Friday, 16 August 2013

The Allure of Fantasy - Jareth and Crystal of Dreams

Down in the underground
You'll find someone true
Down in the underground
A land serene
A crystal moon
It's only forever
It's not long at all
- Underground, David Bowie

I watched Labyrinth for the first time last week, and it strongly affected me. Since then I have watched the whole movie twice more, certain scenes many more times, danced alone in my room to the soundtrack, and raged at the "unfairness" of the mundane world. Normally I am very attune to the magic and mystery inherent in all aspects of the world. But after Labyrinth my desire for fantasy increased to bittersweet intensity, and for a while my "real"  life seemed unsatisfactory in comparison with imagination. I was intrigued by the strength of my emotions - the co-mingled joy and sorrow - the unrequited longing after the fantasy world and the goblin king.

Look at what I'm offering you. Your dreams...

I sought words to describe my state - and Tolkien's words from On Fairy Stories resonated within my mind:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.

Yes, I thought. This is the feeling that burns within me - which I have felt before. It is the mark of Faerie - the longing felt by those who have once crossed into that Other World, and who pine for it on their return to mundane life. Cecilia Dart-Thornton named it Langothe - and anyone who has even briefly entered fantasy, and afterwards felt the "real" world to be unsatisfactory and diminished, will know how it feels - a poignancy of spirit, in which beauty and despair are inseparable.

This feeling may be sparked by different things - a piece of music; a painting; a reflection upon water. I have felt it come upon me when I was looking at The Beguiling of Merlin; reading Ode to a Nightingale; watching the elves in The Lord of the Rings; and at the end of Prince Caspian. All of these things have in common a "light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire".

Something about Labyrinth made me react the same way. But it was not the labyrinth itself that I desired - nor the company of the grotesque creatures that Sarah meets along the way. My feelings coalesce around Jareth the Goblin King. But why?

Need you ask?

Looking past the obvious - David Bowie's magnetic and mesmerising performance, and Jareth's spectacular appearance (which is undeniably attractive) - the character of the Goblin King seems to personify fantasy, with its capacity for both beauty and darkness. 

He is by times exuberant and dazzling; cruel and tender; careless, entreating and sorrowful. Mercurial and fey, he is archetypal - the trickster, the animus - at once the shadow and the hero.

How are you liking my labyrinth?

I'll leave my love between the stars.

I'll make you a prince. Prince of the land of stench!

The power of voodoo!

He shapes the world of Faerie and creates the story - the labyrinth - through which Sarah can express her heroic journey. He creates "dangers untold and hardships unnumbered", so that Sarah can overcome them. 

She'll never give up!
Won't she?

Within the labyrinth, Sarah undergoes a mythic quest - and on the way learns to find her innate courage, to look beyond appearances, to stop taking things for granted, to resist temptation, to show compassion, to realise her love for her little brother - and to exercise her fantasies. The journey is a universal one of maturation and development. But essentially - Jareth is the storyteller.

Jareth's fascination therefore, is his ability to craft living stories - a fully-realised fantasy world (the ultimate in subcreation, put in Tolkien's terms). Who can help loving a character who bestows gifts of beautiful dreams? In Labyrinth, the fairies do not grant wishes, but the Goblin King is master of wish-fulfillment.

There's such a fooled heart -

- beating so fast 
- in search of new dreams...
A love that will last within your heart.

I'll place the moon within your heart...

Part of the sorrow of Labyrinth has to do with the tragic bind in which Jareth finds himself. The storyteller becomes confined by the story - by "the way it has to be". Despite his capacity and desire to transcend the "villain" role - expressed in the masquerade-dream he crafts for Sarah - despite his dissatisfaction with his goblin subjects, his affection for Toby and his loneliness - his "generosity" drives his inevitable defeat. 

What have you done that's generous?
You asked that the child be taken -

- and I took him.
You cowered before me - I was terrifying.

I have re-altered 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?

This explains the pain in his last song, when Sarah seeks Toby in the "Escher" room. Jareth loves her - believes in her ability to rescue her brother. But he knows that when she succeeds, she will leave the labyrinth. Jareth's grief is his knowledge of the inevitability of Sarah's departure - the finite time she has left in the fantasy world he created for her. 

Your eyes can be so cruel. Just as I can be so cruel.
Though I do believe in you.
Live without your sunlight. Love without your heartbeat.
I - I can't live within you.

Watching the movie, the mingled love and pain that Jareth feels echoes in my own heart. But the archetypal, fairy-tale nature of the story extends and amplifies these feelings. As Jareth sings his desolate song - I burn with unrequited love for the heart of Faerie. Just as Sarah cannot stay in the labyrinth, neither can I stay in the fantasy. The sorrow is the unrequited longing for permanence in something that is by nature fleeting. But a mere glimpse of this beautiful world makes me realise the truth of Yeats' "dull world" of the mundane. And so I long for the fantasy even more desperately. In vain. As Jareth knows to his sorrow, no matter how much we wish to live in it, a fantasy is ephemeral as a bubble. 

Before the story began, Jareth knew how it would have to end.
"Give me the child!"
"You have no power over me..."

But there is one thing that one must always remember about the fae-folk. They cannot die. Jareth is defeated, but he changes into an owl. He was only required to be the villain up until Sarah reached the words "you have no power over me". But that was the middle of Labyrinth book. A fairytale does not ever end. Fantasies are blown and burst like bubbles, but Jareth has an inexhaustible store - as numerous as the dreams of a fertile mind. The labyrinth is only part of the infinite world of Faerie - the limitlessness and eternally changing nature is unconstrained. 

Stories continue and are retold and shaped again and again. 

I am fortunate. I am one of those who have access to Faerie - to its glimpses of mystery, heroism, grandeur, beauty and terror. Unrequited desire is the price that I must pay for entering. But I would rather burn forever with the Langothe than live without the glorious, strange and enchanting world.

After watching Labyrinth, let me modify Tolkien's famous words:

"I desired Faerie with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Jareth was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril."

This is no ordinary gift...
I'll be there for you
As the world falls down
As the world falls down
Falling in love


  1. It's always wonderful to watch someone discover the wonders of this movie and its characters. Especially Jareth <3

  2. I had a bootleg VCR tape of Labyrinth and Ladyhawke. I wore the tape out watching them both. So glad you discovered Labyrinth.

  3. Replies
    1. <3 Thank you for being the main reason I watched it in the first place!

  4. I've got to watch it then. You post resonates with me, as I too long for the world of the fae. I'm always looking for doors into it; I try every wardrobe, every archway of trees. I'll find it someday...