Labyrinth’s Emotionally Abusive Goblin King (Pt.1)

Labyrinth-1986-OriginalDespite being a box office failure in 1986, only reclaiming half of the $25 million that it cost to make, the film Labyrinth holds a priceless place in the hearts of so many geeks and nerds. Jim Henson’s puppets are amazing, Brian Froud’s concept art is fantastic, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) leads us upon an unforgettable adventure, and there are so many memorable lines. What really holds the movie together, however, is clearly David Bowie’s performance as Jareth, the Goblin King.

Originally, Henson had actually planned for Jareth to be a puppet, but when it was decided that another human would work better in opposition to the actress playing Sarah, several singers including Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and even Michael Jackson were also considered for the role of the Goblin King. Ultimately, however, Henson wanted David Bowie to play the part and on February 15th, 1985 (exactly two months prior to filming) he accepted the role. Bowie injects so much charismatic flamboyance and dangerous sexuality into the character, that the Goblin King seems to stand alongside Bowie’s own famous theatrical personas such as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane. For close to 30 years, Jareth has been the subject of great romanticization, seducing Sarah and all of us with his dandy charm and elegant androgyny, but despite all that, he is still the villain of the story.

Whether intentional or not, Jareth potentially serves a purpose akin to many villains in fairy tales, such as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, as an allegory for the type of man that young women should avoid. The original story idea for Labyrinth was developed by Jim Henson and concept artist Brian Froud, and the early script was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, but the story underwent many rewrites with input from George Lucas, Laura Phillips, and Elaine May. Add David Bowie and his chemistry to this mix, and did the collective unconscious of so many creative minds brings forth a potent embodiment of the narcissistic emotional abuser?

Jareth Abuse

“Just fear me, love me, do as I say . . . and I will be your slave.”

The central theme of Labyrinth is a coming of age tale for protagonist Sarah. Jim Henson described it as “the idea of taking responsibility for one’s life – which is one of the neat realizations a teenager experiences – a central thought of the film,” and states that Connelly got the role because she “could act that kind of dawn-twilight time between childhood and womanhood.” At the start of the film, Sarah is basically a whiney brat, complaining over and over again that “It’s not fair!” and throwing a tantrum when she finds that her teddy bear “Lancelot” is missing from her room. Sarah’s journey through the film’s narrative forces her move away from the toys of her childhood, and she must struggle with a number of mental and emotional issues in order to discover her independence as a woman.

An endless debate with fans of Labyrinth is whether, within our willing suspension of disbelief, Sarah’s experience with this journey was real or just her imagination? This style of ambiguity can be found dating back to The Wizard of Oz and beyond, but there is a wealth of visual clues that suggest it’s all in Sarah’s mind; almost all of the fantasy realm is drawn from objects in Sarah’s bedroom

labyrinth-sarah-jareth-dollThe first shot of her room is a camera pan across a table top that starts with one of the fire dancers and works it way to the ballgowned figurine spinning to music box version of “As the World Falls Down.” The camera then moves past a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, a plush toy Sir Didymus, a toy labyrinth, other fairytale books, including The Wizard of Oz, all held up by a Hoggle bookend. The shot continues across an open scrapbook dedicated to “mom” with lots of red hearts, and then finally to a statue of Jareth on her dressing table. When Sarah comes into shot, she is wearing a crown and applying lipstick; her reflection in the mirror is surrounded by pictures and newspaper clippings of her actress mother in what is essentially a shrine. Sarah looks a lot like her mother, Linda Williams, and seems to model herself after her. The man in the pictures, Linda’s co-star, looks just like David Bowie, and together they resemble Sarah and Jareth.

One clipping’s headline suggests that Linda had a relationship with her onstage lover, which in turn suggests that Jareth is a projection of whatever romanticizations Sarah may have about her mother’s “boyfriend.” In the narrative, Jareth takes the baby Toby, but in Sarah’s reality this Bowie look-a-like stole Sarah’s mother and is the possible reason for her parent’s divorce.

Labyrinth photo shrineBut as evidenced from Sarah’s “shrine” to her mother, and seeming aspirations for stage acting at the start of the film, it is clear that she does not blame her mother for the separation. Nor does she blame Linda’s lover either, seeing as there are several pictures of him in the “shrine” as well. Sarah, who stubbornly refuses reality, has made the two of them the epitome of romance.

In the story, Sarah is 15-years-old, and Connelly was 14 when she played the role. In 1985, David Bowie was 38-years-old, placing a 24 year gap between the actors, making him “old enough to be her father,” which would also be the case for Linda’s lover. Sarah therefore might seem to have some pseudo Electra complex focused on the man with whom Linda fell in love, and for whom she apparently left her husband and child. Despite her childish mannerism at the start of the movie, Sarah is entering her sexual awakening, so does this make Jareth the man of her dreams? He appears to be an “ideal” that is a drawn from a combination of her fairy tale books and her mother’s boyfriend, and is thereby potent material for an unhealthy relationship fantasy.

