Kid’s Stuff: Labyrinth and the illusion of adulthood

Nothing is what it seems
Live without your sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can't live within you
---- David Bowie, Within You

Labyrinth is a bit of an off-putting film at first glance. It’s the creative collaboration of several very disparate artists, with the input of George Lucas, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, Jim Henson and David Bowie contributing to a work of art that is nearly as lumpy and misshapen as the goblin puppets it features. Our two principal leads are Sarah and Jareth – played by Jennifer Connelly in one of her earliest major roles and David Bowie. One of these performers struggles somewhat heroically to bring a grounded sense of seriousness to a movie principally populated by puppets. The other is David Bowie in all his strange glory.

I feel a sense of sympathy for Connelly, whose performance was not well rated by viewers at the time that Labyrinth was released because she needed to, at sixteen, perform a role that depended on a fair bit of nuance, where growth is more explicit than the gesture of a forgotten line of a play but also kept largely and, at times uncomfortably subtextual. Not only this, but she has to do it when she is only ever sharing a screen with either a panoply of Jim Henson puppet masterworks or, (even harder) David Bowie’s mad kabuki wizard. It is always difficult to have to be the emotional ground tasked with responding to a scenery chewer but Connelly soldiers on gamely and ultimately delivers a sincere performance of a young woman forced by social pressure and the inevitable march of time to assume a new place in the world.

The remainder of the cast consists of Sarah’s father and step-mother, the baby Toby and a whole bunch of absolutely wild puppets. It’s something of a misfortune that Sarah’s role in a film that is as aggressively internal as Labyrinth has been overshadowed within the form of its cult following by the strangeness of Bowie’s performance and by these wondrous puppets but they do demonstrate clearly the legacy of the Henson company – and their peerless ability to realize things that are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.

Just look at these darlings. Don’t you want to just hug them

The challenge we have to confront when reviewing Labyrinth though is that it is entirely and completely Sarah’s movie. There’s hardly a scene she isn’t in, her quest is the action of the film, and even from the film’s first gestures, Labyrinth situate the story as being one that happens within Sarah. A reading of this film that tries to interface with its themes must thus situate all the wild and bizarre goblins, monsters, and even the antagonistic Jareth as aspects of Sarah. This gives way to one of Labyrinth’s chief illusions: A movie about a maze that seems at odds with its own clearly deliberate directionality. Labyrinth situates Sarah in a place where movement in all directions is possible, but the story always only moves inward and downward.


Labyrinth begins by demonstrating Sarah, lingering in a park and in a state of forgetfulness having to rush home in the rain. She argues with her step-mother over the question of responsibility and goes to hide in her room: a quintessential sanctum filled up with the bric-a-brac of a young life.

As she flees her unnamed step-mother, the (honestly decent and reasonable) woman shouts out at Sarah that she almost wishes the girl had been out with a boy. That would have been a normal thing for a sixteen year old to do. Instead, Sarah is lingering in a park and struggling to memorize the lines in a play. We get a sense she intends to audition but we are never told. Even this early on we see a movement inward within the film. Sara moves from an open park to the street to the foyer to the sanctum of her room. She is only forced out of her childish sulking when she discovers one of her favourite toys, a teddy bear named Lancelot, is missing. The film uses establishing photography effectively, if not with subtlety, to give us a sense of the sort of girl Sarah is. She reads the Wizard of Oz and names her toys for Arthurian figures. She has multiple books about fairy tales, and still reads Maurice Sendak at the age of sixteen. In its establishing scenes we get a clear visual sense of who Sarah is: an intelligent but immature girl, introverted and self-contained, loving of her childhood and too nostalgic. Labyrinth, as a film, is deeply hostile to nostalgia.

Driven out of her sanctuary to find her errant toy, Sarah finds Lancelot on the floor of her infuriating half-brother’s nursery. He is standing at the edge of his crib crying. No matter how Sarah pleads, coddles or scolds Toby he won’t stop crying so she mostly monologues at him about how insufferable it is to have a baby in the house. The unspoken looms in the background – that with the entrance of Toby into the home, Sarah isn’t the baby anymore. The presence of this toddler has made it more urgent that Sarah grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.

