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December, 2008 : Criticism:

Escaping into the Real

The Fantasy of Pan's Labyrinth

It remains the charge most frequently leveled against science fiction and fantasy: that these genres offer nothing but an irresponsible escapism, a way for their readers to avoid the grim truths of the real world. It is the same criticism against which J.R.R. Tolkien defended genre fiction in his 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories," but also the one that most relentlessly persists in the sphere of literary studies. Even the harshest of critics, however, would hesitate to describe Guillermo del Toro's much-lauded fantasy film Pan's Labyrinth as escapist or uninterested in reality. In fact, del Toro confronts this very issue of escapism as one of his central themes, and the horrors that inhabit both Ofelia's nightmarish fantasies and her "real life" in Francoist Spain serve to illustrate far more than the simplistic point that fantasy can have its darker side. Indeed, the darker side of the genre has never been in question: our oldest fairy tales are by far the most gruesome, and few works of fantasy fail to feature some struggle against the forces of evil. For Tolkien, the value of fantasy literature rested in what he termed the "eucatastrophe," the wondrous turn of events that results in the defeat of those evil forces and effects the salvation of the protagonist. Interestingly, del Toro's film could end with just such a eucatastrophe, or simply with an unqualified catastrophe. The ambivalent ending allows us to interpret Ofelia's death as her path to immortality in the Underground Realm—her forgotten homeland, where there are no lies or pain—or as just another tragedy, the senseless death of an innocent in a world full of such senseless deaths. That the film's conclusion presents us with this choice testifies to its greatest strength as a self-contained work of art, and also to the innovation it brings to the fantasy genre, as the film constantly questions the value and even the very nature of fantasy, forcing us to evaluate whether it is finally destructive or instructive, comforting or terrifying, worthless or invaluable. In the end, I think, it all comes down to whether you believe.

Towards the beginning of the movie, it is easy to label Ofelia's belief in her fantasy world as a form of escapism, a coping mechanism she adopts in the wake of several traumatic events: her father's death, her mother's remarriage, the Civil War itself, and the physical relocation with which the film begins. Certainly, her mother dismisses Ofelia's interest in fairies as such: "You're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense." In this almost over-familiar motherly chiding, we can see that, in at least one sense, the film appears to conform to the traditional "escapist" tale of a little girl who explores a magical realm of fairies; of course, in spite of some insinuations in the U.S. marketing campaign to the contrary, the film's intended audience is most decidedly not little girls who like fairies. We must ask why Ofelia's fantasy takes such terrifying turns, why the world into which she ostensibly escapes contains dangers of its own. The first solution to consider—and promptly discard—is that Ofelia's anxieties somehow bleed over into her futile attempts to escape the horrors of her life, with her genuine fears and stresses personified in her imagination as monsters. To resolve the question in this way would eliminate all trace of the fantastic from the film and demonstrate fantasy's ultimate failure to offer even the escape its critics so deride; thus, regardless of whether we interpret Ofelia's fantasy world as an escape, we must acknowledge that it still represents a different world: an alternative, no matter how sinister, to the mundane.

While Ofelia's fantasies arguably turn darker and darker as the film progresses, it is important to note that from the start there is nothing totally harmless about them. For instance, the animal Ofelia first identifies as a fairy is in fact a mantid, an insect notorious for its predatory nature. Moreover, even during Ofelia's initial encounter with the faun, he comes across as something rather different from the kind-hearted Mr. Tumnus with whom you might not mind your ten-year-old having a cup of tea. No great wonder then when Mercedes, a servant who has taken a liking to Ofelia, says that mother warned her "to be wary of fauns," these chthonic creatures that smell of earth, part tree and part mountain. Originally in Greco-Roman mythology, the faun, ever in pursuit of nymphs and maidens, symbolized rampant lust above all else, and, although del Toro has made his faun into an altogether different manner of beast, there remains something inherently sexually suggestive about him. As elsewhere in the film, this muffled sexual dimension amounts to only one of the many ways in which Ofelia's fantasies disturb; far more unsettling is the faun's deeper and deeper penetration into her private space. Eventually, Ofelia no longer must venture out to the labyrinth in order to see the faun, nor must she journey to a tree deep in the forest to enter a different world: all she need do to "escape" into the hall of the Pale Man is open a door within her own bedroom. Again, however we read the grotesque scene with the Pale Man, we must recognize that del Toro keeps its threatening atmosphere implicit in all of Ofelia's fantasies.

