BY MESHARI BIN HASAN www.mesharibinhasan.com Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth/ El Laberinto del Fauno tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia, and her journey through the tasks set to her by a fantastical faun creature against the backdrop of 1940’s Franco Spain. On the outset, the story of Ofelia being a princess and going through her journey to be reunited with her father (a king of a magical kingdom) seems to be a classical formula for a fairy tale, yet Del Toro breaks that mold, warping it to encompass a wider range of emotional and narrative maturity. Within the diegesis of the film, Del Toro cleverly employs elements from past mythological traditions as both a symbolistic and narrative driver enhancing underlying the structure of the film as a whole. This essay will discuss how Pan’s Labyrinth adopts and adapts these preexisting mythological traditions, giving each tradition its own distinctive meaning within the overall narrative of the film. The first and one of the most central elements of mythological symbolism in the film is the faun, as it appears in the original Spanish title of the film. In classical Greek mythology, the faun is mostly associated by the god Pan, the god of pastures and the wild (Grant, Hazel 2002, pp. 407). In the film, the faun is shown as a guiding figure to Ofelia in her journey, tasking her with three tasks to complete the rite of passage. The faun also bears the same characteristic resemblance to Pan: humanoid body with goat legs, large horns, and a rustic looking body (it is worth noting that Satan’s depiction derived from medieval interpretations of the Pan image). In the director’s commentary, Del Toro emphasises the ambiguous nature of the faun towards his behaviour with Ofelia. This depiction of the faun intentionally leaves the audience unsure of his intentions when he is giving Ofelia her tasks. This dichotomy is characterised in instances such as where she first meets him in the lair and when he gives her the mandrake root to put under her mother’s bed where he is seemingly a benign and helpful creature and in other cases where he snaps at her in anger for disobeying him and orders her to kill her brother which is a completely different nature. While not particularly mythical creatures per se (it could be argued that they represent nymphs, mythical Page 1 of 5
creatures that usually accompany Pan), this dichotomy in morality can also be seen with the fairies who are both mischievous and helpful towards Ofelia. The portrayal of the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth is that of a father figure more than a secondary character whose only aim is to get the heroine from point a to point b in her journey, as is the case in classical fairytales. This portrayal of a father figure (who is absent in Ofelia’s life since her real father died during the civil war) is shown when the faun is angry at Ofelia for disobeying his orders which accentuate a sense of caring despite the seeming cruelty of his nature. Del Toro’s adaptation of the faun character quite differs from classical mythological narrations when typically a faun (or satyr) tend to be more unpredictable and serving their own needs while in Del Toro’s narrative, the faun is a guiding figure ensuring Ofelia’s safety and success in the tasks he gives her. Del Toro mentions in the director’s commentary that despite the faun’s anger towards Ofelia’s disobeying his orders, he continues to give her chances over and over again further supporting the claim that he is more than a fatherly figure than just a sidekick character. Another important element in Pan’s Labyrinth adaptation of existing mythical figures the the character is the Pale Man, an eyeless, menacing creature who sits at the head of a massive banquet in the underworld, partly inspired by Saint Lucy’s imagery of her holding her eyes on a platter. Del Toro mentions that he drew great inspiration from Fransisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, a painting depicting the Titan god Saturn eating a son of his after an oracle predicted that one day one of his sons would be born and he would rise against him (Grant, Hazel 2002, pp. 161). This link is clearly established in the film where within the Pale Man’s lair there is a painting of him eating children, akin to the Goya painting, with a pile of children’s shoes laying in the corner and the way he ate the two fairies. The Pale Man is most closely linked to Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s evil step father. The initial link is established when the Captain is heading a great dinner table for his guests and Ofelia’s mother does not let her daughter have any dinner because she soiled her dress and in the next sequence where Ofelia goes down to the underworld and sees the Pale Man in the same position as Page 2 of 5
the captain heading a massive banquet and still not being allowed to eat anything. The only difference in the underworld is that Ofelia disobeyed the faun’s directions to not eat anything and reached in to eat a single grape, thinking that something as small as a grape won’t make a difference only to be surprised when the Pale Man starts chasing her. The very act of Ofelia eating that grape, other than the seeming disobeying of authority, harkens back to the story of Adam and Eve and the temptation of the unattainable. Eve, going against the patriarchal authority, eats the forbidden fruit in heaven to achieve humanity’s destiny, as Ofelia is doing by going against the patriarchal authority of the faun to achieve her destiny. The link between Captain Vidal and the Pale man is important since it highlights something called a Cronus Complex, a psychological condition in which a father “hinders the [child’s] capacity to exist separately and autonomously from the parent” (DePaoli, 2012). The Captain is pathologically obsessed with power and fears losing it at all costs that his very existence at the mill is a daily show of power, a rebellion against the fact that his father died in battle in left him. The Cronus complex is accentuated within the Captain’s character that he is obsessive over his yet unborn child, stressing that the child will turn out exactly like him and in the final third of the film tells the rebels to tell his son about his father — an attempt to solidify his power even after death. In a lesser extent, this hunger for power can be seen in the Pale Man himself. The power that the Pale Man feeds on is more literal than that the Captain obsesses over. His While the Pale Man is facing a great banquet with all kinds of food, he feeds on children as shown in the painting and the pile of shoes mentioned before. The fact that the Pale Man feeds only on children supports the assertion that the he is a metaphysical being living within children’s psyche representing the real world with those who succumb to him lose their touch with the fantastical world and get trapped in reality thus losing their childhood’s innocence, as opposed to Ofelia who disobeyed the faun’s orders to further reach that fantastical world. The Pale Man’s artistic design is also similar to that of a newly born child which further supports that assertion.
