Dr. Deveny’s lecture on “Pan’s Labyrinth” brought a new, modern historical perspective to fairytales we had never seen before. Taking place during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-9, the film injects fantasy into the volatile environment surrounding little Ofelia, stepdaughter of a Fascist military captain. Weaving the fantasy into reality, director Guillermo del Toro parallels the fight between socialism and fascism during Franco’s reign with the fight between Ofelia/Mercedes and Captain Vidal. And he inputs almost all of Propp’s 31 Functions of folk tales into the story.
Ofelia is the victim, having been taken away from her city home to live in the woods; being persecuted by the captain for sickening his pregnant wife, Carmen (with the mandrake root); and being told she can never venture through the labyrinth in the backyard or else she will get lost. Of course she does not obey that last interdiction, and her finding of the faun (an ambiguous creature who, in representing half man and half animal, we do not know if he is a helpful guide or a hindrance) is what starts her three-part journey. She must complete three tasks in order to return, before the full moon occurs, to another world where she is actually a princess. The crescent birthmark on her left shoulder proves so; she must then prove to the faun that she is the actual princess and worthy of being a princess by completing said tasks. She receives all sorts of magical items (fairies, chalk, a healing mandrake root, enchanted stones) and must test her bravery in using them to gather all sorts of items and evade death. In the end she is able to complete the third task after what seems like disobeying the faun, and after the captain kills her, she goes to her other world and indeed becomes a princess.
What Dr. Deveny forgot to mention in his grandiose speech picking apart every goddamn symbol in the movie was the big picture and its subtleties. del Toro relates Ofelia’s journey to the political situation abound because the poor girl uses these little fantasies to cope with the psychological trauma of both living in a new home with a new, abusive father and living in time of war. They are both a distraction and a self-proof that she is brave and worth the trials through which she puts herself. Her mother is sick and pregnant and unfortunately has no clue that her only daughter is clawing for her attention and needs her support. Having always been a reader as a child, Ofelia uses the fairytales she knows to invent new ones to explain the natural phenomena around her, just like fairytales do for many cultures. For example, Ofelia must be scared of the woods knowing that there are people in them and the captain is constantly hunting through them for infidels. Thus, she puts herself through a treacherous journey in the forest so she can face her fears; she uses the large, overbearing frog that eventually dies at her hand to provide an allegory to her fear of the unknown. Furthermore, she creates her own fairytale of sorts when she uses the chalk to draw a door into another realm in the house where the pale man lies. She uses this task to prove to herself that she can abstain from delicious foods during a time of famine, and she ultimately fails. But of course she does not die; this is just a fantasy of hers. Then, when she escapes and closes the door, we hear bumping noises coming from the place where the door used to be, implying that she is using this fairytales to explain why this new, wooded house creaks at night. She is using the pale man as a coping mechanism for her fears of what goes bump in the night as well as digressing from her famine and the famine that is plaguing the citizens around her. I could keep going but you understand my point; del Toro uses her journey to prove the lengths a little girl will go to to distract herself from the emotional and psychological torture of war and political instability as well as familial uprooting. And when she dies, she dies; her return to the fantasy world we see actually occurs befoer she completely dies, when she is satisfied that she sacrificed her life for the baby’s. She smiles when she comes to terms with her existsence–thenshe dies. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending where she goes to heaven; rather, she has just compelted her life’s journey, even if that life is tragically short.