The Pale Man scene contains some of the most memorable moments in the film, both visually and viscerally, yet it is also among the most difficult to read. One of the early clues about how to interpret it comes when Ofelia shuts herself in the bathroom to study the blank pages of her book, anticipating the instructions for her second task. Instead of the expected enchanted script, a huge bloodstain begins to spread across the pages in a v-shaped pattern; although the sudden appearance of the blood presages her mother's vaginal hemorrhaging, its resonance with menarche for Ofelia is impossible to ignore. Let us recall here that the faun tells Ofelia that The Book of Crossroads "will show you your future." Whether or not we are to understand Ofelia's first menses as having happened recently, as happening off-screen during the film, or as not yet having happened by the time of her death, her position on the threshold of puberty retains significance. The title of The Book of the Crossroads further attests to its connection with liminality, and a crossroads traditionally represents not only a meeting of ways, but also a place for the practice of witchcraft and the burial of deviants. When Ofelia finally arrives in the chamber of the Pale Man, the murals there confirm for us that the scene entails the death of her childhood: the Pale Man is an eater of children, not adults. Furthermore, Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children obviously influenced the depiction of the Pale Man in his savagery towards the fairies; a fantastical being himself, the Pale Man is also somehow an eater or destroyer of fantasy. Because of its sexual connotations, I hesitate to use the somewhat clichéd phrase "loss of innocence" to describe what happens to Ofelia when she awakens the destroyer of children by consuming the forbidden grapes, and we need not read the scene overly sexually in order to prove its connection with a more generalized loss of innocence: that is, the entrance into puberty and the beginnings of adulthood.

Ofelia does experience a temporary "death of fantasy" as a result of her brush with the Pale Man, after the faun, furious at her disobedience, emphatically tells her, "You will never see us again." If we suspend judgment for now on the meaning of the film's final scene and the faun's beneficent place in it, his motivations throughout the film bear examining; in addition to asking Ofelia to risk her life several times, the faun demands blood and yet more blood of her. We see the faun at his most dubious in his enigmatic gift of the mandrake, a poisonous variety of nightshade that is, as D.H. Lawrence memorably describes it, a "vegetable of ill omen." (1) That the mandrake feeds on blood underscores the potentially ominous nature of the root, and its appearances in folklore and literature most often emphasize not its curative properties, but the power of its scream to bring death. It is perhaps worth noting that all of the characters in close enough proximity to hear the cries of the burning mandrake—Captain Vidal, Ofelia, and her mother—do die in the film. The film's sequence of events even causally attributes Ofelia's mother's death to the last mandrake scene, though we could account for the deterioration in her health alternately as an effect of the evil curse of the mandrake, or of her physical and emotional exertion in the scene, or of the destruction of the magic root that was sustaining her. Let us posit this latter possibility: we could then square the mandrake with a conception of the faun's ultimately benevolent motivations; perhaps he behaves cruelly or callously towards Ofelia only in order to ensure that she passes all the necessary tests to enter the Underground Realm. Even so, we could not call the faun unequivocally "good": could he perhaps have wanted her mother to die in order to persuade her more easily to abandon her mortal life? After all, according to the faun, her real mother was the moon. It is also possible to interpret the faun as some Protean manifestation of Ofelia's own mind, a being that behaves according to her changing circumstances or the changing ways she herself projects her fantasies. But it is not my object here to untangle the extent to which the details of Ofelia's fantasy world touch on her reality, her own subconscious, or her active imagination. To do so could yield interesting results, but it does not bear on our inquiry into escapism.