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This adaptation of the Pale Man character with Goya’s painting and its link with the Captain’s Cronus complex is an interpretation of the patriarchal authority that characterised Franco’s fascist regime. Captain Vidal, characterising all the oppressive elements of a patriarchal authority with Ofelia’s mother showing the feminine helplessness to that authority. Ofelia, in contrast, is a strong feminine character whose journey, alongside reuniting with her family, is that of breaking free form this patriarchal, oppressive chain. There is a strong element of feminine imagery and emphasis on the image of the womb: from the sequence inside Ofelia’s mother’s belly to the womb shaped tree in the forest, the womb imagery in her story book, and the usage of circles in some scenes featuring Ofelia such as the windows in the sequence where she is taking a bath and the sequence where she is defending down to the faun’s lair. The narrative featuring wombs, circles, and in general enclosing environments in general symbolising life, fertility and power of the feminine had been in mythical traditions since antiquity. The film’s emphasis on feminine imagery in relation to Ofelia is surely representative of her struggle against the oppression of her step father but also a symbol of her rebirth, her creation of a new self through an ablution. This symbolism isn’t exclusive to Ofelia only, but to Spain as a whole; an indication of Spain’s rebirth after the fascist years. Lastly, another important mythical element that the film adapted is the labyrinth. In classical Greek mythology, the labyrinth was a creation of Daedalus made to imprison the minotaur (Grant, Hazel 2002, pp. 524) . Del Torro mentions in the director’s commentary of the film that the design of the labyrinth itself is Celtic rather than Greek, emphasising that the origins of the Celtic culture is from the northern region of Spain. The final sequence in the film where the Captain chases Ofelia through the labyrinth is a direct link to that of the Greek myth of the minotaur and Theseus. The labyrinth in and of itself is a symbol of the culmination of Ofelia’s struggles against the oppressive patriarchy and her final escape from it. The Captain in this sequence resembles more the monster that the minotaur is after his face was slashed by Mercedes. The design of the labyrinth also harks
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back to the circular nature of life and rebirth. In this case, Ofelia’s rebirth lies in her own death as a release from the struggle she’s facing and her reuniting with her family. Pan’s Labyrinth adoptions and adaptation of preexisting mythical figures highlights the nuances of the Spanish civil war and post war Franco era. More than a tale of one girl’s journey through a weaving of the fantastical and realistic, it is the story of a nation’s rebirth through the bloodshed and death of thousands. The usage of mythical symbolism added a deeper layer of nuisance and emotion to the film’s narrative as a whole, linked the fantastical world with the realistic one and interweaving character qualities into a single coherent fabric.
Bibliography: • DePaoli, M. (2012) Fantasy and Myth in Pan’s Labyrinth: Analysis of Guillermo del Toro’s Symbolic Imagery • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Directed by Guillermo del Toro • Grant, M. and Hazel, J. (2002) Who’s who in classical mythology. 3rd edn. New York: OUP Australia and New Zealand • Spector, B. (2009) ‘Sacrifice of the Children in Pan’s Labyrinth’, Jung Journal, 3(3), pp. 81–86. doi: 10.1525/jung.2009.3.3.81
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