Sarah and Jareth

“Look, Sarah. Look what I’m offering you. Your dreams.”

In a 1986 review of Labyrinth, film critic Richard Corliss described the Goblin King as a “Kabuki sorcerer who offers his ravishing young antagonist the gilded perks of adult servitude.” Everything that Jareth has to offer Sarah comes with some condition or requirement that Sarah surrenders to his will. Until the climatic scene, the power imbalance is huge, “You’re no match for me!” claims the Goblin King as he laughs mockingly. Jareth has age and experience, he has a kingdom, he has an army of goblins, he has magic, and he has all the style of David Bowie, whereas Sarah starts as a naive girl and is a vulnerable target for a predator.

"Toby and the Goblins" by Brian Froud

“Toby and the Goblins” by Brian Froud

The primary inspiration for Labyrinth was Brian Froud’s goblin art work which plays with the folklore of goblins abducting babies in order to make them into goblins. This is the “service” that Jareth initially offers Sarah, but if Jareth had just wanted Toby for another goblin in his kingdom, he would have no reason to offer her 13 hours to solve the labyrinth. What are Jareth’s motives for giving this opportunity to Sarah? Is it a test? Is he being manipulative in an attempt to seduce her? What does he have to gain from letting her into the labyrinth?

If Jareth is Sarah’s projection of her mother’s lover, then from the Goblin King’s behavior and mannerisms one can conclude that this “home wrecker” had a larger than life demeanor that fits the personality disorder of a narcissist. Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like over confidence, a deep rooted insecurity lies at the heart of the narcissist requiring admirers to support that pedestal upon which he or she has placed themselves. The narcissist also requires others who can be deemed of “lesser value” than his or her self in order to further elevate their “special” status. Jareth is verbally abusive to his goblin subjects, and especially to Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) whom he “puts down” with insults each time Jareth see him.

"I . . . I . . . can't . . . live . . . within you."

“I . . . I . . . can’t . . . live . . . within you.”

Jareth’s vulnerability, however, is exposed briefly during the “Within You” sequence in the M.C. Escher staircase room. As it becomes apparent to Jareth that Sarah is on the verge of rescuing Toby and is no longer enamored of him. Bowie’s delivery of the song’s last line, “I . . . I . . . can’t . . . live . . . within you” reveals the pain that Jareth feels about losing Sarah, and at that moment we are lulled into feeling that he is more a tragic hero than villain, but his motives are selfish and do not have her best interests at heart . . . unless he represents more than just her misguided male fantasy?


Please click here for Part Two
of “Labyrinth’s Emotionally Abusive Goblin King” 

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5 Responses to “Labyrinth’s Emotionally Abusive Goblin King (Pt.1)

  • still a better love story than 50 Shades! 😀

  • I was 7 or 8 when this movie came out and I watched it every single day for months! I wanted to be Sarah, or be like her to be exact. I wanted to wear makeup, fancy clothes and make my own decisions. I liked all the “magic” and shiny things in this movie, including David Bowie! I often felt bad for Hoggle. I just watched this movie over the summer with my kids and they could have cared less about the movie. They were distracted by other “shiny” things and the movie “magic” was a lot different then. Until I read this article, I never noticed those things. I see your POV, and I have a hard time dealing with it, but all the points that you made are clearly defined. Mixed feelings on this to say the least. It’s an “OMG what!? moment! The Never Ending Story was also a favorite of mine, and my dad will tell you that he thought it was indeed never ending.

  • So far an interesting article. I saw the movie in the theater when I was 11 and absolutely loved it. I wanted to escape to the Labyrinth and never go back. I never actually liked Sarah, she always seemed like an idiot to me. Nor did I like Hoggle, who I would have booted headfirst into the bog of eternal stench myself. I adored Jareth, he was cool, dressed great, was powerful and I definitely had a bit of a crush on the character even though he was a villain. In many ways the goblin king was villain light. He wasn’t your typical unlikable Evil villain, he was charming, charismatic, sang and danced. Yeah he had a bad side but you could almost see the character as having some type of fascinating back story and perhaps having a lot more bark than bite. However, him being the type of bad boy that a sensible woman should run screaming from does also seem fairly accurate. He’s definitely self absorbed, condescending, controlling and arrogant. He’s actually a bit like a petulant little boy at times. I’ll be curious to read the rest of your analysis.

  • I can agree with you on so many of these things. I was lulled by Bowie’s Jareth. I hadn’t seen Labyrinth till I was about… 18 or 19. I could appreciate everything that was in the movie, the thought and dedication put into it.
    Bowie will forever be my dream guy as Jareth. (Minus the manipulative, abusive, narcissistic tendencies). He was good looking, he could sing.. and not to mention that cod piece..
    I am saddened by his passing, but I can only be happy that I had the chance to live on the earth while he lived on it, too. I may not have known of him till I was 18/19, and being only 23, I still have so much to discover about him and his music.
    I can also only be happy to know he was able to pass away peacefully, surrounded by family.

    Rest in peace, Goblin King.

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