Thursday, December 30, 2010
Mythology, Fairy Tale and Depth Psychology in Pan's Labyrinth
Go here to see my more conventional review of the movie that preceded this piece.
I want to talk about the basic mythic structure of Pan's Labyrinth and then relate it to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey as well as Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched's Self Care System from his book The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of The Personal Spirit.
As I alluded to in my initial review, the movie is a great entry point into discussing fairy tales like Rapunzel, myths like Eros and Psyche and other movies like The Piano, Fearless, Jacob's Ladder, The Cell, and The Fountain. It also provides an intuitive window into the myth-making function of the psyche, especially with reference to Kalsched's assertion that "When human resources are unavailable, archetypal resources will present themselves."
To start, let's look at our protagonist's name - Ofelia. Ophelia is a Shakespearean character associated with madness. She goes mad because her father has been killed by her beloved, who himself is losing his mind as his world falls apart after the unjust death of his father (whose ghost haunts him) and his mother's marriage to his uncle. In Hamlet, Ophelia is an innocent who is overcome by the trauma of circumstances beyond her control and perhaps has what we might call a sane response to an insane situation - she loses touch with an unbearable reality.
The Call and The Threshold
As the film begins we find our heroine at a crossroads, she is entering the realm of our fascist villain, Captain Vidal. Ofelia's mother has in effect sold her soul to this evil man in order to try and win survival for herself, her daughter and the unborn son in her belly. It is later alluded to that the Captain may have had something to do with the death of Ofelia's father.
This is classic fairy tale stuff - there once was a young girl whose father was dead, her mother had married an evil king who cared only about the baby prince she carried in her womb and who was at war with the townspeople who were rebelling against his rule.
Next comes the "call to adventure" and the beginning of the bifurcation of reality into the ordinary realm and the mythic realm when Ofelia "crosses the threshold."
Having stopped on the way into the realm of the evil king Vidal, Ofelia finds a a rock that bears a carved eye. Just off the road she finds the primitive carved face that the stone eye fits into. On returning the eye to it's rightful place, the journey is set in motion and the messenger that will call her into the adventure appears, first as an insect and then later - molding itself to fit her imagination - as a fairy.
It will be the fairy/insect/messenger that guides her to cross the threshold into the nearby abandoned stone labyrinth where she meets the Pan character - technically a Faun. He is a trickster and carries both creative and destructive energies. Part of Ofelia's journey will have to do with learning not only to disobey the external forces of power that seek to control her, but also the powerful mediator of this inner world. We are in the psyche now, and nothing is black and white....
We have the allusion with the Faun here to an ancient knowledge, instinctive, undifferentiated, of the earth, pagan, magical - an antidote to the cruel soul-less world she has entered in the ordinary realm of external reality. The fascists represent a dis-connection from our natural goodness and love in the name of perverted masculine power, the rebels in the woods carry the sense of noble resistance, integrity, humanity and connection to the natural world.
Ofelia is placed in an unbearable situation. Her mother is sick and has surrendered to the rule of the evil king. Her father is dead. Human resources are not available, and so archetypal resources appear. Her one saving grace in the external world is Mercedes, the unbroken housekeeper who is in cahoots with the rebels, but is initially completely powerless to help Ofelia.
On crossing the threshold into the mythic realm, Ofelia is told by the Faun that she is really a long-lost princess and that if she can perform three tasks she will reign again. So begins the next stage of our heroine's mythic journey.
The Faun gives Ofelia a book with blank pages that will tell her what to do when the time is right. Ofelia's unconscious is the author of the unfolding inner story and it will project onto the blank pages what her conscious self (or ego) needs to become aware of....
This is a video about the monsters Ofelia meets on her tasks:
The first task takes Ofelia into the roots of a dead fig tree, deep into the bug-infested mud and slime to find the huge toad that has sapped the tree's life force. She has three magical stones that she must get the toad to swallow in order to somehow get the key that is hidden in it's belly. In order to enter the tree and cross the threshold into a confrontation with the primitive reptile Ofelia takes off the beautiful new dress and bow for her hair that her mother has made for her to wear as she is presented that night to the local high society of power at dinner with the Captain. The clothing, representing the persona that her mother wants her to present will of course be muddied and tattered by the time she returns - too late for the dinner at which her mother is facing her reptilian host and his toadies.
The Toad is a direct reference to both the classic fairy tale of the princess whose golden ball is rescued from the bottom of the pond by the frog (on condition that she take him with her to the castle, let him sit beside her at table, eat from her plate and sleep on her pillow with her at night,) as well as the mythic serpents and dragons that carry the slimy, slithery, cold-hearted deadly shadow energies that must be faced and worked with if we are to be initiated psychologically.
