Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth

There was no intention on my part to read two dystopian novels at the same time.  I was already in motion to read 1984 – an embarrassingly long-overdue attempt – when I heard a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth was to be released in July.  I got in the library line quickly (these things go like hot cakes), and soon, with del Toro/Funke’s fantasy horror in one hand and Orwell’s bleak dystopia in the other, made the abrupt leap from “light summer fluff” to “not-sure-if-I’ll-sleep-tonight bedtime stories.”

So… What Were You Thinking!?

1984 requires little introduction.  In Western culture, at least, terms such as Big Brother and doublethink flavor our vocabulary as glib reminders that a British author back in 1948 foretold the existence of increasingly powerful, monolithic, and tech-savvy governments.  We see signs of it everywhere today, from more innocuous instruments such as traffic cameras to the disturbing birth of China’s Social Credit System.  At this point, it is hard to say if the book is still futuristic.

Pan’s Labyrinth, marketed as a dark Alice in Wonderland with a historical backdrop, is a story that’s long piqued my interest. I had some vague awareness of the movie release in 2006, but since I’m highly squeamish and generally avoid R-rated films, it was never a film I had an overwhelming desire to try.  In my college Spanish course, we saw the introduction to the film, with subtitles, and once again, I was curious about the story.  The novelization by YA author Cornelia Funke and the movie’s director, Guillermo del Toro, presented the perfect chance to experience the story without watching gruesome reenactments on the screen.

Battle of the Two Totalitarian States

As mentioned, the settings of both these novels are as bleak as you can imagine.  1984 is Orwell’s picture of England under a North Korean-esque dictatorship, where everyone is trained to march in time to the Party’s tune and anyone who even breathes differently is liquidated and blotted out from history.  Pan’s Labyrinth is set in real-world Franco’s Spain (not unlike Hitler’s Germany, for those unfamiliar with 20th-century Spanish history).  In both novels, the sense of being watched, of being victim to your overlords’ whims and paranoia, and finding a double meaning in the few close relationships you have, overwhelm the reader with a claustrophobic dread that evil is winning and may always win.

I do not enjoy horror for the sake of horror, so if I read a book with violence in it, I look for some deeper meaning to make it worth my time.  I have read a few dystopian works in the past few years – in particular, Lord of the World, We, and Lord of the Flies – and have developed some personal criteria for this genre:

  1. Accuracy to logic and historical or contemporary precedence.  There must be some realism for me to take it seriously.
  2. Depictions of violence which are purposeful (to teach a lesson, to strengthen the character, or as a necessary part of the plot), not gratuitous or purely sensational.
  3. The presence or possibility of salvation, either physical or metaphysical. (My Christian background makes this necessary.)

I was impressed by the writing in both books but disappointed when it came to a serious evaluation of their content, message, and characterizations.  Pan’s Labyrinth held a slight edge (1.5 stars) over 1984 (1 star), so I’ll start by going into that one in a bit more detail.

The Lost Girl and El Capitán

There are two stories going on in Pan’s Labyrinth.  One is the quest of the Faun to find the Underworld King’s long-lost daughter, who vanished many years ago following her fatal curiosity about the over-world.  Second is the plight of poor Ofelia, a bookish child whose widowed mother Carmen marries Captain Vidal, the father of her forthcoming son and one of the most sadistic officers serving under General Franco.  Carmen’s naive hope is that love will conquer all and that Vidal will accept Ofelia as his daughter.  Ofelia knows better…knows in fact that Vidal is a heartless “Wolf,” just like the monsters in the stories she reads.  The Faun gives Ofelia a chance to escape the terrible life awaiting her, but she must do everything he says and face other, less human monsters in the forest.

Blood, blood, blood, and more blood.  Amazon tells me this book is for grades 6-9, but I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me would have been properly traumatized by the tortures and killings that Vidal relishes in inflicting.  The authors are none too subtle about the sanguine imagery, and at times the references to “blood red” become almost laughable in their frequency.  Other brutalities, such as rape and cannibalism, are alluded to if not depicted, though the authors seem to want you to know they’re coming close to it, over and over again. I have read books about North Korea which treat similar subjects in a more restrained manner.  The way violence was depicted here really felt gratuitous.

