A perfect example of the Pluto archetype can be found in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a melancholic, imaginative tale with an ambiguous ending – like all good fairytales before they were sanitised for children. The film references loads of other fantasy films and fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the Little Match Girl.
The story is set in 1944 in Spain shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s new totalitarian regime is busy oppressing the people while the anti-fascist Resistance fights on in the mountains. Against this bleak backdrop, the film explores ideas of choice and disobedience, reality and fantasy, masculinity and femininity, innocence and corruption, self-sacrifice, mortality and death.
It interweaves two main storylines – one real and one fantasy – that start as parallel worlds and gradually come together. The real world is brutal and cold, stripped of human value and meaning, while the fantasy world is rich and warm and alive with possibilities. The fantasy world is presented as real, as in Magic Realism where the fantastic is treated as a normal part of the real world. This is a key component of the film and essential to understanding its meaning, as we’ll see.
Before we continue, here comes the obligatory !!**SPOILER WARNING**!!, although I’m not sure this film can be spoiled because the first shot is the final scene. We know from the start it’s a tragic tale – or is it?
The story follows Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen, who move to the country to join Captain Vidal, her new stepfather. He’s a fascist commander hunting rebels in the nearby mountains and controlling the food and medicine rations for the local area. Carmen isn’t well and Ofelia copes with her new life by reading fairytales and talking to an insect she believes is a fairy.
But then she meets a Faun who tells her to complete three tasks so she can return to her true home in the underworld as Princess Moanna. The tasks are dangerous but the real world is full of danger too. Carmen dies giving birth to Vidal’s son, leaving Ofelia alone with a monster who wants to kill her. The faun provides a way out, but Ofelia refuses to sacrifice her baby brother and is shot by Vidal.
All seems lost, but as Ofelia dies she’s transported to the underworld to join her real father and mother on the throne. She passed the final test and has returned home.
From the beginning, Pan’s Labyrinth blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The magical reality of the story reflects Ofelia’s real world experience in a similar way to The Wizard of Oz, making you question whether the magic is real or just a fantasy she’s conjured to help her cope. It starts with Ofelia lying on the ground as blood flows backwards into her nose. The camera zooms into her eye and a voice-over tells this fable:
“A long time ago, in the Underground Realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world. She dreamt of blue skies, soft breeze and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the princess escaped. Once outside, the bright sun blinded her and erased her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness and pain. And eventually she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the princess’ soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning…”
This is a classic fairytale opening that even suggests the whole story could be a dream, reinforced by the camera taking us inside Ofelia’s head. It’s one of the clues that shows this tale is an inner journey. Another is the importance of eyes, representing perception and how you see reality. What you accept as real depends on your perception and how you interpret what you see.
The other clues are motifs found in fairytales, such as the rule of three, magical helpers and objects, a quest involving tests, a wicked stepmother, and a villain or monster who has to be overcome. In this case, the wicked stepmother has been replaced with a stepfather who also doubles as the villain, or Big Bad Wolf.
The rule of three applies to both worlds, real and fantasy: there are three fairies, tests, magic stones, doors, and thrones; and in the real world there are three main female characters (Ofelia, Carmen and Mercedes), and three main male characters (Vidal, the doctor, and Mercedes’ brother). The magical objects – key and dagger – also appear in both worlds.
The final clue is the location of the story. Ofelia and her mother move to a mill beside a labyrinth in a forest in the mountains. In fairytales, a mill symbolises the psyche and how the mind processes information to produce meaning. The forest is a liminal place of transition and represents the unconscious and a descent into the psyche.
The labyrinth also represents the psyche and is often used to symbolise life and the search for meaning. It stands for the spiritual journey that loops around towards the centre of the soul. In the film, it’s the site of a portal into the underworld, and Mercedes, the housekeeper, tells Ofelia that it’s been there for centuries. The stones are crumbling and overgrown with roots, and according to the director’s commentary, the entrance is carved with a Latin saying:
“In your hands is your destiny.”
So Pan’s Labyrinth is about Ofelia’s quest to discover who she really is and return to her soul or true Self. The labyrinth is where she goes to be initiated and begin her magical quest. But the quest really begins when she finds a stone in the road carved with an eye. It comes from a statue of the faun standing by the road, as if he’s been keeping an eye out for her – literally!
An insect appears in the statue’s mouth and she identifies it as a fairy. Later it transforms into the form of a fairy by copying a picture in one of her books, and then guides her into the labyrinth. Characters in fairytales are often assisted by animals or insects as symbols of the instinctual part of the psyche.
Ofelia’s magical world is an inner world full of curves and circles that represent a return to nature and the feminine. The quest also mostly happens by moonlight, showing that it’s intuition and imagination guiding her, not the rational conscious mind.
The architect of Ofelia’s quest is a faun who has been waiting for her in the labyrinth. The film title in English implies this is Pan, but the original in Spanish translates as The Faun’s Labyrinth. He’s an ambiguous, trickster figure – changeable and difficult to trust. When Ofelia asks for his name, he replies:
“I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce. I am the mountain, the woods and the earth. I am a faun.”
He may not be the god Pan, but as a faun he represents the wild power of nature that can be both creative and destructive. In mythology, fauns were the Roman version of the Greek satyrs who were followers of Dionysus. They were half-human, half-goat, and were related to Pan. Roman myth also included Faunus, a horned god of the forest who revealed the future in your dreams. Faunus was often equated with Pan but they’re separate deities.
An important detail is that the faun gets younger as the film progresses. At the beginning, he’s old and almost blind, covered in moss and dirt and has white hair. At the end of the story, he’s regenerated and youthful with clear eyes and straight teeth. By believing in him, Ofelia brings the faun and his world back to life.
The faun tells Ofelia she’s a princess – for real! – and wasn’t born of man. “It was the moon that bore you.” But in order to return to her rightful home, she must prove she hasn’t been contaminated by the world, i.e. become mortal. He gives her The Book of Crossroads to guide her through three tasks designed to reveal her true essence. The name of the book is a clue that the tasks are about making a choice – the question is: on what values do you base your choices?
The first task: A monstrous toad is living in the roots of an old fig tree, sucking the life out of it. Ofelia has to put three magic stones in its mouth and retrieve a key from its belly. Only then will the tree come back to life. The tree looks like a womb and the entrance is shaped like a Vesica Piscis – a symbol of the Great Mother goddess that represents a portal to another world. The fig tree also represents the Tree of Life, only in this case, it’s dying.
Before she enters the tree, Ofelia removes her beautiful ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dress – like Inanna being stripped of her finery as she descends into the underworld. She doesn’t want it to get dirty, but it has a deeper meaning than that. The dress was made for her by her mother who wants her to be pretty and feminine. But this isn’t who Ofelia is.
The dress represents her persona or outer appearance. It’s superficial and absurd, while Ofelia is wild and imaginative. Her mother tells her she’ll look like a princess when she wears the dress, but that’s only on the surface. Ofelia believes she’s already a princess – she just has to prove it.
Ofelia enters the tree and descends into the earth where it’s muddy and dark and bugs crawl over her arms. This represents a return to the feminine and the instinctive forces of nature. She completes the task and retrieves the key and emerges covered in mud and slime.
The second task involves using the key to retrieve a dagger hidden in the underground lair of a monster. The faun warns Ofelia not to eat or drink anything and to return to this world before the hourglass runs out or she’ll be trapped. He gives her a piece of chalk so she can create a door.
Ofelia enters the dining hall of the Pale Man who sits at a table laden with a feast he never eats. His eyes are on a plate in front of him and he appears to be asleep or dormant. There’s a pile of children’s shoes and around the walls are paintings of the Pale Man eating innocent children, inspired by Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son.
Ofelia is tempted by the feast because she’s starving so eats two measly grapes. This is enough to wake the monster. He places his eyes into his hands and chases her down the hallway, after eating two of the fairies. It’s an effective and scary scene, and Ofelia only just manages to escape.
But the Pale Man is actually a bit crap! As monsters go, he’s feeble and slow – he can’t see properly and can hardly walk. The design may have been influenced by a Japanese Tenome, a supernatural being that has eyes in his hands instead of his face and eats human bones. Having eyes in his hands means he can only see what he can touch – in other words, he has no imagination so can’t see anything that isn’t physical.
The dining room scene is reflected in the real world with Captain Vidal sitting in the place of the monster. Like the toad killing the tree, Vidal is hoarding food and medicine and sucking the life out of the surrounding area. He’s sadistic and authoritarian, obsessed with control and order, constantly checking his watch. In one scene, he repairs the watch sitting in front of the huge gears and cogs of the mill, as if he’s trapped inside its mechanism.