What is important for our question is that the ambiguity of the faun's motivations in some sense distinguishes Ofelia's fantasy world as one of more moral complexity than del Toro's "realistic" depiction of mid-twentieth-century Spain, which, we should note, very much resembles a number of respected non-fantasy novels and films that glorify freedom fighters. These kinds of stories, like the realistic plotline in Pan's Labyrinth, tend to reduce complex issues to the simplistic binary of good and evil. Indeed, Captain Vidal's villainy almost approaches the level of caricature: although endowed with an idiosyncratic obsession with time and his own twisted conception of honor, he feels such little remorse after killing innocent men that he would dine on the same rabbits that proved their innocence. In short, there is little question that the Captain embodies pure evil, whereas the rebels are the unquestioned "good guys." In a way, del Toro depicts their conflict as seen by the eyes of a child, or, more precisely, in the terms of a fairy tale; the entire project of Pan's Labyrinth strives to illustrate that these two are not the same. Yet the film's ambiguous ending complicates the standard fantasy plot in which the forces of good triumph over evil: not only is the fate of Ofelia uncertain, but the victory of the rebels is likely to be very short-lived. We must remember that, as the doctor had warned the rebels, even if they managed to kill Vidal, another would come to replace him, and another; Franco, of course, would continue to hold power over thirty years after the events of the film.

In fact, the film never reveals what happens to Mercedes and her brother, never hints that perhaps they live happily ever after in a villa in the south of France. What it does tell us—albeit not uncontroversially—is what happens to Ofelia. We must now address the question we have put off again and again: does Ofelia "really die" at the end? There are numerous ways to answer this question in the affirmative without necessarily turning the vision of eucatastrophe del Toro offers us into a mundane tragedy. One way is theological or metaphysical, and another more moral or political. For instance, the possible symbolism of the Underground Realm as a Hades or some form of the afterlife is obvious, but the relationship between the possible Christian readings of Ofelia's transcendent death and del Toro's Catholic background must remain a topic for another study. On a less strictly theological level, however, the beauty of the fantasy world Ofelia inhabits in the film's final moments invites comparison with the culminating moment in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which Tolstoy writes, "In place of death there was light."(2) Ofelia's last thoughts contain just such a moment of eternal resolution and beauty: the deaths of her parents finally make sense, the motivations of the Faun finally make sense, her own choices in life finally all make sense, all were right, and all is right. Is such an eternal moment the way to achieve blissful immortality in death?

Since we have taken up the question of immortality, we might recall the fable Ofelia tells her unborn brother, in which pain deters men from ever obtaining the magical flower that lies within their grasp: "Men talked amongst themselves about their fear of death, and pain, but never about the promise of eternal life." No one in the story ever acquires the rose of immortality, not because they all escape into daydreams and fancies, but because the very harshness of reality blinds them to the possibility of ever achieving such a fantastic goal. A "moral" for Ofelia's brief tale might suggest that fantasy, as a function of the imagination, is essential to any figuring forth of a new reality. A fantasy or a work of speculative fiction may indeed recognize that the world is a cruel place, as Ofelia's mother tells her she must learn, but it may also refuse to accept that its cruelties must continue in the same fashion. The death or absence of fantasy, then, represents a base submission to the exigencies of the world, an act of absolute surrender.

