute-playing]
It would seem reasonable to believe that the Mystics who set Jen on this quest knew of the prophecy. They never explain it to him. Aughra — a gnarled old woman who lives on a hill with an awesome orrery — even states that she knows what to do with the shard, but she is kidnapped by the Skeksis before she can explain.
Why wouldn’t the Mystics teach Jen about this prophecy? Why wouldn’t the Mystics teach Jen some super awesome combat skills, or survival skills, or even some healing skills? Kira has been taught all three, after all.
It’s because the Mystics are not actually the ‘good’ counterpart to the ‘evil’ Skeksis.
Kant says that the morally excellent person ought not to treat others as means to ends but, instead, as ends in themselves. The Mystics — unable to prosecute their own case against the Skeksis — use Jen as a means to their end. He has to perform an extravagant task which he barely understands for their benefit.
At the start of the film, the Emperor Skeksis dies — crumbling into nothingness, rotten from old age. His death creates a power vacuum in the Skeksis society, and the Skeksis meet in an elaborate throne room to determine who will be the next leader. Although there are several contenders, the paroxysm is sharpest between the Skeksis General (‘SkekUng’) and the Skeksis Chamberlain (‘SkekSil’).
To resolve this conflict, they decide to have a ‘trial by stone’ — each Skeksis will swing their sword at an obelisk. Whoever splits the obelisk is the winner.
Compare this with the society of the Mystics. Concurrent with the crumbling death of the Emperor Skeksis, the leader of the Mystics fades into nothingness. As becomes evident through the film, the Skeksis and the urRu are linked — even to the point that a cut on the hand of one Skeksis results in a similar wound on the counterpart urRu. But where the Skeksis display passion and self-interested emotion in response to the death of the Emperor, the Mystics feel nothing. The most that they can manage in their emotionally-stunted universe is a funeral rite where stones vanish. Even when the Mystic’s hand is injured (mentioned before), he quietly mutters ‘So. My hand.’
For his illegitimate attempt to seize the Skeksis throne, the Chamberlain is banished from their society. The other Skeksis strip him of his robes and property, then he is cast out. It’s a society of laws and the ability to enforce those laws.
The Mystics, on the other hand, sat in their valley while the Skeksis undertook their genocidal campaign against the Gelflings. Despite being all super magical and have a host of songs that can shut down the Skeksis’ weapons, they did nothing.
It calls to mind Robespierre’s speech on the virtue of terror:
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.
Jen’s quest is not to walk a line between the opposing Manichean forces of good and evil. Jen’s quest is to reconcile the two faces of the ruling class: the noble, aspirational, cultured aspect with the legalistic, pragmatic, sometimes brutal aspect. Robespierre’s quote shows us that the terror of the Skeksis is not a lack of virtue. Their society is just ‘prompt, severe, inflexible’. Meanwhile, for all their power, knowledge, and ability, the Mystics are not able to defend the world against the Skeksis. Only the Gelflings possess the fighting spirit required to balance the planet.
Only when we see the two sides of the conflict for what they are can we evaluate whether we are satisfied with the story. The Mystics, too impotent to protect the (conservative) values they endorse, send a young man out to reconcile a dispute on their behalf. Less capable than his sidekicks, Jen is the chosen one not because of skill, talent, or character, but because a group of monks said so.
Say what you like about the Skeksis — at least they had the gumption to fight their own battles.
- Interview: Lisa Henson Talks ‘Fraggle Rock’s’ 30th Anniversary, Upcoming Jim Henson Projects (geek-news.mtv.com)
- Fizzgig (imaginarypenistime.wordpress.com)
- Trevor Jones (cnmsarchive.wordpress.com)
- Honeysuckle Weeks: My top five films including The Shawshank Redemption and The Dark Crystal (metro.co.uk)
- Shadow and Bone and Visual Effects (ipushbooks.wordpress.com)
- The Beginning the Sequel Part II (sumarholt.wordpress.com)