Wednesday, 5 February 2014

What's really going on in Labyrinth: Conclusion

I do but beg a little changeling boy to be my henchman
What's it to be then? Is Jareth actually Sarah's shadow, or her sexual fantasy? 

Right from the start, he is far more ambiguous than the parameters of an ordinary narrative would allow. He, the story and the characters all insist that he is motivated by love for Sarah. And if love is characterised by wildly disordered behaviour, boy, is it believable. He throws tantrums, displays bombast, changes his clothes more times than a sane man would think plausible, and yet... yet he is constantly sending her away. "Turn back," he tells her, "turn back before it's too late"

“Go back to your room,” he says, “and play with your toys. I have a gift for you.”

But what is he telling her when he turns her away? Especially as this gift (and, one assumes, by extension, his love) is, “not for an ordinary girl who looks after a screaming baby.”

Doesn't that translate as, "go and be a child, but be beholden to me"? "Get out of this mystical landscape but don't be ordinary."?

Besides, how is looking after a screaming baby a 'normal' thing for a fifteen year old to do? A modern, middle class, American, fifteen year old? Oh, and hey, that's twice Sarah has been thrown up against 'normal' behaviour for someone her age, twice it has been thrown away. She'd rather dress as a princess than have dates, rather go against a dashing supernatural tyrant than meekly accept his love.

Jareth continues in this erratic vein for the whole film, his malevolent laughter is continually underscored by melancholy, by the certainty that “she should have given up and gone home”. He pushes her, again and again, threatens, bribes, cheats, but never actually causes her harm. He is not a shadow, but he is willing to play her shadow; as he says at the end, “You trembled before me. I was terrifying...”

Is the labyrinth itself is Jareth's creation? Or Sarah's?

This would be easy were he simply a rogue figment: it would be her creation through him. But if he is a figment, then he is not the exact figment she believes him to be: why else would she view him with such incomprehension? And if he is wholly independent as an entity, if the labyrinth is his, as much as her own, we must accept that, to some extent, it is under his control. So, at the risk of sounding paranoid: why, in a landscape which the villain maintains, does Sarah meets the exact helpers she needs to complete her quest? More than that –why are those helpers deliberately sent by Jareth to perform certain role – freeing Sarah from the oubliette, blocking the exit to the bog of eternal stench? After all, it is their obedience to his instructions that permit her to show her mettle, allow her to triumph.

Interestingly, the very mettle that these companions cause her to show in herself - a willingness to be both flexible and ruthless (Hoggle), to display her bravery and kindness (Ludo), her logic and honour (Sir Didymus) - all these are characteristics that Jareth displays and appears to value. He himself adapts, changing his approach, his plan. He defends his realm with tricks and puzzles. He calls her out on her boast, “upping the stakes” to achieve his ends. Despite this, he does not go back on his word, neither will he allow her to rescind hers, “What's said is said.” Finally, defeated, he reasons with her, “I ask so little...”1

But “kind?” I hear you ask, with Sarah, “what has he done that is kind?”

Convenient how this wall gives way so very close to certain death
Isn't it curious that, in a landscape whose laws operate entirely at the behest of the villain, Sarah is never in any actual danger? Ludo vanishes down a pit, only to appear where she will be in four minutes time. She falls into the oubliette – Hoggle rescues her. The Cleaners have them trapped – a wall gives way. They are plunging into the bog of stench and not one, but two handholds appear to stop their descent. 

I'm curtailing this particular line of reasoning before this post turns into one of those calmly delusional conspiracy websites, and limit myself to saying: if we consider that Jareth claims to love Sarah, it is reasonable to suggest he prevents her getting hurt.

So, here's the payload, chaps. 

Here's what's really going in in Labyrinth.

A supernatural entity falls in love with a lonely, somewhat dreamy, girl. (Even if we cut all the stuff about abandonment and misplaced affection for her absent mother's new partner, Sarah alphabetises her toys and spends her Saturday afternoons pretending to a be a Princess in a park. She unlikely to have vast numbers of friends.) This entity sees her frustrated by the role of surrogate motherhood that has been laid upon her. While her father and step-mother relieve their youth by having date nights nearly every Saturday, this assumption of adult responsibilities actually stops Sarah 'growing up', by limiting the roles and experiences she can attempt,  Freed from Toby, Jareth assumes, she could develop, become the adult she promises to be, dreamy, intelligent and - dare I say it – grateful. Freed from Toby, she is free to love him, in time.

This, however, is no ordinary girl.

It is not Jareth's love which makes Sarah special; that quality, of bravery, of imagination, of power, comes from her herself. We can only assume that it is the sheer strength and complexity of her imagination which has summoned him to her in the first place. So, when she refuses the gift of a child-free evenings with his crystal to entertain her, this is a decision Jareth respects.

To take the baby would be throw her back into childhood, and he does not want her to remain a child. He loves her, remember? He wants her to be an adult woman, capable of loving him in return. So, he gives her a different gift – not a harmless day-dream, but the very adventure quest of which she has fantasised, a spirit journey that will guide her out of childhood and into the difficult waters of adolescence. Into, one assumes, his arms.

To complete the quest, all she must do is remember the baby. But... but... if she remembers the baby, she'll take him home, good-hearted young woman that she is, and be that surrogate mother again. If she succeeds in this dream-quest, he will be the villain in her story. If she succeeds that very strength he admires will defeat him and his interest in the matter. So he tells her, “Turn back, Sarah. Turn back before it is too late.”

