I suspect most fans of folklore are to some extent a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, if not overtly then at least in secret. I certainly am. I wanted to look at the film to see what ideas I could spot that derived from other tales, and what might be learnt from the story and its telling that might reinforce my understanding of fairy lore.
In doing so I’d be taking a cue from my folklorist heroine, Katherine Briggs – primarily to keep a critical eye out for a descent into whimsy, prettifying the creatures, simplifying their morality and denying their capriciousness.
Seeing as I had already watched the film a number of times before deciding to examine it in this manner I already knew what to expect, so I thought I’d cast a similarly critical eye over Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which I was watching for the first time.
Surely the summer superhero blockbuster would provide a far shallower and more whimsical vision than the relative oddity of the foreign language fable that owed so much less to Hollywood?
THEMES – CHOICE, DISOBEDIENCE AND FERTILITY
Del Toro claims the film has themes of disobedience and choice. He says in the director’s commentary that each of the characters are at a crossroads in their lives – a claim that is easier to see in some than others. This claim may have a metaphorical significance too though – in folklore crossroads are places where the connection to the spirit world and reality is thin, and where death and the devil hold an influence. That the choices that many of the characters will make will lead them to evil acts and/or the ends of their lives surely feeds back to this idea that they are at a crossroads, even though it is not a literal feature of the film.
The book Ofelia, the heroine, reads is referred to as “The Book of Crossroads”. The book outlines the three tasks she is to complete in order to reclaim her right to live as a fairy princess, and also warns her of danger to her mortal mother – who falls very ill and nearly miscarries her unborn child.
Disobedience is a theme that features in many myths and legends. Ofelia’s inability to perform some of the tasks set before her does not invalidate her position as a heroine, and the creatures whose rules she violates decide to offer her further opportunities to make amends. Her success is not judged to be as important as the spirit in which she carries out the tasks. She is a rather quiet and modest heroine – and perhaps it is her humility that spares her from hubris. Were she Icarus she would fly too close to the sun, but such an act would not necessarily doom her because she is not boastful.
Many tales involving fairy lore make fertility a central issue of the story, and Pan’s Labyrinth deals with it explicitly – in particular there is a theme of difficult birth, both of Ofelia giving birth to her self as the heir to a magical royal family and of her mortal mother’s troubles in bringing her baby brother to term.
The fairy realm is given a strong visual connection to wombs and birth canals. The colour palette used in scenes such as the Pale Man’s dining room is one of placental reds and pale flesh, the old fig tree in which a giant toad hides resembles the shape of a uterus and pair of fallopian tubes, with the crevice by which Ofelia enters the tree looking somewhat like a gaping vulva. Cascading pollen also accompanies magical scenes and appears whenever the uncanny impresses upon the real.
CREATURES OF PAN’S LABYRINTH – A BOTANICAL BIAS
I was waiting to come across some evidence that Pan’s Labyrinth contained an environmental message, though it wasn’t something del Toro broached in his commentary (though he did touch upon it in Hellboy II). I do perceive a very subtle (perhaps even subconscious) environmental sympathy in the film, which I perceive from the fact that there seems to be such a strong connection between the fairies of Pan’s Labyrinth and the plant world.
The cascading pollen mentioned earlier foreshadows this, but all the creatures and fairytales mentioned in Pan’s Labyrinth strike me as involving a botanical connection.
The first fairy encountered in the story is a diminutive green sprite initially disguised as a stick insect (an insect that disguises itself as part of a plant). Ofelia, guessing at some sort of hidden nature to the fairy, shows it an illustration of what she believes fairies should look like – a rather whimsical drawing owing a deal to Victorian flower fairies. The insect undergoes a metamorphosis into a shape that resembles the drawing, though one of the details it doesn’t quite manage to reproduce is the wings – instead of the insect wings of the original it sprouts two pairs of leaves with which it flies.
Ofelia is introduced to the faun a short while later. The creature also has a strongly botanical appearance, at first appearing to be nothing more than some tangle of overgrown wood. The skin of the faun resembles the bark of an Ash tree and it creaks like wood as it moves its joints. Moss and ferns adorn it like an old statue left out in the rain. The faun also is seen eating raw meat – something del Toro claims makes it seem more morally ambivalent (is he a vegetarian I wonder).
The giant toad that Ofelia is required to confront in order to pass her first task is not a plant, but it does threaten the life of a fig tree in whose roots it has nested and who it has poisoned.
Ofelia is also clearly not a plant, but seems to interact with the plant world in an almost symbiotic way. When Ofelia is asked to improvise a story to tell her unborn brother she riffs on the botanical theme, describing a rose upon a hill that was an object of desire – conferring immortality on the person who picked it – a task made impossible by the thicket of poisonous thorns that surrounded it. Ofelia is made a significant present of a green dress, and her carelessness with it contributes to her mother’s illness, which Ofelia attempts to assuage by feeding her own blood to a mandrake root. It is Ofelia’s consumption of fruit which makes a disaster of her mission to the Pale Man’s dining room. When she dies Ofelia is reborn in the magical realm as a fairytale princess, and leaves form a part of her family’s heraldry. In the real world a white flower grows as a sign of her passing.
The botanical motifs may be no more than a way to stress the otherness of the fairy creatures in the films – but the fact that threats to the plant world are associated with the more obviously adversarial creatures, and the health or reproduction of plants with the more benign ones, may indicate an idea that these creatures are avatars of the natural world and protective of it (or I could just be projecting my own ideas).
AN OGRE OF ORGANISED POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS
The Pale Man is the most memorable creation of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro apparently claimed that creating a good monster should give you a hard-on – in which case he must have been painfully priapic on the day he invented the Pale Man.
Del Toro claims the Ogre is meant to represent faceless politics and religion. It sits at a sumptuous feast in a dining room that echoes an earlier scene in which the fascist captain sits at the head of a table. The Ogre has access to a great deal of delicious looking food – but seems only interested in eating kids and fairies.
The religious allusions are more interesting to me than the political, and contribute far more to the look of the creature. Holes in the hands echo the stigmata of Christ, and the eyes placed on the platter are a tribute to the passion of St Lucy. It’s not just Christian symbology at work here, as the manner in which the Pale Man snacks on the fairies it captures is inspired by Goya’s painting of Saturn eating his children.
The Pale Man seems to be all about rules and the punishments we are threatened with for violating them. Perhaps it is a deliberate irony then that one of the film’s few obvious debts to widely understood folklore is shown in this scene, the ‘rule’ that eating food in the fairy realm leads to disaster. Ofelia’s consumption of a few grapes does not trap her in fairyland (the typical punishment for this act) but awakes the Ogre and imperils her quest. Rather than trapping her in the fairy realm, Ofelia's consumption of fruit effectively forces her out - and so a reference to traditional folklore is made and subverted, which reinforces the film’s theme of choice and disobedience.