Vidal represents Kronos or Saturn, and the Tyrant archetype. When the doctor chooses to disobey him and risks his own life to save another, Vidal is baffled. He doesn’t have the imagination to see why the doctor disobeyed – it’s literally inconceivable to him. The doctor explains:
“To obey – just like that – for the sake of obeying, without questioning…that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.”
And disobedience is the key to the final task.
The third task is the most fateful. The faun tells Ofelia to bring her baby brother to the labyrinth and makes her promise to obey him without question. Her mother has died and she’s in an impossible situation, so she agrees. She’s already suffered the consequences of disobeying in the previous test – the faun cast her out and told her she could never return. But he gives her a second chance, perhaps because she’s suffered the loss of her mother – a sacrifice has been made.
Initiation always comes at a cost. You have to make a sacrifice or give something up because it’s about surrendering to your deeper Self and letting go of the ego. In the first test, Ofelia sacrificed her dress; in the second, she disobeyed so the fairies were sacrificed instead; and in the final test, she sacrifices herself.
The faun orders Ofelia to hand over her brother because they need the blood of an innocent to open the portal into the underworld. But she doesn’t trust him – perhaps with good reason. By this stage of the story, the faun looks young and beautiful, but he’s asking her to do something terrible and she refuses.
Ofelia knows that Vidal is going to kill her, but she won’t give up the baby in order to save herself. The faun asks her to confirm her choice three times – the magic number – and she denies her kingdom three times.
As the faun disappears, Vidal enters the labyrinth. He takes the baby and shoots Ofelia.
On the surface, this looks like a terrible tragedy. But as Ofelia’s blood drips into the portal, a light floods her body and she’s transported into the underworld. Her clothes transform into a gold dress and red shoes, and she finds herself in a grand hall with three high thrones. Her real father greets her:
“You have spilled your own blood rather than the blood of an innocent. That was the final task, and the most important.”
The faun also congratulates her, and her mother says:
“Come here with me and sit by your father’s side. He’s been waiting for you so long.”
As an immortal, Ofelia has returned to her rightful home in the spirit world. She hasn’t died, but has been reborn. The final scene shows a white flower blooming on the old fig tree – returning to life, at last.
In the end, the tasks aren’t really about whether Ofelia succeeds or fails, it’s more about how she goes about doing them. The tasks are a test of character to find out if her spirit has remained intact and whether she can remain true to herself. She must prove she hasn’t been corrupted by the materialism of the world to be initiated into her true self – the Self she already is.
Ofelia learns to trust herself and not betray her own nature. She listens to her instincts, chooses for herself and accepts the consequences. The final test is the hardest because the faun’s beautiful appearance mustn’t influence her choice. If she had obeyed him because he looked good and just because he told her to obey, then she wouldn’t have been following her own inner truth.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes explains that brutal loss and tragedy in fairytales usually happen when a protagonist fails to complete a transformation. Stories like this are meant to make you pay attention to an important truth so you can learn what not to do. A good example is the tale of the Red Shoes where the protagonist dances herself to death.
Del Toro relates the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth to the tale of the Little Match Girl. But this is another example of a failed transformation where the girl disappears into a fantasy world and dies instead of getting off her arse to find warmth and food. She gives up and dies instead of fighting to survive – a bit like Ofelia’s mother who has given up on life.
However, in the context of Pan’s Labyrinth, the fantasy is presented as real and Ofelia doesn’t fail – she returns home. When she arrives in her kingdom, she’s wearing red shoes. But these aren’t a symbol of obsession or compulsion; they’re more like Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz.
Although the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy and the whole story could be unfolding in Ofelia’s head, the chalk proves the magical world is real. It was given to her by the faun so it could be a figment of her imagination, but then Vidal finds it in his office. Ofelia gets into the office by drawing a magical door and this was the only way in because she was locked in the attic. Mercedes sees the chalk door on the wall in the attic later.
When Vidal enters the labyrinth, he sees Ofelia apparently talking to herself because he can’t see the faun. But this doesn’t prove the faun is imaginary. It just means he can’t see him – perhaps because of the medicine Ofelia put into his drink, or because he doesn’t have the correct perspective. He doesn’t have the imagination – his eyes are in his hands.
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