In the Hands of the Goblin King

Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

I may have thought about this offer a bit over the years. Yes, yes, all right: I’ve spent hours of my life on it. I know from talking to other women who first saw Labyrinth in their mid–teens that I’m not alone.

Sarah, on the other hand, didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t even listen, reciting her memorized lines instead. I couldn’t forgive her for that. It’s been nearly 30 years since I first heard those words, and I’m still angry, though no longer at her.

With the benefit of some growing up and some time spent writing fiction, I realize it isn’t really her fault. The movie was never set up to let her consider the question. Jareth’s love was never going to be more than the framing story, the necessary element to set the plot in motion, the final obstacle for Sarah to conquer. That doesn’t make me any less angry that the offer was made and thrown away.

Let me say right now that I don’t think she should have accepted the bargain—probably. Even without goblins, there’s a lot to consider in that statement. What kind of fear are we talking about? Does it have to be real, or does everyone have their roles to play? What do you want me to do, and what are you willing to do for me?

When I was Sarah’s age, I’d have given a lot for a movie that took my sexuality as seriously as it took my escapism and my fear. I’d had sex before watching Labyrinth, and I’d been grappling with desire and figuring out what I wanted in a partner for years before that. I was slightly precocious, but I wasn’t alone by any means. Where were the movies for teenaged girls like me?

It wasn’t that there was no media aimed at my adolescent sexuality. I was part of MTV’s target market, and no one really blinked an eye when I saw Prince’s Purple Rain concert shortly after turning 13, even though it was decided I needed a chaperon. Eighties pop was delightfully full of “unusual” options for sexualized performers and lyrics, presented with a variety of levels of awareness that some of the pretty candy was poisoned. Not to mention all the “romantic” male singers of the 70s who had been guest performers on my children’s shows even earlier.

There were a handful of books as well, but the ones with protagonists near my age talking frankly about sex were mostly “issue” books. “Oh! Look at the trouble that comes when this young teenaged girl feels and expresses and maybe even follows through on her desire!” No. Just no.

Movies were slightly better, to the extent girls my age were represented in them at all. If you were a character played by Molly Ringwald, you could experience a polite modicum of embarrassed lust. If you were played by Brooke Shields, you could even do something about it. We just weren’t supposed to watch it.

Then there was this movie that put David Bowie in a wig and makeup and tights. Those tights. Then it gave him pining songs to sing in his best feelings voice and orbs to twirl so he looked delightfully dexterous. And he just kept offering himself to us our through our protagonist proxy, both in abstract form and in his own person.

Then we didn’t get to think about what any of that meant and make up our own minds.

I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.

There are very good reasons to doubt bargains like this one. This is the promise of chivalry, of romance under patriarchy, of so much fantasy canon set in that vastly imaginative alternative past when “Men were men, and women were women.” Just let me make all the decisions, it says, because I will always make the decisions that are best for you.

Sometimes it’s even an honest bargain. Not always, of course, because unrepentant abusers will use whatever story will get the job done, but sometimes. It may even be true that most of the time, that promise is made in naive earnest.

It’s in the delivery this kind of dynamic more often goes to hell. It isn’t impossible to build a healthy relationship based on the generous rewarding of subservience, but it takes negotiation and work. It also usually requires some time off. Nor would we expect it be any other way.

Pleasing a partner 100 percent of the time is impossible. Making the extravagant promise at the heart of these romantic deals is much simpler than keeping it, which is what makes this a fantasy to begin with. Chivalry here comes in goblin form because mundane humanity is so poor at it.

Real people are cranky, whimsical, moody, and contrary. You can promise to always please me, to fulfill my every desire, but what happens on the days when I want nothing more than to be cantankerous? Those happen. (That distant sound you hear is the nodding of everyone who’s known me well over the course of my lifetime. Once again, I am not unique in this.)

That’s when it becomes impossible to uphold this particular bargain on either side. A relationship negotiated around smaller exchanges can survive human vagaries. Jareth’s inhuman promise has no room for failure. The stakes are too high. If I am to get what I desire, you cannot rule me. Neither door offers us a path out of this logic puzzle.

Then, all too often, the deal becomes “You promised to let me rule you, so you must want what I tell you to want,” which is a very poor bargain. We humans are terrible at giving up our power, particularly when everything around us tells us it should belong to us.

Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken; I took him. You cowered before me; I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous?

Jareth isn’t human, however, though he rules a kingdom with no apparent challenges to his power. Would a goblin king be any more true to his love and his promises?

