Created by Jim Henson and his studio of master puppeteers, Labyrinth is a rightfully beloved fantasy film. As the film is a relatively famous cult classic, I don’t feel the need to sing is overall praises – lots of people on the web have done that already, and probably better than I have. What I can do, however, is focus on what aspect of Labyrinth that really sticks out to me: the way it adapts old fairy folklore into a modern day story. We’ll start with a synopsis – one that’s perhaps a bit too detailed, but a lot of those small details are important – and then move on to talking about why Labyrinth’s portrayal of the Fair Folk is so good and true to that nebulous entity that is mythology.
As the opening credits roll, a state of the art (for the time) CGI owl flies over a very simple CGI labyrinth. While this is “dated,” it’s also oddly charming, especially once David Bowie’s vocals kick in. It’s almost a microcosm of the movie’s appeal – yes, its dated and no one’s convinced it’s real, but we’re not looking for reality here. We looking for something utterly unrealistic, and yet just grounded enough to let us dream about the possibility of it existing anyway.
We begin proper with our heroine, Sarah, wearing her best Renaissance Faire cosplay, reciting lines from a story about a princess reclaiming a baby from a goblin king. This isn’t foreshadowing so much as it’s literally the plot of the entire movie. Unfortunately, she gets caught in the rain, and is then scolded by her mother for getting soaked, being late for babysitting duty, and not being romantically active as a teenager, the latter of which is kinda weird but her parents seem kinda preppy so maybe they just don’t approve of her cosplay lifestyle. She retorts that her parents never ask her if she has plans, showing they DEFINITELY don’t approve of her cosplay lifestyle because they’re doing the classic “if we don’t talk to her about her dumb hobbies she might give them up” routine.
Angry at being saddled with taking care of her dumb baby brother, Sarah recites the part of her book where its heroine wishes that goblins would take away her baby stepbrother. This scene is intercut with scenes of a whole horde of goblins waiting for Sarah to actually wish for them to take the real life baby. It’s creepy at first, but Sarah takes forever to outright say, “I wish the goblins would take my brother away,” and the goblins get increasingly irate over her dillydallying, which quickly becomes far more hilarious than scary. Of course, eventually those words cross Sarah’s lips, and so we have our plot.
Sarah realizes something is wrong when the baby stops crying immediately, and is then confronted by David Bowie Jareth, the Goblin King. Jareth tells her to play with her toys and costumes and forget about the baby, offering her a gift in return for her forgetting. She politely refuses, thanking him for the offer before saying she can’t let him have the baby. Jareth then offers her a second deal: if she can navigate his labyrinth in 13 hours and find the baby, she can have him back. Though the labyrinth is impossibly large, Sarah agrees, charging forward.
Sarah then meets Hoggle, a goblin who looks as ugly on the outside as Disney’s Gurgi is on the inside. That comparison isn’t just me continuing a tired joke – Hoggle is actually oddly similar to Gurgi, as you will see, but far more palatable because he’s supposed to be a bit despicable. Hoggle is killing fairies with pesticide, and though Sarah chastises him, she is promptly bitten when she tries to help one of the fallen fairies. When she questions why the fairy would do that, the following exchange occurs:
Hoggle: What would you expect fairies to do?
Sarah: I thought they did nice things, like granting wishes.
Hoggle: Hah! Shows what you know.
While he’s cantankerous and cynical, Hoggle has some decent advice for Sarah, providing a good counterbalance to her optimism and naievete. Unfortunately for our heroine, he doesn’t join her on her adventure – yet.
Sarah is almost beaten at the start, as the labyrinth seems to have no twists and turns, forcing her to run in a straight line. Thankfully, a helpful worm points out that the walls are an optical illusion, hiding the various twists and turns in plain sight. Less thankfully, the worm then tells her “Don’t go that way” when she’s about to take off, leading Sarah to go in the opposite direction. “Good thing she didn’t go that way,” says the worm, “She’d have gone straight to that castle!”
