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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Fairy Folklore in Pan's Labyrinth

 Continuing on with my series of fairy folklore in films and television let's look at the 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, or 'El laberinto del fauno' [the labyrinth of the Faun]. This movie, much like Henson's Labyrinth, is full of folklore references which are worth discussing, as well as many references to classical literature and mythology which are beyond the purview of this blog. As with previous discussions we'll approach this bullet point style and talk about what we find in the movie versus what we'd expect in folklore. 
Spoilers ahead!

A very quick recap of the plot: a young girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother go to live with her new stepfather who is a military officer trying to capture rebels fighting the government in Spain. Ofelia is led by a fairy into a labyrinth and meets a creature called the Faun who explains that she is the reincarnation of a princess who fled the world of fairy/underworld and was lost in the mortal realm. Ofelia is given three tasks to complete to return to the Underworld: retrieve a key, steal a knife, and (as is eventually revealed) spill a drop of innocent blood. She is initially given three fairies to help her accomplish this but when she tries to complete the second task she breaks a rule and eats some food after being told not to, resulting in the deaths of two of the fairies. In the midst of this her mother dies giving birth to Ofelia's brother. For the third task, which she hasn't been given in full yet, she is told to bring her infant brother to the labyrinth; when she does so - pursued by her furious stepfather - the Faun tells her to spill his blood. She refuses and her stepfather arrives, takes the baby, and shoots her. As she lays dying, her blood trickles into the labyrinth and the scene cuts to her in the Underworld where Ofelia is seen rejoining her mother and father who are sitting on thrones. The Faun acknowledges her as the princess.

   Let's look at the various points of folklore:

  • Ofelia initially sees a small fairy which appears as a stick bug but transforms into a fairy later. This is certainly playing into more recent (19th/20th century) folklore that has merged fairies with insects in various ways.
  • Ofelia is the only one who seems able to see the fairies. At various points in the film Ofelia is not the only one present when a fairy is near but she is the only one who can see them; even when her stepfather sees her talking to the Faun he sees only Ofelia. There is very old widespread folklore which tells us that the fairies can and do pass invisible to human sight but that some people, through natural affinity or through magic, may be able to see them. 
  • The number three shows up prominently in several important places. While not as widely noted in relation to fairies as the number 7 is we do see three being an important number across folklore as it is here with Ofelia's three tasks and three fairy helpers. 
  • Three tasks being required to win a prize or achieve a goal is something that in itself is sometimes found in fairylore or fairy stories. In some changeling folklore a person must do three things to retrieve a lost person, usually go to a fairy fort at night, grab the person off a fairy horse, and return all the way home without speaking (for example). 
  • Fairy prohibitions are a vital point to Ofelia's second task, which she nearly fails. She must steal a knife from a being called the Pale Man  who sleeps at the head of a table full of food and is warned not to touch any of the feast. However she gives in to temptation and  eats two grapes, which immediately wakes the Pale Man who attacks her - she escapes only because of her three fairy guides, two of which are killed. This is, to me, an obvious nod to the longstanding prohibition across fairy folklore not to eat fairy food. Although in folklore the punishment for eating such food is being trapped in Fairy in this case the punishment is literal death but both are strongly resonant of the idea of being trapped forever due to transgressing this prohibition. 
  • There is a strong connection in Pan's Labyrinth between the human dead and fairies. Ofelia is a human girl who is said to be the reincarnation of a fairy princess who died on earth; when the Ofelia is killed she reappears apparently as her fairy self in the world of fairy. When Ofelia is seen returning to the Underworld/Fairy her human mother, who had recently died, is there as her fairy mother. This is also reflected in the muddle between the Underworld and the Otherworld presented in the film. In folklore we see this same fluidity between concepts and the idea that human dead may become fairies and that some fairies were once human. 
  • Ofelia's final task is to spill innocent blood to open the way between the worlds. She refuses to harm her infant brother but when her own blood is spilled she is transported to the Underworld. While some have argued the end of the film is a metaphor for death it can be read more literally as it plays out, with her being allowed to return to her true home. Ofelia's father, the king of the Underworld, tells her she passed the final test and won her reward by refusing to harm her brother and choosing to sacrifice herself instead. While not exactly true to older folklore this is certainly resonant with many fairy stories where a person is presented with a task which is actually a test of character and only choosing the morally 'good' action wins. 
   Pan's Labyrinth is a complex and nuanced film which leads viewers into a very dark place and presents an end which is simultaneously triumphant and tragic. Fairy folklore is woven throughout the movie, intermixed with myth, literary references, and imagination. The result is a piece that isn't itself folklore but which feels folkloric in its tone and storytelling. 

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