By accident, she casts a spell and summons the Goblin King who promises to take away Toby and leave, in exchange, a crystal ball that will let Sarah see her deepest dreams. The Goblin King is a liar in this, like in everything he does, and his baubles full of dreams are just illusions. But his promise to take away the baby is all too real. When Sarah begs that she didn’t mean for her brother to really be kidnapped, Jareth gives her a quest instead: traverse his labyrinth in thirteen hours to claim her brother or lose him forever.

The rest of the movie involves Sarah moving into the labyrinth. This movement involves a process not just of continual inwarness but also of descent. Sarah moves always toward Jareth. She might want to claim her brother, but in the final moments there is just her and the Goblin King: her quest might be motivated by a desire to rescue her brother but its object is the moment of confrontation with him.

Irrational Psychopomp

Jareth is the antagonist of the film but he’s a singular one. Jareth is far more like a psychopomp or the assigner of heroic trials than he is a villain. At times, when it seems like the challenge put forward to Sarah is too easy, Jareth will personally intercede, he will tempt Sarah, try to persuade her to give up. He always seems quite sincere in his efforts to stop her, but he is also the one who set the initial conditions of the challenge. Jareth is the on who brought Sarah to the edge of his labyrinth and who told her to seek him at its heart.

Jareth manipulates Hoggle and tries to force him to betray Sarah through his fear. But when Jareth finally makes good on his threat that if Sarah ever kisses Hoggle he’ll be thrown into the Bog of Eternal Stench, they encounter Sir Didymus who immediately undertakes to help Sarah with her quest, and whose courage is ultimately instrumental to Sarah’s success. It seems a little strange that the Goblin King, this ever-present sovereign who can be anywhere at any time, who can reshape time itself to his whims, would work so hard to force Sarah into the very place where she needs to be to meet an important ally. Critics of Labyrinth have previously pointed out that the film struggles as the stakes often seem undercut by the action. This is in part because Jareth imposes obstacles that are designed to be overcome. He wants Sarah to progress toward him. It’s just important to Jareth not just that she confront him in his palace but that she do so at the final moment.

So Jareth is not an adversary so much as a guide. Sarah walks his labyrinth and he leads her on her path. He sets out trials for her of cunning, and compassion, of will and perseverance and he ensures that Sarah always understands her choice. She can retreat, or she can advance, knowing that the reward for success will be the chance to undertake another trial. Jareth wants Sarah to recognize that she needs him and he gives her a quest that is designed to seduce her over to that view. He also gives her ample opportunity to turn aside, but for all that he might bluster, the last thing Jareth wants is for Sarah to do that. She must march onward and face Jareth directly. This is in part because we must recognize, the film primes us to recognize, that Jareth, Hoggle, Sir Didymus and all the rest are aspects of Sarah and her symbolic quest is one into herself.

The beauty and terror of adulthood

Sarah is standing at a boundary – this isn’t uncommon in coming of age stories. A map of Labyrinth onto Campbell’s hero’s journey is almost trivially easy.

But Labyrinth isn’t simply wearing the idea of coming of age as a frame for an exciting story targeted at children who are themselves on the boundary of mature responsibility. Rather, Labyrinth is a film that examines that boundary and then asks whether it is there at all.

It’s no secret that Sarah is reluctant to leave childhood behind. She needs the figures of her childhood: children’s books, toys and memorabilia. Even her more mature interests – in theatre and performance – are grounded in play and childishness. She can’t remember her lines!

Sarah has responsibilities and would like very desperately to forget this. But she doesn’t want to forget everything. Instead, she wants to forget about the future. What comes next will sort itself out, but in her room she can hide and remember when she was the baby, when her family was whole. Jareth then is adulthood. He’s the terror of responsibility; the agony of deadlines; he’s the challenge of conflicting loyalties that have complexified beyond mommy and daddy; he’s the allure of sex. Sarah rejects adulthood when she demands goblins take her baby brother and Jareth comes to remind her that becoming an adult is not a choice she can just opt out of. He forces her to assume that root of responsibility – an obligation to a helpless other – and he gives her challenges that require her to employ the talents of an adult. She must deal with false friends, contend with logic puzzles, confront death and danger, show compassion, make judgments that disregard the superficial; she must accept the allure of the sensual, accept it is a field she will be able to operate within, but also develop the tools to decide when it’s time to leave the party and get back to work. She must reject nostalgia. Through it all, Jareth sets the pace, calls the tune and arranges the pieces to entice Sarah with this aspect of childhood or with that promise of pleasure.

We really have to hand it to the costumer too.

