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The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 5)

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth operates on two levels at the same time. On the one hand it is the story of Ofelia, a lonely little girl in post-Civil War Spain, who has been carted off to a rural military outpost where the Spanish Maquis are waging guerilla warfare against her Falangist stepfather’s tiny garrison. On the other hand it is the story of the Princess Moanna- the very same girl- who must find her way back to her true home in the Underground Realm, the beautiful fairyland from which she is unknowingly exiled. A mysterious and more than a little sinister faun (the “Pan” of the title) guides young Ofelia through the tasks she must perform to prove that she really is the reincarnation of the lost Princess Moanna, and that her life in the human world has not rendered her unfit to return home.

 

Ofelia’s stepfather is a sadistic fascist, a war criminal and torturer who loves only the unborn son his ailing wife is carrying, and then only as a symbol of his own masculinity. Though unfailingly correct toward his wife in the old school sense, his coldness and distance toward her create an air of constant tension. His attitude toward Ofelia develops from disdainful to murderous as he discovers her sympathy for the Maquis, and her intentions of running away with his newborn son after the death of her mother.

 

The tasks set for Ofelia by the faun are classic fairy-tale tests, such as to obtain a key from the body of a giant toad, and a magical dagger from the lair of a child-eating ogre called the Pale Man. Ofelia fails this second test by violating a taboo, resulting in one of the most visually stunning sequences of the movie, as the Pale Man hunts Ofelia through the corridors of his lair, watching her through eyes in his hands. The task, the broken taboo and the child-eating ogre are all classic fairy-tale motifs, but what makes this scene so effective is its successful evocation of the feeling of a nightmare, of being chased through dark tunnels by a relentless monster. The effective use of modern special-effects technology is what makes this possible, creating the visual illusion that all these things are really happening, with no more suspension of disbelief required than the bare minimum.

 

Most directors telling such a story would have given us a fairyland of cloying sweetness and impossible innocence, but the perilous double nature of the traditional fairy realm is incarnated in the faun, a darkly powerful presence who evokes anything but trust. His final task for Ofelia is to steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth, where he reveals that the only thing that will open the portal to the Underground Realm is to shed innocent blood. Ofelia’s final test is one of good versus evil, and she doesn’t know which of the two the faun actually serves.

 

The ability to see out of more than one set of eyes, to accept multiple interpretations of reality at the same time, is the heart of magic. Is the Underground Realm “real” or “imaginary”? Is Ofelia a sad and possibly delusional little girl, or a fairy-tale princess? Does she really return to the Underground Realm, or is her final vision of that magical place a mere hallucination?

 

All of these things are actually true at the same time, depending solely on your perspective and your worldview. Ofelia’s stepfather is a man who can only see one world. Ofelia can see two. Any interpretation of the final scene depends on how many worlds the viewer can see.

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

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$2.99 Kindle Edition

The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 1

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1- Mythorealism

The term “mythorealism” was coined by fantasy author Lani Thompson to describe a particular tendency in modern art and literature, the tendency to create stories in which “myth incarnates in the waking world”:

Mythorealism is what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world. Like its cousin, magical realism, mythorealism encompasses facets of reality which aren’t ordinarily perceived and brings them into the waking world. Reality is more than bones and blood. It is the spirit lurking behind stones and flesh… Myth stepping into Matter… The World being uttered… (Lani Thompson)

Magical realism usually incorporates fantastic elements without comment in a story that is otherwise set in the mundane world. The characters in a story of magical realism don’t generally react with wonder or horror when confronted with something magical; instead they take it for granted. Mythorealist fiction, by contrast, emphasizes the mystery and awe of the numinous and the wonder and horror of encountering the mythic in the “waking” world.

The art and literature I think of as “mythorealist” is not just entertainment or escapism, but a new kind of spiritual practice, free of all dogma and orthodoxy and capable of engaging with higher realities in a spontaneous and unmediated way. The humor, the poetry and the magic of this approach to spirituality represent a modern alternative to what I see as the dead ends of fundamentalist religion and skeptical materialism. This is a form of spirituality for the modern person, to whom “belief” no longer comes naturally- but wonder still does.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the mythorealist tendency in modern art and literature (which would require a book), I will focus on seven examples: the fiction of Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Ekaterina Sedia, Emma Bull and Sergei Lukyanenko, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, and the art of Zdzislaw Beksinski. These seven incorporate different aspects of the mythorealist tendency, and I’ll be exploring the implications of that tendency through a discussion of these works.

Coming Soon:

2- Terror in a Handful of Dust: Neil Gaiman and the Sandman

3- The Unbeheld’s Many Mansions: The Fiction of Clive Barker

4- Night Watch: The Gothic Noir of Sergei Lukyanenko

5- The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth

6- Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

7- Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

8- Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History

Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition