With a recent re-re-(put “re” like, fifteen more times here) watching of Labyrinth, I’ve come to two finite conclusions: I’m not done talking about fairies, and Labyrinth is still eons better than Legend. While there was a lot that I didn’t like about Legend, I wasn’t able to cover it all in a concise manner. Yet here we are again, and I find myself with the time to discuss Legend’s atrocious portrayal of the fae in comparison to Labyrinth’s—the latter of which seems to keep closer to the actual lore surrounding the fae instead of discounting it entirely.
It could be that “fae” aren’t the first thing you think of when Labyrinth is brought up. Indeed, in popular culture, fairies are shown as cute or even beautiful in regards to our societal standards, and most of the inhabitants of the Labyrinth are bizarre, non-nonsensical, ugly, or downright threatening. Hell, even Jareth, beautiful man that he is, is called the “Goblin King” rather than the fairy king. Yet, despite common perception, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. As it turns out, goblins are a type of fae, and have the same traits and rules as much as any winged wish granter. The only difference seems to be that while fairies have an ethereal sort of beauty attached to them, goblins (or trolls, or kobolds, or whatever you may call them) are equated with ugliness—given the track records of all other forms of media, it’s not really surprising that goblins and their ilk have been painted in a more negative light in falling out of this beauty standard. So when Sarah is dealing with Hoggle, Jareth, and all the other fantastical creatures in the Labyrinth, it’s just about the same as Jack dealing with Gump and the other magical creatures of the world of Legend. In terms of mythology, interpretations on the fae are about as varied as vampires or werewolves. So the issue here isn’t that these movies have different interpretations of the fae, it’s that Legend completely ignores the skeleton that the meat of lore can be built around. And how is this mistake manifested? By inferred intelligence.
I’ll level with you: since fairies aren’t really agreed upon as an actual thing that exists compared to, say, various gods and goddesses, finding reliable information about them consists of deciding that information that stays the same between several sites is probably more correct than one or two unique snippets here and there. In shorter terms: there aren’t as many people in fae-ology as there are in theology. From what I have found, though, there are several things to keep in mind when writing fae. Additionally, this “inferred intelligence” I brought up applies to both the players in the story (fae and humans) and to those in the audience.
First of all, “inferred intelligence” implies a general knowledge among the magical creatures of a canon to follow their own rules and logic. Taking a look at some of the general rules for interacting with fae creatures, there are already some issues that pop up in my mind. One of the most important things about the fae is that their morality is gray. Given this, Legend does a huge disservice by making their fae black and white: the creatures that oppose the hero are evil and never shown as intelligent, cunning beings, and the creatures that go along with the hero are good and also beautiful and clever. However, since the “good” fae side with the hero at all times, they end up breaking their own rules of conduct. I mentioned in my review of Legend that the fairy Oona made Jack promise not to tell anyone about her human form, which he does later on. To the fae, their word and the words of others are their bond. By Jack breaking his promise, he is not only being incredibly rude, but also showing that he is a fraud and unworthy of her help as a fae. And despite her own claims that she wouldn’t stand it if he told, she’s still there at his side afterward because she is “good”.
The same goes for the winged elf Gump. When he meets Jack, he accosts him with a trial because it was his fault the world was plunged into eternal Winter. His goal is to punish Jack for what he’s done, but quickly his clever word game trial is turned into a revelation that Jack is the “chosen one”. A fae would not do this, at least not without some symbol that Jack was the best human that ever lived—though since he already took another human into the most sacred parts of the forest (something he knew he wasn’t supposed to do), that chance is already pretty much shot. Compare this to the fae creatures in Labyrinth. Sarah is perceived as rude and ungrateful; as such the fae get a kick out of teasing her more, and her time in the Labyrinth is made more stressful. By the same token, no one in the Labyrinth is portrayed as good or evil. The fae that help Sarah do so because she won their trust, the fae that don’t help her are essentially protecting their homes and serving their king. Sure, Jareth is an asshole, but an evil mastermind? No. He lays out the rules for Sarah. Not even Jareth breaks his own rules except when Sarah doesn’t give him the respect that he is due—in his eyes.
While magic and magical creatures in media can be hand-waved to an extent, this inferred intelligence also affects the narrative and the audience. Now, what I mean by inferred intelligence is the intelligence the creators assume a subject to have. In the previous paragraph it was in regards to the characters: how well can the characters grasp their own rules and function. Here, it’s how much can the audience understand these rules and functions; how much will the narrative allow the audience to connect the dots on their own. Legend does not let the audience do this at all. By making the morality a strict good versus evil dichotomy, the magic becomes irrelevant insofar as a key becomes irrelevant if there’s already an open door. Good is going to win, so no matter what the fae do it has no narrative purpose outside of keeping that metaphorical door open. If that is achieved, then there are no set of rules by which the fae have to keep to: there is no depth. This hinders the audience because it’s presenting them with a “this is just how it is” situation, rather than asking them to form their own thoughts on the situation, or engaging them in a deeper sense about why the fae are even there in the first place.
Additionally, it hurts all the characters: since there is nothing to overcome on an emotional basis, none of the characters have a character arc, and thus don’t grow at all during the hero’s journey. Conversely, while functionally the audience knows in Labyrinth that Sarah is going to get her brother back, the stakes are still very real. This is due to the fact that the fae actually follow their rules, the audience knows what said rules are, and Sarah hasn’t effectively managed to overcome them when faced with the Goblin King. The audience has been allowed to see these rules in action and has also been allowed to think about them on a deeper level—the goblins in the city must not have magic, so this is why they use mechs; the word of the fae is the strongest thing they have, so Sir Didimus can’t let Sarah cross the bridge without his permission, and Hoggle just continuously feels like shit because he keeps lying (making his self-worth low enough that Jareth can manipulate him, continuing the cycle). Because of these stakes all of the main characters also have a character arc, and grow from their experiences.
While fairies and fae have a certain aesthetic appeal to them, an author can’t merely put them in a story just to have a magical creature. There is a lore surrounding them that must be taken into consideration. Magic and motive may change from series to series, but one thing should never change: gray morality. Even in the Tinkerbell movies, by portraying the fae with human nature, Disney is still giving them a function that may not always be good, and may not always be bad. When authors distill that morality into a tool for the hero to use without any consequences though, it ends up hurting more than the fae, but disrupts the entire narrative itself. Suddenly, the fae no longer understand their own rules. Suddenly the audience’s inferred intelligence is called into question. It’s true that humans may never entirely understand the fae as a whole, but the fae have to at least understand themselves. Through that, the audience and in-canon humans can draw their own conclusions which, hopefully, will end up being as gray as the fae’s own morality. Just how it should be.