There is plenty of magic going on, though the why’s and the how’s are never made quite clear.  You just have to accept what the Faun says.  I find this frustrating, perhaps because I’m used to the magic of Lewis’s Narnia, which is fairly clear-cut and almost logical, or even the supernatural elements in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which carry some sense of purpose and structure.  I had a fair amount of questions by the end of the book which I suppose can never be answered, because other reviewers say the movie and the book are nearly identical in plot.

I will say, I was sympathetic to Ofelia, her friend Mercedes, and Mercedes’s brother Pedro.  I cried a couple of times because the plot was just one bad thing after another, and it is hard to watch a child suffer.  Even the ending, which is vaguely “happy,” seemed cruel.  That is the theme of the book: cruelty is pervasive and there is nobody on earth or in Heaven to help you; suicide is mentioned a couple of times as an escape.  I don’t doubt this as an accurate portrayal of how some people feel in those kinds of situations.  But is that really the whole picture?  If it is, that means evil always wins, and I can’t believe that.

Overall, I felt the concept and protagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth were strong, but the writing and storyline did not hold up for me.  I did appreciate the authors’ ability to create a fairytale-like story with atmosphere and a likeable protagonist.  It was more than I could say for 1984… that review will be coming soon.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan
Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan – Photo by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan – immortal, magical, and forever lonely – has his origins in a novella called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).  This little story predates the more famous novel Peter and Wendy by some years (the latter I reviewed in my latest podcast episode “Getting Older with Peter Pan“).  Like his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan was both a real-life figure and a figment of imagination, a character who would haunt his author for decades.  There are glimpses of this bittersweet legacy in Kensington Gardens, itself an excerpt of a larger novel, The Little White Bird.  Through this iterative story development, one easily senses J. M. Barrie‘s personal connection to the Peter Pan mythos.

The tale begins with an anonymous father-figure and a boy named David who take walks in London’s famous Kensington Gardens.  The narrative drifts from a conversational discussion of the Gardens (and how children like to play there) to the two “remembering” the time Peter Pan first came to live there.  Like all great oral traditions, “Peter Pan” starts as a story that David and the narrator make-believe, later becoming a fully fledged legend in the vein of Robin Hood – someone you are not quite sure is fictional. 

Kensington Gardens in the winter – Photo by Sandpiper

Apart from the day he left his mother for life as a bird-child, Peter Pan’s most momentous day is when Maimie Mannering gets stuck in Kensington Gardens after “Lock-Out.”  Both somewhere under six years old, Maimie is scarcely older than Peter, but she knows far more about the outside world than he does.  Maimie is the prototype for Wendy, and like Wendy she has a great fascination with fairies, who don’t immediately return the courtesy.  Peter, in any case, loves Maimie and asks her to stay with him in the Gardens forever.

She had shut her eyes tight and glued them with passionate tears. When she opened them something very cold ran up her legs and up her arms and dropped into her heart. It was the stillness of the Gardens.

Kensington Gardens is a strange medley of themes.  On the one hand, the conversational tone takes on the air of folklore and the making of a classic fairytale.  On the other, there is all of the poignancy and ghostlike qualities of Peter and Wendy without nearly as much of the humor.  Plotwise, the two stories overlap, but they are essentially different, because one shows us Peter in his “prime” – leader of a gang of boys – and the other is Peter in his babyhood, quite literally a young child and therefore needy.

Peter Pan Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw
Peter Pan and the crow – Arthur Rackham

Of the two stories, I would start with Kensington Gardens if the Victorian Gothic appeals to you (the ending is bizarrely morbid) or if you like the deeper nuances which come with such stories as The Jungle Book.  For those who prefer a lighter read, Peter and Wendy balances pathos with a vivid, if somewhat dated, sense of humor and breathtaking adventure.

She…Who Must Be Obeyed! – Episode 11

An ancient family heirloom – and a mother’s call for vengeance – sends young Leo Vincey and his adoptive father on a quest to find a mysterious sorceress, Ayesha, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.  In this episode, I review H. Rider Haggard’s She, a novel which influenced the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Sources / Further Reading:
How to Pronounce Ayesha? (Sci-Fi StackExchange discussion)
Biography of H. Rider Haggard
“The Annexation of the Transvaal” (The Spectator archives) – Haggard directly participated in this political event.
“Fawcett’s Deadly Idol”
Article on Percy Fawcett’s disappearance (The History Channel)
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann – My parents read and were fascinated by this nonfictional story of Percy Fawcett and his obsession with lost cities.  We also watched the movie by the same name, but it wasn’t very well done… skip it and go straight to the book!