Monday, January 11, 2016

It's Only Forever: The Beautiful Tragedy of Jareth

Full disclosure: I'm not a huge David Bowie fan (RIP).  I'm also not NOT a David Bowie fan.  Basically, I'm not cool enough to really be familiar with much of David Bowie's work.  In fact, I'm really only familiar with David Bowie's work in regards to a certain 1980s children's movie by the name of Labyrinth.  And by "familiar with," I actually mean "absolutely obsessed with to the point where I watch the movie at least once or twice twelve times a month."  There are many reasons for this, but the main reason, by far, can be summed up in one word:


Now, I don't care who you are or what your personal style is--I think we can all agree on one fact.  Jareth is sexy.  I'm not commenting on David Bowie himself, per se (that's for you to decide on your own), but the character of Jareth, the Goblin King.  He's sexy.  He's DANG sexy.  I'm not saying I want to marry him and help him steal have his Goblin babies or anything--I've got a personal rule against dating anyone who looks better in eyeliner and leggings than I do, ok?  But it's undeniable that Jareth has this incredible appeal.  And his own 80s theme music.  

So, so sexy.

But his magnetic appearance/presence, while powerful, isn't what I find the most remarkable about Jareth.  On the surface, you have an over-the-top baby stealing Goblin King from a 1980s kids' movie.  Pretty basic, right?  If you look deeper, you find one of the most interesting, tragic villains ever. To look deeper into Jareth's character, we need to look deeper into the story of Labyrinth (spoilers ahead--so go watch the movie if you haven't already).  

It's pretty obvious that Labyrinth is a story about growing up.  You have Sarah, a 14 year old girl who is still clinging on to childish things.  She has a vivid imagination and spends her free time acting out stories.  Even when she has to face reality (at the request of her stepmother), she imagines herself as a heroine in a tragic fairy tale, where she is forced to babysit her infant brother. 

One night, as she is babysitting her brother, she tells him a story about the Goblin King, who is in love with her.  If she says the right words, the Goblin King will take the baby away.  And, inadvertently(?), she says the right words.

And at this point, the viewer of the film isn't sure what is happening.  It's never fully clear if Sarah is just imagining the story taking place, or if the events of the movie are "really" happening to her.  I like to believe that her imagination has become so real that the characters and world she has imagined have actually come to life.  After all, isn't that the hope of any good storyteller?

So enter Jareth (with much sexiness), the fierce Goblin King, who has taken her baby brother.  On the surface, he looks like just a typical goblin child-thief you might see in a number of old fairy tales (only with better hair).  But let's look at what Jareth immediately offers Sarah.  He offers her her dreams, all contained in a beautiful, mystical glass sphere.  He tells her she can have it, but only if she forgets the baby.  What he's really saying here is that she can have all of her dreams if she forgets all her reality, all of her grown up responsibilities, all of the things that are important outside of her fantasies.  

And one of those things that he's offering, ultimately, is himself.  Because, even though at this point I believe he has become "real," HE is one of her fantasies.  She imagined a dangerous, attractive villain, one that a part of her wants to love.

Sarah, of course, chooses to face the Labyrinth, and all her adventures really begin.  Jareth attempts many villainous things to thwart her efforts, but in the end, she "fights her way to the Goblin City to take back the child he has stolen."  

It is at the center of the Labyrinth, when Sarah once again faces Jareth, that we discover something very interesting.


Jareth claims he has been generous, that he has exhausted himself in order to live up to her expectations of him.  Once again, we see this idea that Jareth is a creation of Sarah's own imagination--an imagination so powerful that it can bring its creations to life.  And once again, we see Jareth offering her all of her dreams, including himself.  

And although Jareth is just a product of her imagination, I do believe he has taken on a life of his own and become more powerful than even Sarah could imagine ("Everything I've done, I've done for you.  I move the stars for no one.").  And I do believe that he loves Sarah.  Yet, I think Jareth knows, and has known all along, that he is doomed to be without her.  Why?  Because he loves Sarah

And Sarah is only Sarah if she is able to beat him.

You have a character here who is born to play the villain.  He was created from the imagination of his beloved to play the one who provides the challenge for her.  He plays the part he was given to play because he loves her, because it's essential to her story and to her character development that he play the part he was created to play.  If Jareth isn't Jareth, then Sarah can't be Sarah.

And if Sarah doesn't defeat Jareth, then she will never become the Sarah he knows she can be, the Sarah he knows she is, the Sarah he very much loves.

...and the Sarah that he can never have.

"...Though, I do believe in you.
Yes, I do
Live without your sunlight.
Love without your heartbeat.
I, I can't live within you."

Because if she doesn't defeat him, then she's not the Sarah he loves.  She's just a child playing in a bubble of a dream world that is so fragile it could burst at any moment.  She is just a shadow of who she is supposed to be.  And I think Jareth even wants to love this Sarah, but I think he knows from the beginning that he never could.  A shadow of Sarah is not his Sarah.

And if Sarah defeats him, and she does (as he knew she would), then it means she gives up her fantasies...including him.  

I love that scene posted above, where Sarah confronts Jareth for the last time.  One last time, he offers her all of her dreams; one last time, he offers her himself.  She fights to remember the phrase that will defeat him.  The music stills, and Jareth waits, longingly in the pause that is so beautiful and tragic.

"You have no power over me," Sarah proclaims--essentially accepting that she is "putting childish things behind her" and setting aside the fantasies that have made up her entire reality.  She has become the Sarah that Jareth always wanted her to be.

Immediately after her proclamation, he looks crestfallen, lowering the crystal that represents her dreams.  But just a few frames later, after the clock has begun striking 13, Jareth's face is very different.  It's a look of acceptance, of knowing that this was all inevitable, and there is a hint of something else.  Admiration.  Pride.  Love.

He tosses the crystal into the air, and Sarah sees that it was never as real as she thought it was--it was just a bubble that dissolved on her fingertips.  And Jareth quietly disappears, turning into an owl who  can watch her continue to grow from afar, though he can never have her.

And I believe he would rather have her be this unattainable woman he loves, than to have her remain a child, incomplete, not his Sarah.

"...It's only forever.  Not long at all..."

That's the tragedy and the beauty of Jareth.  On the surface he's just a kidnapper in spandex.  "Underground," beneath the surface, he's the lost and lonely, a richly complex character whose story absolutely breaks my heart every time--but in a way I really don't mind being broken at all.

So, aside from all the musical brilliance that David Bowie accomplished in his too-short life, that of which I am regrettably ignorant, I have to say that I will be forever thankful to him for bringing so much life and depth to one of my favorite villains.  David Bowie WAS Jareth, and he was amazing.  

"But I'll be there for you
As the world falls down."


  1. Love this. The whole phrase "love me, do everything I say and I will be your slave " fits nicely into this.