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The Maze of the Psyche: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

If you love the movie Labyrinth like I do, it might surprise you to learn there were 25 different treatments and versions of the script written before filming began. David Bowie committed, then un-committed because it wasn’t funny anymore, then re-committed. Monty Python legend Terry Jones is credited as the writer of the screenplay, but he says Jim Henson had the original idea, and a stack of conceptual sketches from Brian Froud added to the early narrative.

All this is to say, a lot of people put their minds and years of passion into the movie. As a result, it lives on today as a cult classic 80’s fabulous power anthem for all. Pro-escapist though it may be, I argue this legendary film caricatures the best and worst of the human psyche—and gives insights into how we navigate the maze to the center, creating fulfilling personal connections without losing our power.

Hoggle: The Meanie

“No, it’s not fair…but that’s the way it is.”

After the Goblin King takes Toby, Sarah’s brother, she begins her thirteen-hour quest to solve the Labyrinth and immediately meets Hoggle, a dwarf. From the first he is antagonistic, unhelpful, and tells Sarah she will fail at the Labyrinth. The audience suspects this little jerk is coming back, and the film doesn’t disappoint. Hoggle saves Sarah from a trap and she offers him the reward of a bracelet if he keeps helping her. He agrees. Then, the Goblin King shows up and Hoggle crumples like a paper bag, promising to betray Sarah right before her eyes. Only a few scenes later, he’s says he’s on her side again. “How am I supposed to trust you?” she demands after this emotional ping-pong. “Well, what choice have you got?” he counters.

To the audience, this inconstant duplicity and the banter that accompanies it is familiar from a young age on the playground. Hurt feelings often get swept away if the person who did the hurting can deliver a devastating enough clap-back to our rightful protests.

“You don’t know how to ask the right questions,” Hoggle criticizes Sarah from the beginning, as though if she were “on his level” things might be different.

Later, Hoggle literally runs back into Jareth after abandoning Sarah to a fight. Jareth calls Hoggle a bunch of names and tells him Sarah isn’t actually his friend. Jareth is basically busting down Hoggle’s self-esteem, which the audience can see blossoming under Sarah’s friendship. Hoggle is given a toxic peach that he is supposed to pass on to Sarah. First, Hoggle saves Sarah from the Fierys, who want to rip off her head and take apart her body.

These guys need to chilly down until they get some consent.

After this act of kindness and a few more scenes of friendship, the innocents in the audience like me think Hoggle won’t give the peach to Sarah. But he does—without hesitation. (Another lesson shows itself.) He doesn’t even stick around and see what happens either, just goes and sits off doing nothing feeling sorry for himself because he is a bad person.

We see in Hoggle that sometimes a person’s peers are going to convince them to stunt and be stupid because it is less scary to follow than to stand up. We also see that forgiving these people and setting the example of friendship is more productive than holding grudges or cutting them off. At the last, Hoggle is the one to defeat the giant guard defending the Goblin City and helps Sarah cross the finish line. At the same time, Hoggle only does this once the rest of the group has left him behind. The film shows us not just to forgive these types, but that they must forgive themselves, which we cannot control. What we can control is our ability to forgive ourselves because we all act like a Hoggle sometimes. Hey, that’s probably why we should forgive each other, too.

Ludo: Simple Simon

“You seem like such a nice beast…”

Ludo is the second companion Sarah encounters. She finds him in a position of complete helplessness, strung up in a trap by creatures one-tenth his size. Ludo uses his magical power to speak to rocks and provides Sarah with the ammunition to free him. Sarah has finally found a constant ally. “Sarah friend!” Ludo exclaims right away.

Confident in her new role as leader-buddy, Sarah basically takes five steps and loses Ludo because she isn’t paying attention. Before they get separated, the fuzzy beast tells Sarah he is fearful, but she ignores his concerns, charging ahead into the den of the Fierys. Luckily, when she and Hoggle end up in the Bog of Stench, Ludo is literally there to catch them.

Ludo is the type of solid body it is all too easy to take for granted. Because he is so simple, it’s easy to dismiss his instincts or input as too basic or not well-planned. But time after time Ludo is the one handling the shit. For instance, once the gang ends up in the Bog of Eternal Stench, Ludo is pretty much focused exclusively on getting out of the stench ASAP.

Keeping it 100.

To that end, he calls some rocks, and deals out some pain to Sir Didymus. Later, Ludo is the one to crush down the walls of Sarah’s false childhood and save her from the hoarder woman. In the Goblin City, his army of rocks crushes all.

In as much as Ludo has a character flaw, it is his lack of intelligence or initiative. He would probably be a lot more annoying if this movie were about Sarah trying to take him grocery shopping at 3pm on a Sunday. He’s exactly the type of soldier and friend you want on your side in a pickle but that can be frustrating to set pace with if you’re a person of a quicker mind. Too bad: must be patient, because just so lovable.

On another level, Ludo could be seen to represent our own instincts and connection to the primal. These are easy to ignore, and equally easy to be frustrated with, but essential to our success.

Sir Didymus: Sir Unreliable

“So…may we have your permission?”

Once Hoggle and Sarah unite with Ludo again in the Bog of Stench, they encounter the third member of the group, Sir Didymus. Didymus is basically the personification (dogification? Puppetfication?) of insecurity and fragile ego. He lives in the Bog of Stench and can’t smell it, our first clue that he is super oblivious to the reality everyone else around him is experiencing.