We cut to Jareth and a horde of goblins watching Sarah in a crystal ball, which leads to one of my favorite things: KICKASS GOBLIN SONGS!
Our next scene of Sarah navigating the labyrinth highlights both her resourcefulness AND the labyrinth’s trickery. Sarah marks stones with the direction she came from, giving he the ability to retrace her steps and check the forks in the road she didn’t visit. Sadly, every time she does so, a tiny goblin emerges from under the stone and flips it over, hiding her marks from view. Though Sarah is cleverer than some heroines might be, the labyrinth is no ordinary puzzle.
Sarah then comes across the classic Knights and Knaves riddle: two doors, two doorkeepers, one doorkeeper always lies, one always tells truth, only one question, etc. The problem in this case is that the doorkeepers can’t keep the riddle straight themselves, and though Sarah finds the logically right choice, she still ends up falling into a deep hole. Said hole is filled with disembodied “Helping Hands,” which send her down to the bowels of the labyrinth.
Hoggle finds her there, and offers his help to get her out of the labyrinth. While he claims it’s out of the goodness of his heart, Sarah 1. doesn’t buy it and 2. doesn’t want to leave the labyrinth but rather wants to get to the castle at the center of it. She offers Hoggle some jewelry for his guidance, and despite knowing better, Hoggle agrees because hot damn does he like jewelry. Jareth confronts the pair almost immediately, threatening to put Hoggle in the Bog of Eternal Stench if the goblin dares to actually help Sarah. He then asks Sarah is she enjoys the labyrinth, and when she says it’s a “piece of cake,” the Goblin King gets positively indignant, summoning a giant steampunk death machine to chase Sarah and Hoggle through the sewers. They evade it easily enough, but still, it’s something of an overreaction.
The two emerge from a pot – a pot that isn’t touching the ground, which makes it ability to connect to the sewers highly suspect. A grizzled old goblin tries to give them some cryptic, pseudo-philosophical advice, but is persistently heckled by the bird head he’s wearing as a hat. It’s at this point in my notes where I realized it’s hard not to make this review a play by play, because goddamn every scene is just packed full of such wonderful, fun, utterly weird shit.
Our heroes encounter a bunch of goblins tormenting a big hairy bugbear named Ludo. Hoggle bails, leaving Sarah alone to watch the horrible sight. Said Bugbear has the ability to control rocks, much like Toph Beifong, and once Sarah rescues him, he joins her with a simple grunt of, “Friend?” While not particularly articulate, Ludo soon proves to be a stalwart ally on Sarah’s quest. After a brief encounter with two less than helpful talking Door Knockers, Sarah and Ludo get separated, leaving our heroine alone once again.
Hoggle hears Sarah crying out, and almost goes to help her until he’s cut off by Jareth. The Goblin King gives him a peach that will make Sarah forget her quest, telling Hoggle that he better get Sarah to eat it if he doesn’t want to lose his jewelry. When Hoggle protests, Jareth repeats the threat of throwing Hoggle into the Bog of Eternal Stench, and so our cynical goblin reluctantly agrees to betray his only friend.
Sarah has a terrifying yet jaunty encounter with a group of goblins who delight in dismembering themselves, which, thanks to them being goblins, isn’t quite as lethal or gory as it sounds. At least, it isn’t when they’re focus on themselves, but once they demand that Sarah removes her head we run into some problems. Sarah runs and is rescued by Hoggle, escaping being torn apart by monsters who don’t realize she can’t just put herself back together.
The two then barely escape falling into the Bog of Eternal Stench, where they barely escape falling into its flatulating swamp water. They run into Ludo there, as well as a small but tenacious fairy fox named Sir Didymus, who fights Ludo to a standstill. Sir Didymus refuses to let them pass because he swore an oath that “none shall pass without [his] permission.” Sarah then asks for his permission, and Sir Didymus realizes that this meets his requirements, and joins our heroes on their quest. Sadly, the bridge breaks before they can cross, but thankfully Ludo can still summon rocks, and finds enough to make a new bridge for them.
Hoggle gives Sarah the peach, and our heroine falls into a trance. She finds herself in a ballroom, wearing the same dress as the figure in her music box back home, while all the other guests are humans wearing masks that are distinctly goblin-y. Jareth meets her there, and the resulting dance scene is both enchanting and deeply unsettling, like a dream that could turn into a nightmare at any moment. Sure enough, it does exactly that, as the people at the party behave more and more menacingly while the clock strikes ever closer to Sarah’s deadline. Sarah finally ends the nightmare by smashing a mirror on the wall, which sends her tumbling through the air as the vision fades into nothingness.
Sarah finds herself landing in a pile of lost objects, where she meets a shabby packrat of a goblin woman. The goblin gives Sarah an old Teddy bear she lost, implying that all the other objects in this area are all the objects people have lost throughout the years. The goblin woman leads Sarah to what seems to be her bedroom, and Sarah momentarily rejoices because she thinks it was all just a dream. This lasts for all of five seconds before the goblin woman breaks into her room again to bring Sarah more stuff she lost in an attempt to keep her from realizing she’s been bamboozled. The facsimile room happens to contain the book Sarah was reading at the start of the movie, reminding her of her quest and giving her the gumption to escape the trap. She reunites with Sir Didymus and Ludo and finds that she has finally reached the gates of the goblin city.
When they enter the city, our heroes are attacked by what is essentially a goblin Gundam, which is more than a match for them. Luckily, Hoggle appears, and uses the Obi Wan Kenobi strategy of finding the high ground to break the Goblin-Gundam’s head unit, which, as you Gundam fans know, disqualifies the robot from the tournament by way of rendering it useless. Sarah forgives Hoggle, and our group of heroes presses forward. An entire army of goblins stands in their way, but through a mix of slapstick, magic trickery, and sheer heroic tenacity, Sarah’s friends help her get to the heart of the castle. Sarah tells them she must confront Jareth herself, as “That’s just the way it’s done,” and while they agree, Sir Didymus makes sure she knows that they’ll always be there for her if she needs them.
Jareth and Sarah meet in a section of the castle that is composed of stairways in all directions and angles, much like an M.C. Escher painting. Gravity isn’t quite constant in the room, as one can walk in any direction so long as their feet are planted on the stairs. Sarah quickly loses track of where up and down even are as she chases her baby brother through the stairs, all while Jareth croons about how he’s done all of this for Sarah. Sarah finally confronts Jareth head on, and the Goblin King claims he has been “generous.” Sarah asks how he’s been generous, and Jareth says he’s given her everything:
“Everything! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?”
Sarah then realizes that their confrontation is going exactly like the one she was reciting at the beginning of the movie – that Jareth has essentially let her live the story she has practically memorized. Once she gives the heroine’s triumphant speech, she finds herself in her house once more, as is her baby brother. In her bedroom, Sarah reflects upon her journey, and sees her goblin friends in the mirror telling her goodbye. They remind her that they’ll be there if she needs them, and Sarah says she needs them right now, at which point all the goblins – including some of the antagonistic ones – show up in her bedroom and throw Sarah a big party as our movie comes to a close.
Ok, since we have the synopsis out of the way, let’s get to the crux of this article and talk about how Labyrinth handles fairies. One of the marvelous things about this movie is that you really can’t boil down its fair folk to a simple concept. They can be goofy, threatening, silly, serious, kind, cruel, selfish, selfless, large, small, biological, mechanical, and all of these things and more all at once. In a sense, they’re as multifaceted as real people, even despite the fact that they’re so goddamn strange – or perhaps because of it.
Fairies, like most mythological creatures, have suffered from pop culture’s pervasive desire to simplify things into exaggerated concepts. A few decades ago they were stereotyped as “good creatures” – tiny, cute creatures that grant wishes and are nothing but helpful. Nowadays the opposite seems to be happening, as more and more people will talk about how cruel and wicked fairies are, citing this as being more true to the myth. The reality is that both versions are equally true and false – fairies aren’t good or bad, they’re both and neither. Fairies operate on their own rules of logic and morality – rules that intersect with our own but aren’t quite the same.