Ofelia faces the Toad saying - I am Princess Moana and I am not afraid of you! She tricks him into swallowing the magical stones by holding them with a huge bug in her hand for him to grab by extending out his long sticky tongue. Once the stones are ingested the Toad practically turns inside out - vomiting a giant yellow ball of slime that contains dead and still crawling bugs as well as the key she is seeking.
In the belly of the beast. In the darkness of mud and slime and insects, in the roots of the tree that has been killed by this inhabitant, in the confrontation with what disgusts us - we find the key to self-knowledge, freedom, the return of life to the tree (in this case with a Pan-like horned shape) and entry to the next stage of our journey.
Ofelia's next task involves entering a less slimy realm - this time by using magical chalk to draw a doorway - and confronting a less primitive, but more monstrous creature. In this realm we find ourselves in hallway surrounded by arches and with chequered stone floors - around the corner we enter the banquet hall covered in food, at which sits the horrific blind humanoid Monster. Paintings on the wall depict this monster as a baby-killer and eater and we see an ominous pile of baby/children's shoes in the corner of the room.
Ofelia's must use the key from the belly of the Toad to open one of three small doorways in the wall behind the Monster and retrieve what lies within. She has strict instructions not to eat anything from the table. On the table in front of the Monster is a plate bearing two eyeballs. He has no eyes, two small holes in his otherwise featureless face that are either nostrils or empty eye sockets, a mouth, and skin that hangs from his body as if he had once been very fat but had since lost a lot of weight. Its hands rest beside the plate, fingers coming to grotesque sharp points.
The Faun's three fairies accompany Ofelia on this task and she has instructions to do what they say, but Ofelia correctly trusts her own intuition/impulse and opens a different door with the key than the one the fairies point out to her. She there retrieves a beautiful ceremonial dagger.
Now confident in her own impulses, Ofelia decides the allure of the grapes on the table is too much to resist and, swatting the protesting fairies away like flies, eats two grapes. This wakes up the monster, who turns his hands palm up to reveal eye sockets - inserts the eyes from his plate, and holds his hands up to his head to take a look around. It is awake. It is hungry.
The Monster eats two of the fairies on it's bloody-mouthed way toward our heroine. Interestingly, because the eyes are in the hands, it cannot see while it is holding onto what it is eating...and ultimately Ofelia escapes by the skin of her teeth.
This scene is by far the most disturbing, brilliant and cryptic of the entire film. It took a while, but some of the implied meanings gradually coalesced for me:
Ofelia's greed gets the better of her and she disobeys the instruction not to eat. The Monster slumbers until she eats - but when she does it comes to eat her.
If we are in the inner world of the mythic psyche, then, as in dreams, the Monster is a part of her. The Monster perhaps represents Ofelia's own blind devouring greed, the shadow side of the libidinal impulse. When she succumbs, it wakes up - or rather it is already waking up in her when she decides to eat from it's table - and then it comes to eat her! But it is blind or unconscious, or powerless over the world around it while it is in the act of voracious devouring.
Here we see an allusion to the Bluebeard story in which a young girl is kidnapped by a Pirate and told that she can look in any of th rooms she wants to while he is away, but the room that this key unlocks is off limits. Of course this is the one room she absolutely has to go into and when she does she finds that it contains a giant cauldron filled with blood and chopped up bodies. Of course this gets her in trouble with the Pirate, but it also let's her know how dire is her situation! This will lead to her being able to respond to it creatively and resourcefully.
We are in the classic mythic territory of the struggle between the persona reality of social conditioning and the maturity that is won through learning to be conscious of the primal archetypal forces and emotional energies within us instead of repressing and denying them as the social order (in this case an overtly fascist one) demands.
Key Story Points
Next comes a torture scene that reminds us of the closeness of the 1940's of Spain to our current times, as well as two very telling aspects of the external story that are pivotal:
1) Following the Faun's advice, Ofelia has put a very baby-like magical mandrake root into a bowl of milk and fed it with two drops of blood from her fingertip - this magical fetish has been placed under her mother's bed to help ensure her recovery from her most recent rough patch in the pregnancy. The Captain finds this putrefying mixture and accepts the mother Carmen's request that she be allowed to deal with it. In this scene Carmen yells at Ofelia - There is no magic, not for you not for me, as she throws the mandrake root on the fire and it writhes and screams like a baby. She goes into labor and dies, leaving the Captain a son. We have echoes here too of Mercedes response to Ofelia that she used to believe in a great many things when she was a girl that she no longer believes in. The trinity of Mercedes, Carmen and Ofelia carry the struggle to be in a real world that is harsh and oppressive. We are reminded that the mythic world is not literally real, Ofelia is not a princess and the real world situation is dire. We are not in Disney territory here.
