Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Teens, Mazes, and Power- A Tribute to David Bowie

“Every thing I’ve done, I’ve done for you. I move the stars for no one.”
– Jareth The Goblin King

As the Spring 2016 semester approached, drawing winter break to its end, the world was hit with sad news about the death of David Bowie. So as many of us who grew up watching Jim Hansen’s Labyrinth probably did, the NCSCL sat down to watch this children’s classic honoring fond memories of Bowie in tight pants surround by some cool puppets. But while many might find moments of blissful nostalgia rewatching this movie, one children’s lit scholar started thinking about subtle idiosyncrasies that resonate within popular YA literature movies released this winter season also contain.

To begin, the Labyrinth was originally written by director Jim Henson with assistance from a Canadian children’s poet and writer, Dennis Lee. Jim Henson is know commonly to have worked with George Lucas, and of course, the newest Star Wars movie finally came to the big screen after ten whole years. Coincidentally, Labyrinth became a novel by A. C. H.Smith that came from the movie adaptation in 1987, but Lucas’s A New Hope had already fed curious fans with its earlier novelization in 1976.  Therefore, movies about epic and fantastical adventure must go hand in hand.

Sarah: Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay home with the baby. And the baby was a spoiled child, and wanted everything to himself, and the young girl was practically a slave. But what no one knew is that the king of the goblins had fallen in love with the the girl, and he had given her certain powers. So one night, when the baby had been particularly cruel to her, she called on the goblins for help!
Goblin: [inside the closet] Listen!
Sarah: "Say your right words," the goblins said, "and we'll take the baby to the castle, and you will be free!" But the girl knew, that the Goblin King would keep the baby in his castle forever and ever and ever, and turn it into a goblin! And so the girl suffered in silence. Until one day, when she was tired from a day of housework, and she was hurt by the harsh words of her stepmother, and she could no longer stand it...

Now, of course, David Bowie never played in Star Wars, but there is surely a connection between these movies that go further than the directors who had worked closely with one another for many years. Labyrinth begins with the tale of a bored teen-age girl, who the audience is introduced to as a complainer and whiner about her current living situation. She thinks to stories she has read about the mystical goblin king and wishes to be saved—then poof, her brother is stolen and the adventure begins. This sounds similar to Luke Skywalker, who is originally introduced as bored young man on a desert farm looking for adventure, but like Sarah when she gets her wish, Luke discredits his call to adventure when it comes his way. The moral of these stories work together, proving that bored teens want adventure, but the adventure is a fantasy and when hard work comes as a price that must be paid to participate in the adventure, it always begins with more complaining until responsibility is accepted.

Sarah: That's not fair!
Jareth: You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is?

Next it would seem that the labyrinth structure is one that is also familiar within current YA literature. More obviously, The Maze Runner Series introduces a main teen protagonist who maybe was bored, but we will never know because he is thrust into an adventure from the start—a place where a bunch of (bored) unsupervised teens are stuck living on their own, waiting for new members to join monthly sent by an unknown entity, until the main character Thomas no longer wants to be contained and micromanaged and so escapes through a deadly maze. Like this maze, The Hunger Games series also introduces a maze element to the mix with the arena structure that the Hunger Games takes place in. This area is set up with a number of booby-traps that work against the individuals stuck inside—like Bowie’s labyrinth, it works to keep anyone from making it back to the center where something needed awaits. For Katniss, it was medical supplies and more weapons, and for Sarah, it was her baby brother—both things to help them return home. And while both The Hunger Games series and The Maze Runner series perpetuate a contemporary dystopian storyline, it displays teens working through a maze, focused on their own survival, and ultimately finding that physically escaping the labyrinth might be real but it’s true escape is a fantasy. The maze-esque qualities found in the Goblin King’s fortress demonstrate that there is no escaping the maze and that there will always be parts of the labyrinth that follow those who tread through its walls.

Hoggle: This is an oubliette, labyrinth's full of 'em.
Sarah: Really. I didn't know that.
Hoggle: Oh don't act so smart. You don't even know what an oubliette is.
Sarah: Do you?
Hoggle: Yes. It's a place you put people... to forget about 'em!

So then we get to power as the essence of what these young adults are constantly fighting against—this ultimate structure forces a combat between the character and unperceivable situations that always provide valuable lessons—a force of sorts that holds a moralistic uplifting value at the end. Within the attempts to resist these power structures or dark forces that contain the young adult, a fantasy prevails within each of their minds that adventure begets a state of freedom, and yet both freedom and adventure at the end usually come with a very negative twist. Once Jared the Goblin King is defeated by Sarah, he returns in an owl state to perch outside her window, watching her as the movie ends. Katniss is still in a world governed by people and power structures, haunted by the memories of the death of so many she loved, just like Luke is haunted by the responsibility of restoring balance and his inability to save his father. Call it interpellation, panopticon structures, or the spectacle’s evolution, but these stories demonstrate a presence of freedom within the young adult’s imagination that begins with battling overpowering and dominating social forces in a labyrinth but one that is only hosted by the mind because it is a fantasy—one that we can only continue to learn from.

Sarah: Ow! It bit me!
Hoggle: What'd you expect fairies to do?
Sarah: I thought they did nice things, like... like granting wishes.
Hoggle: Shows what *you* know, don't it?

Bowie’s character Jareth the Goblin King is a reminder of our desires to free ourselves from displeasure and how, because things aren’t as they seem, the maze will always lead us right back to the beginning.

The Wiseman: Quite often, young lady, it seems like we're not getting anywhere, when in fact...
The Hat: We are!
The Wiseman: ...we are.