The very real rebels in Pan's Labyrinth fight for a very real cause in a very real world, yet the conception of fantasy outlined above remains central to their enterprise. Although the doctor urges Mercedes' brother to cross the border with his men and flee Franco's regime rather than resisting it, the rebels reject a literal "escape" and instead adhere to their imagined ideals. The doctor's eventual heroic act of disobedience to Vidal exemplifies this alternative definition of "escape" in fantasy, an escape from the imposed restrictions of a tyrannous reality. Del Toro's desire to reconfigure the concepts of escape and escapism also makes itself evident in the prologue of the film, in which the narrator explains that the princess escaped from the Underground Realm to enter the real world. This reversal, in which an individual escapes into rather than from reality, foreshadows the way in which del Toro will call into question the standard dismissal of fantasy as escapist. In fact, the character that is most dismissive of Ofelia's fairy tales, her mother, is also the character who offers the least resistance to Captain Vidal's oppression, performing the ultimate act of submission in marrying him. When Ofelia asks her second mother figure, Mercedes, if she believes in fairies, Mercedes replies in the negative, yet qualifies her disbelief: "But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don't believe anymore." In these words, Mercedes appears to be claiming that she has lost her beliefs or her faith, but her courageous actions bear witness to what she very much continues to believe in: the rightness of the cause and her contributions to it. In a way, the rebels' great "fantasy" of regaining their country and their freedom, and their belief in that struggle, remains the most inspiring ideal in the film, regardless of the fate of their souls. For, as awful as it seems, we must imagine Mercedes and all her companions as very likely dying for their beliefs, perhaps only a month or two after the events of the film. Nevertheless, we should view their deaths in the service of that ideal as no less golden than Ofelia's return to the Underground Realm, and thus their own collective end only represents a tragedy if we refuse to share their vision.

Although a film well within the bounds of the genre, Pan's Labyrinth grapples with the question of whether fantasy, fantasies, and the fantastic may lead only to escapism and a denial of reality. Of course, del Toro provides a much more sensitive and intelligent treatment of the issue than the detractors of speculative fiction, who rarely read widely in it. The film cautions against the dangers of fantasy as escapism even as it finally illustrates that a "denial of reality" can be a political or moral denial of what is merely an accepted reality. The desire to escape per se from such a reality is not inherently escapist in the critical sense of the term. Del Toro invites us to consider the role of fantasy in the broader category of idealism, and his justification for the value of fantasy rests, much like Tolkien's, in its ability to provide alternative worlds or paradigms that humans may pursue within reality: fantasy may liberate, not simply isolate. Moreover, this kind of justification of fantasy can extend to a justification of narrative more generally: when all fiction is really just a fantasy after all, what then is the use of fiction? The elevation of realism in contemporary fiction cannot disguise the fictionality common to all mimetic works, not simply those with fairies or happy endings. Ultimately, how we choose to interpret the ending of Pan's Labyrinth does not revolve around a question of whether we think Ofelia "really dies," or how we suppose del Toro intended us to take the "truth" of her fantasies. Rather, it is a question of whether we have faith in the constructive, even salvific power of human imagination and creativity. And substitute for "creativity" here "fantasy film and literature" or "narrative fiction" or simply "art."

In the end, it all comes down to whether you believe.


  1. Symonds, John. The King of the Shadow Realm. London: Gerald Duckworth and Company, 1989. 444.

  2. Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Trans. Rosemary Edmonds. London: Penguin Books, 1960. 160.

Copyright © 2008, Timothy S. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About T. S. Miller

T. S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. (Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him.) He has recently begun to review for Strange Horizons, and a longer article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.


Dec 3, 03:53 by IROSF
Thoughts on the movie or this article can go here.

Article can be found here.
Dec 3, 15:13 by Jon Skovron
This is a wonderful and well articulated essay of what I consider to be a very important movie. Awesome!
Dec 8, 19:33 by Robert Urell
Not to be negative, but del Toro ripped off a better film called THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. That film was made when Spain still grappled with the ghost of fascism and the horrors of the Civil War.
Dec 8, 20:21 by Bluejack
Damn. Someone else always gets there first.

Was this "rip-off" a remake, or an adaptation, or a reuse of themes? Would you care to comment more on the relationship between Escaping into the Real and the Spirit of the Beehive?

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