2) The good Dr. Ferreiro euthanizes the tortured stuttering rebel to put him out of his misery and is executed by Captain Vidal for his trouble. Before that happens he says to Vidal - I cannot obey just like that, just because you tell me to - that is only for men like you to do - before picking up his doctor's bag and walking with dignity out of the barn. Vidal shoots him in the back.
This is a tragedy. Innocence and integrity will die at the hands of evil, but in certain situations that is the only noble recourse available. In the end it is Mercedes who is willing to not only carry a sharp knife tucked under her apron, but to use it when the time is right, who is the death of the "evil king."
In Ophelia's final task she is told to bring her baby brother to the labyrinth, little knowing that the Faun will attempt to persuade her to sacrifice him so as to open the portal that will take her home. The captain is in hot pursuit and enters the scene as she refuses to give up her brother and "shed the blood of an innocent." Vidal shoots her and takes his precious son, but is met by the rebels and the triumphant Mercedes at the entrance to the labyrinth.
Before he dies he tries to get them to participate in his personal mythology of handing down his pocket watch to his son by smashing it at the hour of his death so that he might know "how a real man dies..." The watch was given to him after his own father's death in the same way - and so we get a hint at what lies in the psyche of our villain - but the rebels refuse and shoot him where he stands. Mercedes says - No. He won't even know your name.
The film ends with Mercedes weeping over the body of Ofelia as her blood opens the portal and she is reunited with her mother and father, the Faun and all three fairies, and told that she passed the final test.
As dark as this ending is - the denouement means that the rebels have beaten the fascist Captain and that his son has been saved - he bears the promise of a new life for Spain, he will be raised by the men and women who have retained their humanity in the face of inhuman oppression.
Trauma and Archetypal Resources
To close I want to reference Kalsched's work again. The Inner World of Trauma utilizes several fairy tales and myths to show how the psyche deals archetypally with unbearable experience/trauma. The two that stand out the most for me are Rapunzel and Eros and Psyche.
First the basic idea of the Self Care System:
From about 20 years of clinical observation Kalsched says that in unbearable trauma an archetypal resource will emerge that rescues the innocent "spirit" and removes it to a magical place. This is all very well for the moment, but the Protector archetype is not flexible and wears the dual face of the Jailer that keeps the spirit separate from the real world to protect it form pain. Yet it is in reintegrating with reality that healing and wholeness lie. The archetypal realm/resource is in service of our real lives, but in severe trauma this relationship is often turned on it's head.
I would add that the popular regressive spiritual fascination (as a result of direct trauma, emotional alienation, existential angst , a corrupted society etc) with finding other worlds to escape to, get special guidance from, or see as the underlying more-real-than-real substratum of our "illusory" world is a subset of this phenomenon - be it via astrology, channnelled aliens, new age interpretations of "enlightenment" or synchronicty, quantum phsyics, ancient prophecy coming true on some numerologically auspicious date etc, or traditional religious ideas of heaven .. (All of which btw can be best understood as contemporary mythic symbols that have been sadly literalized out of their deeper meanings...)
Kalsched asserts that it is through negotiating the process whereby the Jailer/Protector figure relinquishes control and allows the "spirit" or essential self to re-engage with reality and come into mature relationship to struggle that the possibility of wholeness, joy and love emerges.
Once exposed to this idea sufficiently i have found that it is common to many myths and fairy tales and is hidden consciously or unconsciously in films like The Cell ( as difficult as parts of to watch), The Piano, Fearless, and Jacob's Ladder.
Kalsched's revelation holds a powerful clue to spiritual maturity, psychological healing and bringing the mythic out-picturing of the psyche into healthy relationship to reality.
See if you can detect the threads of this idea as well as the resonances with Pan's Labyrinth in these two stories:
Protector/Jailer: The Witch, The Faun/The Captain, Eros
Notice also the repeating motifs of blindness and spiritual inflation and the neccessity of dealing with harsh reality on the other side of the tower, the labyrinth, the crystal palace etc... as well as Pscyhe's three tasks. If all of this grabs you imagination, watch The Piano, then Fearless, then The Cell with these ideas in mind.
All the best
There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.
