Labyrinth’s Emotionally Abusive Goblin King (Pt.2)
Part Two of our analysis of Labyrinth‘s Jareth . . . click here for Part One.
Given the power dynamic, and Jareth’s demeanor, his treatment of Sarah is akin to that of a narcissistic emotional abuser. From their very first encounter Jareth employs a variety of abusive techniques in order to control Sarah. Three primary red flags for an unhealthy relationship use the acronym FOG: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt. Upon Jareth’s debut, he is dressed in dark clothing, attacks Sarah with a snake, and uses his body language and other threats to instill fear his victim. He plays upon her sense of guilt, actually causing Sarah to initially apologize for seeming ungrateful that Jareth took the baby, and at several times through out the story reminds her of all the things for which she should feel a sense obligation toward him.
The narcissistic emotional abuser’s most prominent technique is called “Gaslighting” after the 1944 film Gaslight in which a husband uses psychological tricks in an attempt to convince his wife that she is insane. The narcissist riddles his or her victim with self doubt by discounting and trivializing the victim’s opinions, undermining their abilities and aspirations, by making accusations and threats, giving orders treating the victim like a child or slave, and by use of other means, all the while denying any fault on the part of the narcissist; by their very nature narcissists are NEVER wrong. As Sarah fights her way through the labyrinth, Jareth uses all of these tricks to force her to surrender to him, and even resorts to “slipping her a roofie” in the form of the poisoned peach.
The drug induced masquerade scene that ensues is visually beautiful, but it is laced with cruelty. The dancers mock Sarah as she wanders lost, and Jareth grins with satisfaction each time he manages to evade and withhold himself from her. In terms of Sarah’s sexual awakening, the masquerade is the moment that she and Jareth resemble a romantic couple, and this is the height of her pubescent fantasy of what love is about. Sarah is in Jareth’s arms, and as they dance he gives that proverbial grin of “the cat that got the canary.” The waltz is Jareth’s victory celebration, until Sarah makes a huge leap forward in her development and maturity by realizing that it’s all an illusion and literally shatters the mirage into pieces.
Sarah’s ability to identify childish illusions is again tested in the scene that immediately follows the masquerade. The “junk lady” leads Sarah back to her bedroom that we saw at the beginning of the film, and there is that reality bending moment when it all seemed like a dream. We are led to believe that she is home safely, but then the “junk lady” reappears to make Sarah and the audience jump. The metaphor of this challenge is a bit heavy handed as the “junk lady” piles more and more items from her childhood on Sarah’s back to transform her into another of the junk yard dwellers who carry everything on their backs like a ball and chain to the past.
Much like her epiphany at the ball, Sarah manages to take a step further away from childish behavior and breaks the illusionary bedroom, the walls come crashing down, and she escapes with her friends Ludo and Sir Didymus. Given that Sarah’s romanticization of Jareth is built from the pieces of the “shrine” in her bedroom, her realization that “This is all junk!” is the foundation of her strength to defeat the Goblin King at the end of the film.
After entering the Goblin City and battling with its army, Sarah and her companions enter Jareth’s castle, but she insists upon taking the final steps by herself. Ludo, Sir Didymus, and Hoggle are all projections from the toys in her bedroom, and they can not help her confront this abusive man who resides in the center of the labyrinth, the center of her psyche!
It is in the final showdown between Sarah and Jareth that he is most open about his emotionally manipulative techniques. The lyrics to “Within You” are all designed to make Sarah feel guilt and obligation toward him, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you! You starve and near exhaust me! I move the stars for no one!” Jareth also tries to fool her into thinking that he is actually the victim in this scenario, “Your eyes can be so cruel! Just as I can be so cruel! Though I do believe in you.” In true fashion, the narcissist is not at fault; the only reason he was cruel was because Sarah was cruel first, and he will threaten her with his cruelty again before she is free. The M.C. Escher staircase maze scene ends with her taking a literal leap of faith to a platform below where baby Toby is sitting.
