What is the power of a story? As much as people enjoy stories, it’s often easy to dismiss stories, especially works of fiction, as things that hold little power or meaning. The self-important and pragmatic will often dismiss works of fiction as “just stories,” the kind of material meant to teach children basic moral lessons or feed the minds of less high-minded people.
In the same way, Pan’s Labyrinth’s heroine, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is dismissed as “just” a child. Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) tolerates Ofelia’s obsession with fairy tales, dealing more with the physical strains of traveling to the countryside while pregnant. Carmen is giving birth to the song of her second husband, Vidal (Sergi Lopez), an important man given a military post with the important task of stamping out rebels living in the mountains after the Spanish Civil War.
Ofelia finds the country wondrous and claims she has seen a fairy. When the fairy comes into her room, she shows the creature what the storybook fairy is supposed to look like and it transforms into such a figure. Is this creature truly a fairy or is Ofelia’s imagination running away with her? She follows the fairy to a nearby labyrinth and meets a creepy Faun (Doug Jones) who claims she is a long lost princess who must complete three perilous tasks to prove her soul is intact.
And while Ofelia’s dark fairy tale story begins to bloom, it is interwoven with the historical drama of Spain’s new fascist government and its attempt to squash the rebels. It’s a story even darker and bloodier than Ofelia’s fairy tale, a tale filled with its own twisted monsters and dangerous tasks.
Vidal is shaped by his own story as much as he wants to dismiss it. He carries a smashed pocket watch that he continually refers to. It is later discovered that it is his father’s pocket watch and smashed to record the exact moment of his death for his son. Vidal denies to story, but it clearly shaped him, a tale of a man who wanted to pass on the story of his glorious death on the battlefield to his son.
As the film develops, Vidal is unmasked more and more as a man who desperately wants to continue his own story. Carmen comes to the mountains to birth their child and he makes it clear to the doctor he’s more interested in saving the child, who he insists will be a boy, even if it means losing his wife. Vidal is interested in a son insofar as it ensures his story will be told to future generations.
This story leads him to do irrational things. He has his wife come to him so that he can witness his son’s birth even though it risks both their lives, he discounts women and children in his own narrative, and he uses violence with little reason other than that he has the power to wield it. He sees himself as the hero of the story perhaps not so much from a moral standard, but from the standard that since he is the one in control, he believes can shape the narrative of how his story unfolds.
In contrast, Ofelia approaches her story with much more humility. She submits herself to the task, braves situations that place her in positions of vulnerability and weakness, and seeks to do the right thing as terrifying as that might be. She’s not without flaw, but she is not controlling the story, she lets the story control her, move her, and shape her into something greater than herself.
Granted, one of the tensions of the film is whether or not the fantasy elements are the delusions of a child or, in fact, real. Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro thinks the fantasy is real but gives his audience space for interpretation, perhaps to allow those who lack the childish humility to submit to a fairy tale story to still participate in this tale.
Ofelia’s story makes her stronger, allows her to overcome her limitations and act courageously in the face of a world that is horrific and terrifying. Her love of dark fairy tales equip her to face the darkness in the world and defy the monstrosity of human wickedness. Her childish humility to submit to the work and wonder of the story is what allows her to navigate the real-world problems facing her.
Stories are integral to the human experience. Whether it’s family heritage or fairy tales, stories are passed down generation to generation. But the spirit we have about our own stories can be critical. For the self-important man, a name must be made, a seed must be continued, the story is about them. And such narcissism is self-destructive.
For those who submit to the story, to accept the flow of the narrative and embrace its mysteries, there is magic and meaning to be found. Perhaps it will not be great renown or a place in the history books, but a story told in whispers on the wind, a story that require digging and looking, a story that rattles one’s bones and makes one just a bit stronger and braver than one was before.
© James Blake Ewing 2017