One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion - rapunzel, and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable. Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, what ails you, dear wife. Ah, she replied, if I can't eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die.
The man, who loved her, thought, sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will. At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her - so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden. In the gloom of evening, therefore, he let himself down again. But when he had clambered down the wall he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him.
How can you dare, said she with angry look, descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief. You shall suffer for it. Ah, answered he, let mercy take the place of justice, I only made up my mind to do it out of necessity. My wife saw your rampion from the window, and felt such a longing for it that she would have died if she had not got some to eat. Then the enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him, if the case be as you say, I will allow you to take away with you as much rampion as you will, only I make one condition, you must give me the child which your wife will bring into the world. It shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.
The man in his terror consented to everything, and when the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of rapunzel, and took it away with her. Rapunzel grew into the most beautiful child under the sun. When she was twelve years old, the enchantress shut her into a tower, which lay in a forest, and had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window. When the enchantress wanted to go in, she placed herself beneath it and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair to me.
Rapunzel had magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold, and when she heard the voice of the enchantress she unfastened her braided tresses, wound them round one of the hooks of the window above, and then the hair fell twenty ells down, and the enchantress climbed up by it. After a year or two, it came to pass that the king's son rode through the forest and passed by the tower.
Then he heard a song, which was so charming that he stood still and listened. This was rapunzel, who in her solitude passed her time in letting her sweet voice resound. The king's son wanted to climb up to her, and looked for the door of the tower, but none was to be found. He rode home, but the singing had so deeply touched his heart, that every day he went out into the forest and listened to it.
Once when he was thus standing behind a tree, he saw that an enchantress came there, and he heard how she cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair. Then rapunzel let down the braids of her hair, and the enchantress climbed up to her. If that is the ladder by which one mounts, I too will try my fortune, said he, and the next day when it began to grow dark, he went to the tower and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair. Immediately the hair fell down and the king's son climbed up.
At first rapunzel was terribly frightened when a man, such as her eyes had never yet beheld, came to her. But the king's son began to talk to her quite like a friend, and told her that his heart had been so stirred that it had let him have no rest, and he had been forced to see her. Then rapunzel lost her fear, and when he asked her if she would take him for her husband, and she saw that he was young and handsome, she thought, he will love me more than old dame gothel does. And she said yes, and laid her hand in his. She said, I will willingly go away with you, but I do not know how to get down.
Bring with you a skein of silk every time that you come, and I will weave a ladder with it, and when that is ready I will descend, and you will take me on your horse. They agreed that until that time he should come to her every evening, for the old woman came by day. The enchantress remarked nothing of this, until once rapunzel said to her, tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king's son - he is with me in a moment. Ah.
You wicked child, cried the enchantress. What do I hear you say. I thought I had separated you from all the world, and yet you have deceived me. In her anger she clutched rapunzel's beautiful tresses, wrapped them twice round her left hand, seized a pair of scissors with the right, and snip, snap, they were cut off, and the lovely braids lay on the ground. And she was so pitiless that she took poor rapunzel into a desert where she had to live in great grief and misery.
On the same day that she cast out rapunzel, however, the enchantress fastened the braids of hair, which she had cut off, to the hook of the window, and when the king's son came and cried, rapunzel, rapunzel, let down your hair, she let the hair down. The king's son ascended, but instead of finding his dearest rapunzel, he found the enchantress, who gazed at him with wicked and venomous looks. Aha, she cried mockingly, you would fetch your dearest, but the beautiful bird sits no longer singing in the nest. The cat has got it, and will scratch out your eyes as well.
Rapunzel is lost to you. You will never see her again. The king's son was beside himself with pain, and in his despair he leapt down from the tower. He escaped with his life, but the thorns into which he fell pierced his eyes. Then he wandered quite blind about the forest, ate nothing but roots and berries, and did naught but lament and weep over the loss of his dearest wife. Thus he roamed about in misery for some years, and at length came to the desert where rapunzel, with the twins to which she had given birth, a boy and a girl, lived in wretchedness.
He heard a voice, and it seemed so familiar to him that he went towards it, and when he approached, rapunzel knew him and fell on his neck and wept. Two of her tears wetted his eyes and they grew clear again, and he could see with them as before. He led her to his kingdom where he was joyfully received, and they lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented.
Eros and Psyche
The goddess Aphrodite (in Roman mythology, Venus), jealous of the beauty of a mortal woman named Psyche, asked her son Eros (in Roman mythology, Cupid) to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. Eros agreed but then fell in love with Psyche on his own, or by accidentally pricking himself with a golden arrow.