He prevents the gang from leaving the Bog because they aren’t allowed to cross the bridge without his permission. When asked for his permission, he is surprised, as though the possibility of giving permission to someone never occurred to him. He says yes, which seems great until it becomes obvious that the bridge he has been guarding is a piece of trash and Sarah almost falls into the bog.  Didymus sort of shrugs off this situation, saying “Well it looked solid to me” like that fixes a damn thing, and following up with “Uh I guess we’ll try to find some way to save you” while sitting on his dog-steed Ambrosius and doing nothing.

Ludo’s rock bridge, which as an aside, wouldn’t the rocks be covered in stench and by walking on them wouldn’t you get stenched? This question has haunted me since pre-puberty.

Once they get to the gates of the Goblin City, all the guards are sleeping so Didymus decides it’s a good time to go up and talk smack to them. Sarah keeps asking him over and over to be quiet, but he just wants to show off how tough he is by talking a big game when people aren’t prepared to fight back. We’ve all seen behavior like this and maybe even behaved this way ourselves.

As our experience would lead us to expect, when the fight with the guards finally starts, Didymus has a shaky, barely-passable excuse for not participating when Ambrosius runs away. These are the kind of people who use the actions of others as scapegoats and constantly bail at the last minute, but always without malice.  Like Didymus, sometimes these types can bravado their way through tough spots if they can’t get out of it. Other times after they bitch out they will need to be reassured they aren’t lame. “I am not a coward?” he demands of Sarah after running. “My sense of smell is keen?” Sure, sure it is buddy. We love you?

In my opinion the best thing Didymus does the whole movie is recommend everyone play Scrabble in the final line of the film.

He will only play one-syllable words and he will take forever to do it and you will have to tell him he is good anyway.

Didymus is essentially Don Quixote: his own experience of reality is all he needs, but when others don’t reinforce it, he has a crisis.  His antics call our own propensity to self-indulge and disregard the needs and aims of others into light. His bold confidence inspires him to take the lead with authority and gives the others in the group optimism as well, if they pretend along. But his lack of forethought and governance by emotion means the promises he makes about his abilities don’t usually manifest.

Jareth: The Manipulative Stud

“I have to face him alone.”

Jareth speaks for himself with his entrance in the film’s early scenes, and I’m not going to interrupt that:

Audience perspectives on glitter are transformed by this film.

Next he informs Sarah that she should go back to her room and forget she ever had a brother. Twice. The second time he tries to bribe her with one of the same trippy crystals he will later feed her masked as a peach. With her mythic third refusal, Sarah seals her own fate as Jareth’s opponent.  At first the Goblin King is unconcerned to the point that he achieves his performance of Magic Dance.

Then he realizes that he has made a mistake typical to those in long-unchallenged power and underestimated Sarah. The audience can learn something from his reaction to this mistake…because he doesn’t stop making it. Instead, he assumes if he gets Hoggle to betray Sarah she will fail. Erm, nah.

An interesting element of Jareth and Sarah’s interactions is that in the story she tells her brother, she says the Goblin King gives the girl power because he has fallen in love with her. Yes, Bowie is an erotic presence all his own,  plus the ball scene in which he chooses Sarah out of a crowded room,  so the audience can sort-of interpret this as true.

But little about his behavior toward her reflects love. Instead, it’s the twisted sort of manipulation we all have to learn to see through in friends, lovers, even family. As I just described, he totally underestimates her–not loving behavior. Another for-instance, love requires a sense of fair play, a theme which comes up a few times in the movie. But at the end, Sarah has kept up her end of the deal, and Jareth doesn’t want to make good at first.

I’m not asking for that just want you to–
Yeah ok you’re not listening.

When he finally has to face her, Jareth tries to convince Sarah that it’s her fault he is being this way. “I am exhausted from living up to your expectations,” he tells her. He was only frightening and impressive, he claims, because she wanted him to be that way.

“Generous?” she replies. “How have you been generous?” YAS GIRL.

As much as we know Jareth is twisting everything, he has been putting in a lot of werk looking awe-inspiring throughout while Sarah has made only one costume change. So we feel a little empathy, maybe. It is tiring to look so cool.

Anyway, last comes the part where he asks her to fear him and just let him rule her. Sarah achieves a legendary comeback we should all keep in our back pocket to remind the Jareths in our lives from time to time.

And with that, Sarah gets her brother back and gets to go home.

Much like other stories, she had the power in her all along, but became aware of it thanks to the strengths of her friends she met along the way. Hoggle showed her not to be taken in by false friends; Ludo taught her to trust her instincts; and Didymus showed her the limits of rational confidence and personal responsibility. With these lessons in hand, Sarah is equipped to resist Jareth’s manipulations and choose her brother over the bauble.

NO!

Writer Terry Jones said that in the first draft of the screenplay, Sarah didn’t find a solution to the Labyrinth. “She keeps thinking she’s solved it, and then it keeps cheating on her,” he said. “The idea in the end is that she finds out there is no solution, you’ve got to enjoy it. When she gets to the center, she finds out that the character who seemed all-powerful is…. someone who uses the labyrinth – which is basically the world – to keep people from getting to his heart. It’s about people who are more interested in manipulating the world than actually baring themselves at all, having any kind of emotional honesty.”

In the beginning of the film, Sarah herself is arguably this sort of person, more interested in playing pretend and throwing dramatic fits to get her way than opening herself up to her stepmother and brother. By the journey’s end, she has started to overcome these tendencies, thanks to the influence of every one of these mythical characters she encounters. Through the power of story, the viewer has new tools to conquer their own shortcomings too.

Plus, in the film’s final moments we see even Jareth’s presence will sometimes be needed by Sarah, a tantalizing hint that the unresolved romantic tension between them might someday be expressed. I guess that’s what fan fiction is for.

 



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