As with the masquerade and the bedroom, Sarah’s step forward in her strength and maturity tears apart the illusion until she gently lands at the very center of her mind for the final conflict with Jareth. He enters menacingly from the shadows, the bulge in his tights looks more threatening than any previous costume, and the music is oppressive as he states, “Sarah, beware. I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.”
When she challenges his twisted sense of generosity he replies, “Everything that you have wanted, I have done. You asked that 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 of me. Isn’t that generous?” Once more the technique is to make Sarah feel guilty, confused, and a sense of obligation toward him.
This is the moment that Sarah begins to realize her own power of liberation, and in ritual fashion begins to recite the lines from the speech she was acting out at the beginning of the film. Repeatedly, Jareth tries to interrupt her, but his position of power is slipping and his appeals begin to sound desperate, “I ask for so little. Just let me rule you . . . and you can have everything that you want.” and then the ultimate narcissist logic, “Just fear me, love me, do as I say . . . and I will be your slave.” Despite her frustration at always forgetting that last line (the one that we’re all screaming at the screen), Sarah ignores Jareth’s attempts to persuade her and is far from intimidated by him. Finally, as the conclusion to her quest, she defeats him with the simple statement, “You have no power over me.”
On the surface Sarah’s mission was to rescue her brother Toby, “to take back the child that you have stolen,” but far beneath the surface, the child she taking back is herself. With the trauma of her parent’s separation, Jareth manifests deep within her psyche and protects her inner child behind the walls of the labyrinth, but by giving so much power to this monarch figure Sarah refuses to take responsibility and continues to live in a childish manner. The Goblin King is the unhealthy fantasy of her mother’s lover whom Sarah dreams will whisk her away in a larger than life fashion like he did her mom, but the most important detail to realize is that Jareth is Sarah, and Sarah is Jareth.
Carl Jung’s Anima and Animus theory proposes that we each contain a female and male unconscious, in which case the conflict between Labyrinth‘s protagonist and antagonist is a struggle between these two energies. Jareth is emotionally abusive to Sarah, but it is her own “bratty” personality that is doing this to herself. When describing Jareth, David Bowie states, “One feels that he’s rather reluctantly inherited the position of being Goblin King” and “. . . he’s kind of spoilt. He gets everything his own way. He’s a big kid.” For years the Goblin King has allowed Sarah to live in a state of arrested development by validating this fantasy world, but when the time comes for her to essentially “grow up,” the Jareth within her is reluctant to let her go, and she must fight with herself to “find the child” and take responsibility for herself. In Freudian terms (which no real psychologist uses today), Jareth is Sarah’s “id” that is preventing her “ego” from maturing into a “super-ego.” The truth from Labyrinth‘s lesson is that ultimately we need to become the adult who parents our own past and our own inner child; to claim that “power” that has previously been left to others.
While Jareth is the villain of the film, and is the manifestation of Sarah’s self-inflicted emotional abuse, he is still an amazing character who continues to capture the hearts of so many. Aside from the fact that “he’s freakin’ David Bowie!” and the costuming is fantastic, the Goblin King serves another purpose in our collective unconscious as a figure of unabashed liberation. Dashing, charming, and sexy, Jareth has become a pop culture monarch for those rebelling against the mundane world of normality. As villains go, he is not evil or physically violent; aside from the scary rotating blades of the “cleaners,” his worst threat is to make someone smell bad.
As Sarah’s id, the Goblin King actually has a childlike innocence to him and is the product of a girl’s imagination; he lives in a castle where he dances with goblins and makes babies laugh. He is definitely a jerk at times, but almost thirty years after hitting the big screen, we still love him just as much. Jareth may be the “big bad wolf” of fairytales, but he is also the Pied Piper (another cautionary tale, but we’ll let that slide) leading us in a merry dance, magic dance!