When all continued to admire and praise Psyche's beauty but none desired her as a wife, Psyche's parents consulted an oracle which told them to leave Psyche on the nearest mountain, for her beauty was so great that she was meant for a god. So it was done. But then Zephyrus, the west wind, carried Psyche away to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she was attended by invisible servants until night fell and in the darkness of night the promised bridegroom arrived and the marriage was consummated. Eros visited her every night and they made sweet love; he demanded only that she never light any lamps because he did not want her to know who he was.
Eros even allowed Zephyrus to take Psyche back to her sisters and bring all three down to the palace during the day, only warning that Psyche should not listen to any argument that she should try to discover his true form. The two jealous sisters told Psyche, then pregnant with Eros' child, that rumor was that she had married a great and terrible serpent who would devour her and her unborn child when her time came for it to be fed. They urged Psyche to conceal a knife and oil lamp in the bedchamber, to wait till her husband was asleep, and then to light the lamp and slay him at once if it was as they said. Psyche sadly followed their advice. In the light of the lamp Psyche recognized the fair form on the bed as the god Eros himself, and cursing her folly, attempted to kill herself with the knife she'd intended to use to kill her lover. However, she dropped the knife, and her spirits were raised as she gazed on the beautiful young god. She curiously examined his golden arrows, and accidentally pricked herself with them, and was consumed with desire for her husband. She began to kiss him, but as she did, a drop of oil fell from Psyche's lamp and onto Eros' chest and he awoke. He flew away, but she caught his ankle and was carried with him until her muscles gave out, and she fell to the ground, sick at heart.
Psyche Opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
Psyche Opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
The god Pan, who was nearby, advised Psyche to seek to regain Eros' love through service.
Psyche then found herself in the city where one of her jealous, elder sisters lived. She told her what had happened, then tricked her sister into believing that Eros had chosen her as a wife instead. She later met the other sister and deceived her likewise. Each returned to the top of the peak and jumped down eagerly, but Zephyrus did not bear them and they fell to their deaths at the base of the mountain.
Psyche searched far and wide for her lover, finally stumbling into a temple to Demeter (in Roman mythology, Ceres) where all was in slovenly disarray. As Psyche was sorting and clearing, Demeter appeared, but refused any help but advice, saying Psyche must call directly on Aphrodite, the jealous shrew that caused all the problems in the first place. Psyche next called on Hera (in Roman mythology, Juno) in her temple, but Hera, superior as always, said the same. So Psyche found a temple to Aphrodite and entered it. Aphrodite ordered Psyche to separate all the grains in a large basket of mixed kinds before nightfall. An ant took pity on Psyche and with its ant companions separated the grains for her.
Aphrodite was outraged at her success and told her to go to a field where golden sheep grazed and get some golden wool. A river-god told Psyche that the sheep were vicious and strong and would kill her, but if she waited until noontime, the sheep would go to the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she could pick the wool that stuck to the branches and bark of the trees. Aphrodite next asked for water from the Styx and Cocytus flowing from a cleft that was impossible for a mortal to attain and was also guarded by great serpents. This time an eagle performed the task for Psyche. Aphrodite, outraged at Psyche's survival, claimed that the stress of caring for her son, made depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's unfaithfulness, had caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche was to go to the Underworld and ask Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a box that Aphrodite gave to Psyche. Psyche decided that the quickest way to the Underworld would be to throw herself off some high place and die and so she climbed to the top of a tower. But the tower itself spoke to her and told her the route through Tanaerum that would allow her to enter the Underworld alive and return again, as well as telling her how to get by Cerberus by throwing him a sop and Charon by paying him an obol, how to avoid other dangers on the way there and back, and most importantly to eat of no food whatsoever; for otherwise she would dwell forever in the Underworld. Psyche followed the orders explicitly and ate nothing while beneath the earth.
However when Psyche had got out of the Underworld, she decided to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself. Inside, she could see no beauty; instead an infernal sleep arose from the box and overcame her. Eros, who had forgiven Psyche, flew to her, wiped the sleep from her face, put it back in the box, and sent her back on her way. Then Eros flew to Mount Olympus and begged Zeus to aid them. Zeus called a full and formal council of the gods, and declared it was his will that Eros might marry Psyche. Zeus then had Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gave her a drink made from Ambrosia, granting her immortality. Although some say their daughter was named Bliss, and some say she was named Delight (in Roman mythology she was named Volupta, which can mean either), the meaning of the name was intended to be joyful. Begrudgingly, Aphrodite and Psyche forgave each other.