The goblins and other fairies in Labyrinth aren’t wholly good or evil, whether they’re antagonistic to Sarah or helpful. Of her allies, Hoggle is cynical and self-serving, though he has enough of a heart to take Sarah’s side once she calls him a friend and gives him a gift. Ludo is friendly because Sarah saved his life, but is otherwise content to dish out a fair amount of violence to those who upset him. Sir Didymus talks up his chivalric values, but is so daft and loopy that he ends up causing as much trouble as he stops in true Don Quixote style. They’re all great allies to Sarah, but calling them “good” by our human definition is a bit of a stretch.
Yet the antagonist goblins aren’t wholly evil either. They’re all just doing their jobs, for one thing, and most don’t seem too committed to it, taking defeat fairly gracefully. The gang of fire goblins that try to decapitate Sarah genuinely don’t understand that she can’t just put it back on, as they take themselves apart without a care in the world. The goblin army offers a decent amount of resistance at first, but quickly folds into chaotic buffoonery when Sarah’s allies strike back, getting defeated by their own goofy sensibilities as much as they are by the tactics of Sarah’s party.
All the fairies, strange and wacky as they are, follow a sort of code of honor. Their word is their bond, and a person who honors that bond can beat them at their own game with enough guile. Hoggle honors his promise to Sarah despite the threats of Jareth (albeit with some waffling), Sir Didymus honors his oath to protect the bridge, the Knights and Knaves goblins do their best to hold to the riddle (even if their memories are not quite up to it), and in the end, Jareth upholds his bargain with Sarah. Wholly wicked beings could go back on these promises, but the goblins don’t. Likewise, wholly good beings probably wouldn’t kidnap children and threaten a teenager with mortal peril – there’s no easy categorization available here.
Which leads us to the Goblin King and chief antagonist, Jareth himself. His reveal at the end of the movie that the whole plot was literally conceived with Sarah in mind throws the entire story in a new light. Jareth didn’t want the baby – he wanted to give Sarah the adventure she so desperately craved, and all the trials and tribulations Sarah suffered, all the genuine mortal peril she had to dodge, was, in Jareth’s mind, a gift, and one he believed she wanted at that. One must remember that the goblins didn’t strike until Sarah said out loud that she wished the goblins would take her brother like they did in the story she was reading – in a sense, Jareth was right, as Sarah did in some way want this adventure to happen, to the point where she was acting it out in the park on her own. In a strange, twisted, loony way, Jareth was just giving Sarah her dream come true.
Think back to Sarah’s first exchange with Hoggle, where she mentioned how fairies do “nice things, like granting wishes.” In a sense she was half right – fairies do grant wishes, and in their mind that is nice, but the way in which they do it can seem a little, well, let’s say overdone. The fair folk are like us enough to be partially understandable, and likewise can sort of understand us in turn, but are different enough to take things in unexpected directions. Sometimes those directions are whimsical, sometimes they’re terrifying, and often they’re both, as fairies reside in all extremes.
Mythic fairies are in short supply in pop culture. We can get their brightest side in some stories, and their darkest in others, but Labyrinth is one of the few recent works that shows us fairies in full. They’re as delightful as they are demented, silly as they are sinister, and good and bad in equal measure. More than anything, they are fantastical, and while the fantasy in question may be a dark one, it’s one you’ll want to revisit despite – and perhaps even because – of the possible peril.
That’s delightful. I should see that movie properly one of these days. And honestly, that seems pretty close in tone to… okay, less of Roald Dahl’s work than I was expecting, but still a fair bit. Are you familiar with Shel Silverstein’s poetry? Or Return of The Dapper Men? Or, perhaps most relevantly, The Neverending Story (the book, not the movie)? I admit I’m just mentioning good modern fairy tales (ooh, No Rest For The Wicked is another one, even incomplete) rather than similarly versatile, whimsical fairies, but I think you’d like them anyway.