As a teenager I went through a rather serious phase of loving the film Labyrinth. For a start it had David Bowie in it. Not just David Bowie but David Bowie in tights and brandishing a cane. David Bowie in a mega 80’s wig, in tights, black leather and knee high boots, brandishing a cane. That was some hormonally charged stuff for a teenage girl right there.
The plot of the film was right up my alley, too. Sarah, a lonely, sensitive, artistic teenage girl prone to living in a fantasy world (identify much?) has a difficult relationship with her parents, feels unloved and has to care for her baby brother, Toby. She spends her time moping about, acting out scenes from her favourite novel and feeling misunderstood by her parents who are wrapped up in their own lives and the new baby. Feeling displaced in her parents’ affections, she wishes her brother would go away. Reciting a made-up spell one night, she accidentally summons Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie), who spirits her brother away to his Goblin Kingdom. He refuses to return the babe and informs Sarah that she has thirteen hours to rescue Toby or he will be turned into a goblin and become Jareth’s heir. Sarah spends the film trying to make her way through the labyrinth of the goblin kingdom to Jareth’s castle, encountering situations that challenge her fears and reveal to her the level of her selfish preoccupation and sense of entitlement. She realises that she loves her brother and that her life is not as miserable as she believes, she longs to return to her real life and she learns some lessons about friendship and family.
The climax of the film is the final confrontation between Sarah and Jareth, in which he appears exhausted, diminished, a pale shadow of his formerly fearsome self. Sarah demands her brother be returned. Jareth makes an impassioned speech justifying his actions: “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.” Sarah refuses to relent and begins to recite a key passage from her favourite novel:
Sarah: Through dangers untold. And hardships unnumbered. I have fought my way here to the castle; beyond the goblin city, to take back the child that you have stolen. My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great…
Jareth: Stop! Look what I’m offering you. Your dreams.
Sarah: My kingdom as great… my kingdom as great… damn, I can never remember that line.
Jareth: I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave.
Sarah: You have no power over me! [echoes]
[the clock chimes 13:00 at that moment. Defeated, Jareth sends Sarah and Toby back to the real world where the clock finishes chiming midnight]
It’s easy to discount the film as a piece of 80’s teen fantasy fluff but I still encounter Jareths in my life, even now. Popular self-help suggests that like Sarah we either create drama, invite drama into our lives or associate with drama, and that if we wish to avoid it then it is up to us to firmly remove ourselves from such situations and maintain distance from those people who steal our time and energy with their unhelpful behaviour. Jareth brings Sarah into his fantasy world and gives her the thrill of danger and challenge that she thinks she wants. He fulfils her dreams and her desire to be more than just “an ordinary girl who takes care of a screaming baby”. Yet by the end of the film she has realised that reality is better than fantasy, that love is more important than flattery and attention, and that with a support network of family and friends she can conquer even the most difficult situations. Sarah makes a vital discovery that we would do well to remember: no person or situation can control our lives, disturb our thoughts or demand our attention unless we allow them to. Essentially, the world has no power over us. Whatever may happen to us, we are the rulers of our own minds and once we have control over our thoughts we have control over our lives. The Goblin King only rules for so long as we allow it.
Viewing the film through my adult lens, I could identify the Sarah-Jareth dynamic as a metaphor for a toxic relationship where Jareth plays the role of mildly threatening, capricious tempter, fulfilling a teenage girl’s desires to test her own values and boundaries, and Sarah fulfils his need to be worshipped and his desire for power. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to label Jareth a narcissist and Sarah as his co-dependant, willing accomplice. However, Sarah quickly tires of playing his games, literally fighting her way through the maze of his trickery and confronting him, discovering that his power over her is an illusion and that she could easily reclaim it by ceasing to engage any longer in his schemes.
That’s a pretty cool message for a teenage girl and it still resonates with me to this day, a salutary reminder not to put up with anyone’s nonsense for too long or be distracted by issues that aren’t as big a deal as we initially believe.
So chilly down, chilly down and don’t lose your head. Fantasy is fun but this the real world: claim your power and go defeat those goblin kings in your life! Have a good week, my friends.
Pictures and excerpt of script from imdb.com