What if the story of the underworld is simply a story to express the state one enters when one is not a happy, well-adjusted, and productive member of society? The underworld is only truly real to the one experiencing it, after all, and these are paths that can only be embarked upon alone; no one can follow, no one should try. Often it is hard enough to understand the altered perspective of the one who has resurfaced, for this lunar journey is done in the quietest and darkest hour of night and plays out in the same way that a dream does: one can try to explain, but it is simply impossible. As Thomas Mann says so eloquently in Death in Venice: “words are capable only of praising physical beauty, not of rendering it visible.” When the doorway opens, what is found lurking there cannot be relayed rationally or by science—and yet we try, always we try, for this is where a story excels, a myth, for it is an attempt and the only means of shedding light on the shadows.
The film Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro, gives a fantastic example of this underworld journey, or as Evans Lansing Smith calls it, the nekyia. The movie follows the precepts of any underworld mythic hero’s quest—the hybridized folk-tale/hero’s journey filled with symbolism, boons, assistance, testing, and finally the return—only in this tale, the protagonist is a prepubescent girl of about 8 or 9 years of age, Ofelia. What becomes such an interesting theme for this version of the tale is the continual disbelief held by those around the protagonist of the story she tells, most importantly her mother (whom she is trying to save) and her new stepfather (who is trying to kill her).
The movie displays an illustrative poignancy. The underworld is, after all, a place where one is at the mercy of so many things. The rules are different, and there is no leniency to be counted on; a state profoundly reminiscent of childhood, hearkening back to the time when there was no control over environment nor was there yet any independence, both being markers of maturity and adulthood. Where does one turn to find relief from such a place? A child, given the circumstance, turns within, creating a world in which she or he still has a modicum of control. It is here that we find the mythical parents, the magical fauna, the fairies and tasks that will lead to the real world below.
As with any nekyia, the mirror reflects both ways: the underworld and the outer world mimic each other. There are certain images associated with the underworld and objects that appear throughout the film that have significance for both Ofelia’s world and the world around her. These images carry her onward, sustaining her journey to find and save her mother while avoiding the traps and plots of her wicked step-father. Ofelia’s journey into the underworld represents a metaphor for how everyone is unprepared to face their own darkness, immature in this all too human task when our humanity is called into question. Ofelia’s journey to try and save what matters most to her despite her naivete and inexperience is the apex of Guillermo del Toro’s genius, as it is this same journey that we all face with the very same innocence and utter ignorance of what we are doing. That is the true value of Pan’s Labyrinth, a story of courage and hope that illuminates the darkness that dominates the human condition.
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