He offers her dreams. He offers her drugs. He offers her himself. It’s unsurprising that many fan-interpretations of the film propose Jareth as a Byronic hero. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is acknowledged as one of his antecedents. Many fan works suggest that Sarah is an avatar of some lost and eternal love, that Jareth’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion of Sarah is a courtship and that what he wants is her love. But Jareth doesn’t say he can’t live without her. He says he can’t live within her. Jareth doesn’t want Sarah to take what he’s offering. He just wants her to continue walking the labyrinth. Remember that labyrinth walking is a spiritual and meditative act. The process of slowly walking the winding circumference of a labyrinth is itself a movement into the mind and into contemplation. And for all the times Jareth tells Sarah to turn back we cannot possibly disregard the extent to which he is the architect of her trials. We should reject the surface read: that Jareth wants Sarah to marry him in favour of this, more internal, reading of the character. Jareth wants Sarah to become him. Jareth is the master over all these child’s things because Jareth is adulthood. He is the good and the bad, he beautiful and the terrifying, the master and the obligated. He calls Sarah to walk his labyrinth and to undertake his trials so that she can take upon herself his aspect – so that she can be her own sovereign. But then Sarah does something entirely unexpected: in the final moment, she rejects him. Sarah discovers that she doesn’t need to take up the sovereign and reject childhood. There is no threshold to cross. She may have changed but she is still herself. She can be more responsible and still be the child who loves fairy tales. But she is not unchanged. In order for Sarah to unify the child hiding in her room with the Goblin King, in order for her to be able to reject Jareth in the way an adult would rather than the way a child would she needs to integrate who she is now into her sense of self. She must learn what of the child is still her, the Wild Thing, and what is just nostalgia for a past that is gone.

Nostalgia is death

The most terrifying moment of Labyrinth is also one of the most gentle. Having escaped Jareth’s masquerade dream, Sarah falls into a junkyard. While there she meets a goblin woman who leads her into a cave, and that cave is her bedroom. The Junk Lady sits her down at a mirror and begins piling all the objects of her childhood that are dear to Sarah around her. Piece by piece, Sarah’s profile is obscured by the lumpy, misshapen, mass of all the things she owns and invests with value. The Junk Lady attempts to entomb Sarah in the living death of being ever-trapped in the recollection of the past.

The original idea of nostalgia was the pain and anxiety of being away from home and uncertain if you would ever see it again. It is a sadness that reflects death in the future in the mirror of memory. Sarah is standing on a threshold and unsure if she should cross it, and one of the principle obstacles is the fear that if she crosses, she cannot return. Jareth promises the pleasures and pains of adulthood, and one of those things is the recognition of death. By the time Sarah reaches the city of the goblins this is explicit enough that the threat of war is mobilized upon her. Jareth, the avatar of adulthood, also promises forgetting. But it isn’t the forgetting of the future Sarah wanted, it’s forgetting of the past, a putting away of childish things. And Sarah is terrified of the idea she might forget this. Instead she clings to her past, terrified that if she lets go of it she will die before she ever returns to it.

But staring in the mirror, as the Junk Lady entombs her in the living death of nostalgia, Sarah is filled with revulsion. She rips the walls of her bedroom down with her bare hands, smashes out into the uncertain future and joins her friends to confront the Goblin King.

Sarah doesn’t take everything the Goblin King promises. When she confronts him at the stroke of the thirteenth hour she says to him, “you have no power over me,” and in the remembering of the forgotten line she succeeds in her trials. Jareth fails to make Sarah into him. She does not have to set aside childhood. ” Well, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it. But, should you need us…” Sir Didymus says. And this integration of the child into the woman is the mode of integration that lets her escape the illusion of Jareth’s adulthood. In the end, her puppet friends remain there, when she needs them, when responsibility is hard and has to lean on the wonder of the child.

But they aren’t the toys she curated like exhibits in a museum, they’re the living, breathing, feeling creatures she met on her journey into understanding. Sarah reconciles the obligation of adulthood, which Jareth wants her to take up, forgetting the child, with the joy and wonder of childhood. She’s obviously a creative child, an artistic and literary soul, and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to keep that element of childhood. She doesn’t need to forget it. What she cannot do any longer is be its prisoner. Obligation occurs. Eventually we all grow and change. Rejecting nostalgia doesn’t have to be a forgetting; it can instead reconcile the joy of childhood into the maturity of adulthood. We must not let our past entomb us.

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