By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

“We All Create Our Own Fairy Tales” – Pan’s Labyrinth by Cornelia Funke and Guillermo del Toro

As we grow older, we stop believing in fairy tales. Pan's Labyrinth shows us that we never, ever, should.

It is a hot, sunny Sunday, and tomorrow the Dead come rising from their graves. Tomorrow is Halloween, the scariest day of the year, but I’m having a hard time feeling scared. That’s because fear feels most comfortable in the dark, when it’s cold and quiet. I recently read Pan’s Labyrinth by Cornelia Funke (based on the movie by Guillermo del Toro), and it is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read. Want to know what makes it so scary? Read on!

Pan’s Labyrinth is about Ofelia, a young, book-loving girl who travels with her pregnant but ill mother to her new stepfather, a cruel captain fighting rebels during the Spanish Civil War, in 1944. When she has arrived there, she follows a fairy into a Labyrinth, where a Faun tells her she is Princess Moanna. It tells her to perform three dangerous tasks in order to get back to her real parents, the King and Queen of the Underworld. She sets out to fulfil them, but soon realises that there are many more things that are even more difficult.

Last week I wrote about the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and how how scary books provide the perfect escapism for our boring old lives. Pan’s Labyrinth is exactly the opposite. In this novel, the stories that Ofelia reads function as a refuge for the terrible things that happen to her and her friends. Sometimes, stories calm us down and remind us that there will always be good in the world. They give us hope, and show us that we’re not alone. We always tell ourselves stories that makes us feel better – such as the stories Ofelia’s mother tells herself about her new husband and how he will improve her life (the audience know he never will). Without stories, we are no more than animals.

It is striking that Capitán Vidal, one of the evillest characters I’ve ever encountered both in literature and cinema, hates fairy tales, or indeed any type of story. I daresay his hatred for anything made up is what makes him such a frightful character. He likes order and logic, and only believes in strength. Any form of compassion, empathy, or even kindness, is seen as a weakness, and the only weakness he is interested in is those of others. The only sentimental object he owns is a damaged watch which belonged to his father, but he never shows it to anyone (that would be a weakness).

Ofelia has to perform three tasks, all of them gruesome. For the first one, she has to retrieve a key from a monstrous toad, the second one consists of stealing a dagger from the so-called Pale Man, a horrifying being who eats children. It is said he is so evil, his eyes fell from his sockets because they could no longer bear being witness of his crimes. And for the final task Ofelia has to shed blood of the innocent. The first two of these tasks are performed in a fairy-tale world, but the last one takes place in the real one – and this overlap between real life and magic is what makes Pan’s Labyrinth so frightening.

Unlike the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which take place in an imaginary world, Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us that evil does not limit itself to the pages of our favourite books. Indeed, true evil might have a human face – something which Ofelia knows, but her mother has forgotten. For Ofelia, and for all children, really, the real world and their own made-up ones are one and the same, and it is only when we grow up that we know (or pretend to, anyway) what’s real and what isn’t. Ofelia, still a child but continuously reminded that ‘life isn’t like fairy tales’, uses her stories to make sense of the real world, and it is because of these stories, and her ability to believe in the Faun and his tasks, that she manages to survive: “That’s what the books said, and didn’t their tales feel so much truer than what adults pretended this world to be about? Only books talked about all the things adults didn’t want you to ask about – Life. Death. Good and Evil. And what else truly mattered in life.”

It is a couple hours later now, and it is still warm, and the sun is still shining. I don’t feel that carefree anymore, though. Pan’s Labyrinth, because it is filled with so much darkness, has reminded me that there might always be evil lurking in the least expected places. Ofelia already knew that sometimes the real world is scarier than the ones we read about, and I cannot help but think something bad might be happening soon.

Have I started believing in ghosts again? Or did I only tell myself I stopped doing so in the first place?

What did you think of Pan’s Labyrinth? Do you think there is such a thing as real evil? Do we need books to figure out the world we live in? Do we need blood and violence in order to be aware of all the beauty around us? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more bookish posts!

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