A Love Letter to the Goblin King

All of the Jareth, no apologies, as my Crash Course for the Ravers carries on.

So my mom and I were trying to figure out when I first saw Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I was nine at its release almost exactly thirty years ago, but she’s pretty sure that my first viewing coincided with its later television premiere. Ten-ish years old: the age we now call “tween.” In other words, target audience. And did I mention that my name is Sara?


Me costumed as Labyrinth Sarah. In the 90s. At the mall.

I’ll add to my credit that it’s been a long time since somebody mentioned David Bowie and I replied “You mean that Goblin King guy?” – but there were a good few years when that would’ve been my sole response. Now I understand that it’s a dopey and incoherent and badly acted film, and how camp and unserious Bowie’s performance is, and what a triviality it is among his body of work. But I adore Labyrinth with an undying passion, and I wish the Goblin King would come and take me away right now.


Seriously, loverboy, let’s go. No baby brother needed.

At that tween age I had a beloved collection of kid-level fantasy villains, especially of the campy and/or ineffectual variety. Others also spoke in British accents dripping with irony, or wore architectural clothes, or sang and danced. Why should Bowie’s Goblin King stand out?
For one thing, the Goblin King, though birthed by Henson and Studio, echoes both past and future influences just like any other Bowie persona. Bowie surely came in knowing Theseus and the Brothers Grimm and Joseph Campbell and John Badham’s 1979 Dracula with Frank Langella. And then his Jareth looks and holds himself more like an anime drawing than any ten anime drawings, and nobody outside Japan was talking about anime in 1986.* That atop the gender-bending he’d been doing since the days of the Man Dress. That wasn’t any more mainstream in the 80s than it’d been the decade before.

Jareth steals a baby, wipes out the heroine’s memory, and sends sharp objects after her, yet he portrays it all as a caring gesture. “Everything I’ve done I’ve done for you,” he croons. “I move the stars for no one.” The Goblin King arrives at Sarah’s request to demand she grow up and find herself, like an iron-fisted personal trainer in the world’s best gym suit. Dark but safe: the perfect formula for the young imagination right down to Twilight. Yet Bowie’s Jareth is far less tame and predictable than all your sweet teen supernaturals. His inflections are weird, his henchmen goofy, his motivations massively unclear. (Here’s one brilliant far-out explanation for them.) There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye – because this is David Bowie, and even his worst stuff is full of the fabulous strange.

labyrinthbowieAnd Sex. Obviously. Those trousers. That smile. That “just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave” business. Here’s further unabashed celebration of that. I could watch him tap that riding crop all day. I’m not even kidding. Bowie had been making people of all genders and orientations cream their knickers for fifteen years. He could phone in the sex.

Yet I don’t think he does phone it in. He gives every impression of having a ball in the part, a quality that gives any project bonus points in my book. And why not? – he’s done it all, he’s a Serious Artist, yet here’s his chance to strut and bump one more time in heels and glitter and satin and tat. Ziggy Stardust just wishes he had those eyebrows.

Labyrinth Eyebrows

Here are some other remarkable things about Labyrinth and Bowie’s role in it.

Jareth’s face appears in background rocks, hedges, etc. a remarkable seven times.

Comparison with the first-draft script yields a lot of interesting details, though it also points up the enormous plot holes in the finished film.

Michael Moschen, Brian Froud and Toby Froud, and more.

A featurette showing the choreographing of the ‘Magic Dance’ sequence and Bowie’s good-humored nod to ‘The Laughing Gnome.’

Aw, just give in and watch it again.

Next: Looking through a Glass Spider…

*OK, I know, Astro Boy and stuff, but pretty much.

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