Like The Dark Crystal, there are few people my age who didn’t watch Labyrinth while growing up. Labyrinth was my introduction to David Bowie’s music and — almost by default — becomes the measure by which I evaluate Bowie’s albums.
The film follows a teenager, Sarah, a whiny brat who fantasises about being a lady. She plays dress up in the local park, reciting dramatic lines in a costume dress and neglecting her duties at home to babysit her younger brother. After an emotional outburst, she accidentally summons Jareth, the Goblin King (Bowie), to abduct her brother. Thus begins her quest to navigate Jareth’s labyrinth to reclaim her brother from him.
As Sarah progresses through the labyrinth, she meets a variety of strange characters, three of whom become friends: a selfish and cowardly dwarf called Hoggle; a frightening but gentle monster called Ludo; and a pretentious but well-meaning knight called Sir Didymus. Initially, Sarah is frustrated that things in the labyrinth don’t go her way or meet her expectations, but she learns not to take things for granted and to understand the reality of situations. Spoiler: she saves her brother.
What is perhaps overlooked in the film is how rich it is for interpretations. Sady Doyle points out that the film can be read as Sarah trying to find the strength and knowledge to deal with an emotionally abusive lover. Jareth has dominated the relationship between them, yet continually claims that he is only doing what she wants. The term for this kind of abuse is ‘gaslighting‘. The only way for Sarah to resolve the problem is to recognise Jareth’s behaviour and assert her independence.
The film has a natural mirror in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur was an abomination who was kept in the middle of a labyrinth on Crete. Theseus needed to discover a way to navigate the maze in order to combat the Minotaur and escape. In Labyrinth, the Minotaur is replaced with the Goblin King who, in a way, is a kind of abomination. Where the other goblins are deformed and twisted, Jareth is sexy.
While gender and Greek myth are wonderful grounds for interpretation and exploration, I want to focus on the three friends: Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus.
‘Things are not always what they seem,’ repeats Sarah. Hoggle appears to be a repulsive little scab of a person; he is hired to exterminate the beautiful faeries that float around the entrance to the labyrinth. Throughout the film, it’s not entirely clear if Hoggle is a friend to Sarah or acting on behalf of Jareth; indeed, it’s not even clear if Hoggle knows which side he is on. Hoggle is morally weak and cowardly. He obeys Jareth’s instructions because he fears him, yet later comes to Sarah’s aid because he experiences intense guilt for how he’s behaved.
A similar dynamic occurs in the character of Ludo. He’s a giant, fearsome, intimidating monster, but he is gentle, loyal, and scared. Where Hoggle is deceptive and self-interested, Ludo appears to be loyal and genuine because he is too stupid to do otherwise.
Finally, there’s Sir Didymus. Didymus is pretentious, narcissistic, and overzealous, but entirely honorable, brave, and dutiful. He seems unable to understand how others perceive him, and is therefore incapable of understanding how ridiculous he is. He has made a solemn vow to ensure that nobody crosses a bridge without his permission, then fights people instead of freely giving that permission. He is surrounded by enemy soldiers, then offers them the chance to surrender.
Far from representing some deeper Freudian truth about Sarah, these three characters instead reflect aspects of Jareth’s personality. Hoggle represents Jareth’s pettiness and mean-spirited nature. Ludo represents Jareth’s impressive and intimidating aspect. Sir Didymus reflects Jareth’s narcissism.
The labyrinth itself is a fantasy representation of Jareth himself. Jareth controls the environment, filling it with traps and obstacles, then spying on her as she becomes lost and frightened. The only way through the labyrinth is to understand and reconcile herself with those aspects of Jareth which cause her distress: his meanness, his menace, and his narcissism. Jareth’s face is even hidden throughout the film:
Sarah frames this exploration of Jareth, oddly enough, in terms of two fantasies. The first is the childish fantasy of the labyrinth: it’s filled with fairytale creatures and monsters and magic. The second is the adult fantasy of the masquerade ball: a place where the same fairytale creatures and monsters and magic are represented instead by the perverse behaviour of lords and ladies and waitresses in gold body paint. The two fantasies allow Sarah to get a better understanding of the man who torments her. He’s an extremely damaged bully whose outward presentation is a facade.
In Cinderella, the heroine escapes the subjugation of domestic work by escaping into a fantasy world where she is a princess. The story resolves by transforming the fantasy world into the actual world. In Labyrinth, the story plays out differently. Although she rebels against the subjugation of domestic work by escaping into a fantasy world, Sarah discovers the falseness of the world created by the damaged psyche of its chief inhabitant. Instead of turning that fantasy world into the actual world, Sarah elects to return to the domestic work of caring for her male sibling. She discovers that she can summon the fantasy world on her own terms, divorced from the broken element which created it.
The question is then whether or not the ending is satisfying. Following the victory, the hero has subjugated herself to the demands of her ordinary society and still claims to need — inexplicably, ‘every now and then, for no reason at all’ — the company of aspects of her damaged antagonist.
- The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (vacuntress.wordpress.com)
- The faces of David Bowie are hiding everywhere in ‘Labyrinth’ (deathandtaxesmag.com)
- L is for Labyrinths (childofbrighid.wordpress.com)
- Labyrinth (1986) (jaysaysretro.wordpress.com)
- And you cannot run or ever, ever escape… Some notes on horror films (onlythesangfroid.wordpress.com)
- See the Cast of Labyrinth Then and Now (mikeyb185.wordpress.com)
- Interview: Lisa Henson Talks ‘Fraggle Rock’s’ 30th Anniversary, Upcoming Jim Henson Projects (geek-news.mtv.com)