Strangely enough, he might, for all he is a goblin and a king. Though Jareth is the villain of Labyrinth, everything in the movie tells us he’d do anything to give Sarah everything she wants.

When she says, “But what no one knew is that the king of the goblins had fallen in love with the girl,” she’s telling us a true story. The goblins are real and listening. The words work. Jareth is in love with her.

When Sarah eats the peach and forgets her quest, Jareth releases a crystal to collect her, and we’re given a glimpse into his dreams. Even there, he waits. He watches. He doesn’t reveal himself until we are all well past certain that she’s looking for him. Even then, he doesn’t hold her against her will. When his court proves too intimidating, he lets her flee. No one tries to stop her.

Only when Sarah is in the heart of his castle, when she’s won her way to Toby and has only to remember the rest of the spell, does Jareth even tell Sarah that he wants her love. Having read the book, she must know how he feels about her, but he doesn’t remind her until she has the power to say “No” and still leave with the object of her quest.

Sarah got the babe. She got new friends, who happened to be Jareth’s subjects, who happened to be the right goblins in the right places to get her through the labyrinth. She got the adventure she wanted more than anything in her mundane world. Jareth did, in fact, give her everything she wanted. Then he absented himself, because what she wanted wasn’t him.

Sarah could see true friendship even in unlikely places. Why not love?

Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

We were never given the chance to properly weigh that decision, to decide what we trusted. We didn’t get to figure out what we wanted and what it could cost us. We didn’t get to reconsider everything we knew about that journey in light of Jareth’s assertion that he was only serving Sarah’s dream. We didn’t get to wonder whether what the book told us we wanted was only a tiny portion of the choices available to us.

Instead, we were given just the barest outline of possibility before Sarah broke the spell by rote.

Maybe I should love that Sarah was a young woman intent on her own goals. Maybe I should be happy that no man or goblin or fantastic creature with dexterous hands and tight tights was going to get in her way. But I didn’t and I wasn’t.

It isn’t that I think Sarah should have accepted the goblin king’s offer. He was still a goblin and a king, and that’s still a difficult arrangement to make work. There were plenty of good reasons to turn him down. “Because this is how the story ends,” however, wasn’t one of them.

If nothing else, that isn’t how the story ends for many of us. Mere common boys offer us worse bargains all the time, and we take them not because they’re good but because our goals include sex. We want what we want and whom, and we may accept a poor offer when it gives us part of what we desire. Those boys do have power by virtue of having what we want and owning the territory we must cross to get it.

Labyrinth came so close to dealing with this truth, then refused to look it in the face. It gave us a proxy in Sarah, who was finally ready to grow up after learning that her fantasy wasn’t as safe and comfortable as she thought, then had her retreat into her book rather than deal with this adult reality. It let her deal with betrayal and trust and self–sufficiency. It let her learn to make the most of a world that wasn’t fair. Then it flinched at sex.

I might accept that it had to in order to stay a children’s movie, but it teased before it flinched.

What did I want from Sarah, if not acceptance of Jareth’s offer? I wanted her to listen and think about it as hard as she thought about any of the puzzles in the labyrinth. I wanted her to look at Jareth and realize that, once again, he was pushing her to see a world more complicated than the one she’d been clinging to.

After that, I would have been happy with any answer she wanted to give. I could have accepted “I can’t trust you,” “But I don’t know what I want,” or even “I promised I would take care of Toby.” None of them might have been my answer, but they are answers.

Today, after 30 years of dissatisfaction, I think what I most wanted Sarah to say is “In a year or two, come meet me on neutral ground. No hostages or quests, no slaves or gifts, no promises made. We can start over, talk, and if you like, you can ask me again at the end. But for now, you have no power over me.”

It isn’t what teenaged me would have answered, but I wish someone had told me it was possible 30 years ago. That would have been magic like no other movie had ever offered me.


Stephanie Zvan

Stephanie Zvan is a Minneapolis–based writer and activist. She is part of a mysterious feminist cabal that openly tells anyone who listens that they’re here to make their communities more open and welcoming to everyone who’s willing to share. She’s been published from CarnalNation to the Ada Initiative’s blog to Nature Futures. When she’s at home, you can find her at Almost Diamonds on The Orbit.

One Response to “In the Hands of the Goblin King”

  1. itsapanda

    Love it. Not sure I fully follow the argument but anything that identifies my teenage love for Jareth, and dissatisfaction that Sarah doesn’t follow up on it, is cool by me.

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