Reviewed: Pan’s Labyrinth

I’m a fan of labyrinths. I’ve walked through only a few of the more symbolic kind, but I like the idea that there could be a piece of geography deliberately designed for me to get lost in. I look forward to visiting several in my lifetime and, I hope, finding my way out again. I’m certainly well experienced with a number of unintentional labyrinths, such as the Hilton Rye Town, of Rye Brook, NY, and the streets of Atlanta, girdled by the circular dimensional rift that is I-285, around which it is possible to do laps (refueling two or three times even) in the assumption that you’re actually going somewhere.

Keep in mind that a true labyrinth is not just a maze. A labyrinth is a maze that is life-threatening. A labyrinth has a guardian monster, and it’s impossible to have a labyrinth that doesn’t also involve the motif of people being sacrificed to the monster inside. Without those things you merely have a walk in the park that lasts a little longer than you had originally intended.

(I-285 certainly counts. It’s life-threatening. In fact, everyone who uses it is aware that it takes lives on a weekly if not daily basis. Everyone also hopes that someone else is going to be the blood sacrifice to the dark gods that keep the system running.)

Pan’s labyrinth is a fictional labyrinth, a species of labyrinth of which I am particularly a connoisseur. I’m close, personal friends of Theseus and the Minotaur in many of their incarnations. I read and reread Jorge Luis Borges, who is constitutionally unable to write a story that doesn’t use either the word or the metaphor. I’ve read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves more than twice. (For that book, it’s easy to lose count after two.) Certainly David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest counts, though he may not have had the concept of labyrinths in mind as he was writing. Ditto for a certain work from Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, and also a certain famous work from James Joyce. For visual media, there’s the movie Labyrinth from Jim Henson, and then a huge number less blatant that are too numerous to mention.

I should note that the name “Pan’s labyrinth” is a bit of a misnomer–but one I’ll continue using throughout the review just to avoid confusion. The title of the movie in which it features is El Laberinto del Fauno, or “The Labyrinth of the Faun”. There’s an association in Greek mythology between the horned nature god Pan and fauns and satyrs, but the faun featured is not any top-ranking god but an emissary of a fairy king. I’m guessing the name got tweaked because “stupid Americans” were thought more likely to recognize Pan as some guy with horns than “faun”, and the synonym “satyr”, while somewhat more recognizable to a US audience, conjures unsavory associations for an R-rated movie that features a prepubescent girl in the leading role.


Physical characteristics

As fictional labyrinths go it’s not as extensive as the one depicted in Jim Henson’s movie.

Pan’s labyrinth is constructed of stone, about ten feet high and maybe thirty or forty yards square. The stone is uniformly dark and coarse and crumbling a bit, another firm hint that it is a labyrinth of a certain age. The corridors in the maze are rectilinear and approximately ten feet wide, which is perfect for the typical Dungeons & Dragons® dungeon maps on the blue-lined grid paper that was ubiquitous back in grade school.

Pan’s labyrinth is spatially situated in the Spanish countryside and is temporally located a few years after the Spanish Civil War, in 1944. We are given the impression that the labyrinth is many hundreds of years older than that, but it is, after all, just a set in a movie.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the labyrinth is also located in a kind of fairy realm and seems to be the passage between there and the mundane world.


Still contrasting Pan’s labyrinth with David Bowie’s from the Henson film, Pan’s is certainly grimmer, appearing as it does in a movie that is not intended to be viewed by a juvenile audience. We only see it lit in fading greens and yellows or the starker black and white of a nighttime visit.

Also the labyrinth seems to generate its own heat, which I gathered from the fact that the old stone mill house that was being used as a residence nearby had fires going in the bedroom fireplaces, yet a young girl, soaking wet from rain, wasn’t shivering or otherwise apparently cold during repeated trips through the maze in the middle of the fucking night.

Market data

Access to this labyrinth seemed to be free of charge to residents at the old mill house and the attendant military company. I assume access would be denied to anyone not cleared by representatives of Francisco Franco’s military forces, making any curiosity about price of admission to non-residents pretty much moot.

So far I’ve been unable to research the costs of having a labyrinth like this made during the era it was supposedly constructed. A couple hundred thousand fairy slaves could probably get it done in a matter of an hour or two and you’d only have to pay them in pollen. I also have no data on purchasing the land (with the already constructed labyrinth) in 1944 pesetas. Presumably you could always have the land donated to the fascist cause by a loyal sympathizer or, with a company of military forces, take it from someone you declare to be a socialist or anarchist rebel, either of which would greatly reduce the amount to be paid.

Overall impact

My evaluation of labyrinths is based on two main factors: 1) How cool it would be to wander around in it (properly defended from the resident monster, of course) and 2) how useful it would be for disposing of my enemies by sentencing them to wander around in it until they get eaten.

If I had a bit of land to work with–something larger than my backyard, for instance–Pan’s labyrinth would be a wonderfully atmospheric addition. Decor-wise, it wins. Also, it is not so inconveniently large that I would need my own fairy kingdom to keep it in, as I’d opt to own just the portion that extends into the mundane world. Weighing in on both factors, the main guardian of the labyrinth seemed quite competent to do in any mortal of his choosing, while also being clever enough to negotiate with should the need arise–a big step up from the Minotaur. Or minotaur. Or minotaur. Depending on which edition of Danielewski’s book you ended up with.

Viewers of the movie also got a brief hint that the maze could be reconfigured at whim, which is a great defense against clever bastards with string or breadcrumbs. Another definite plus.

There is one definite minus, however. The labyrinth had no roof of any kind and the walls looked very climbable, a potential security hole that could allow a moderately agile cheater to bypass the thing entirely. I saw no evidence that there were any considerations to counter this problem. There may have been, granted, but without having seen any, I’m forced to assume the worst. And a labyrinth that was easily an A + drops to a firm middle-range B. Still quite worthwhile.

Also, the movie was really good.


PS: Your one-line bonus review

“Early adopters” are great for testing the water. I suggest you find yourself one.


February 5, 2007 · by xalieri · Posted in reviews  


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