But each attempt to discourage her is overcome, each danger only shows more of that strength which he loved in the first place. As the quest progresses, Jareth's feelings for her deepen and her rejection of him becomes more assured. 

Come on, he makes a fantastic villain.
Alright, alright. My own idiot crush tends to misguide me on this2. Yes, Jareth is flawed. Yes, he hugely morally ambiguous. Yes, he follows a morality that can never be considered human (baby troubling you? Want me to turn it into a goblin for you?) But that isn't all of it. He wants so badly to be loved, needs, desperately to be everything Sarah desires, that he has played his role too well. He makes such a good villain.

So, what does he do? Pushed into extremis, once again, he ups his game. "Wait, I have a better idea." You can handle childhood challenges so well, Sarah. How do you respond to adulthood? So she falls into a dream, a sexual, fevered, dream full of inexplicable grown-ups and infinitely desirable men, full of a sense of loss, of confusion; the dream we mere mortals call puberty.3

But as an adult, Sarah is lost. Still, rather than succumbing, rather than being the victim of this seduction she has enough savvy, enough guts to draw her own line under this, to say quite clearly, “I am not comfortable.” No victim, Sarah, she closes the uncomfortable conversation, ends the relationship.

Once more, she is stronger, better, more loveable, than Jareth believed.

So, now we come to the final confrontation. Sarah has emerged, not quite an adult, no longer quite a child. She is strong enough, now, to face this alone. Her responsibility, her grounding in reality, protect her from imagination's charms. She has to save Toby, no matter what temptation or distraction is laid in her way. She loves her dreams, but she will not be ruled by them. Into the unknown, into certain death, she leaps.

"I can't live within you"
Jareth must, simply must, win the love of this woman.

So what happens? The 'Goblin King' comes clean. The baby's safe, the 'war' is over, what is there to lose? He breaks the script, makes one attempt to reason, one last attempt to show her adulthood, to offer what he always wanted to give her, “her dreams”.

What happens next is open to debate.

Either, once again, Sarah is not ready. Jennifer Connelly plays this scene as if in a trance, as if not seeing, not hearing the words that are being said to her. Facing Jareth's heartfelt rhetoric, she quotes from a book, spouting words that do not connect, still playing the game, still following the childhood script, as though unaware the rules have changed. Jareth tries, fails, to interrupt, to break her concentration, but in the end, rote learning of the hero/villain narrative has proved too strong. She banishes him, and away he falls, leaving the gift he had promised her all along: dreams at her command. They burst on her fingers. As an owl, away he wings, to wait, or to seek another mate.

Or, perhaps more interestingly, Sarah knows exactly what is going on, knows exactly what is being offered, that, at last, she is no longer fighting the idea of the villain, but is fighting Jareth himself, this supernatural entity riding piggyback on her imagination.

After all, the text is, “Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.” To echo another supernatural word-battle about a boychild, his offer can be summed up with, “Am I not your Lord?”

"You have no power over me."
And, with all the dignity of a Titania, seeming to realise it for the first time, Sarah tells him where to get off: “Then I must be your Lady.”

As lovers, they are doomed. The very tests and trials that prove her as worthy, more than worthy, of his love are the things that show her too strong to be a handmaiden, too self-aware to take a secondary role. Whereas I, and all my friends, would probably have fallen swooning at this point, Sarah stays strong. What is offered her is a poisoned chalice. Why should she need that? Her will is as strong as his, her kingdom as great. She owes him nothing. The only powers he has over her are the ones that she allows him.

So, Jareth is banished, forced to watch from outside as the woman who is too strong for him reclaims what is rightfully her own. You can feel desperately sorry for him as he flies away, his choice vindicated, his love refused, without ever disbelieving that Sarah was right.

Chose the ending that gives you most pleasure. As for me? I veer between the two, depending on how feminist I'm feeling. Truly, in either case, a remarkable film.

Yeah, but what about the baby?

Clearly, you're new to this parenting lark
Other than as the McGuffin to end all McGuffins, where does the Toby fit into all this? Well, if you really want to know, it's quite simple. Although Jareth starting off with a screaming child he cannot comfort (and therefore abandons in a pit of goblins) he soon finds a propensity to fatherhood. Dance with the baby. Sing to it. Throw it in the air. Make sure it gets caught by a minion. Feed it. Dandle it on your knee while waiting for the woman you love to give up and go home, or come back and fall in love with you. Jareth's attitude to Toby can be summed up in one line: “He's such a lively little chap, I think I'll call him Jareth.”
Why should I catch the him? That's what minions are for.

Time, as we have seen, works differently in the Goblin Kingdom. Could it be, then, that as well as choosing his lover, Jareth has chosen his son? Sarah, as we've said, is already a surrogate mother to the boy, a role for which she is not yet ready. All Jareth wants her to do is go home and grow up....

So that's his goal, in the end, after he gets the girl and whisks her off to faeryland. A quiet little family in the Escher-castle beyond the Goblin city, a strange, supernatural mummy and baby and daddy.

And baby makes three...
Oh dear, Jareth. I thought you were offering her dreams.

Parts one and two of this article can be found here and here.

1It was popular opinion among my friends at school that what he offered sounded like a perfectly good deal, when you thought about it.
2See, “Alys' Addiction to Villains” Chapters 1-38967.
3It's a bit late, if we're honest. Sarah is fifteen. But a handy guide for YA stuff is to knock a couple of years off the protagonist to get the age of the target audience.

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