Thursday, October 30, 2014

About _Labyrinth_

Early in October 2014, there was a great deal of online hubbub about a proposed sequel to the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth. While it seems, according to Lindsey Bahr, that the excitement is unjustified, its presence suggests that the nearly-thirty-year-old film remains a current concern in mainstream popular culture. Certainly, it prompted me to re-watch the movie (a belated continuation of something I describe as begun in the summer of 2014), which my wife and I did with great joy. As we did, I was reminded that medieval, and particularly Arthurian, references appear throughout the piece; Sarah's favored bear is named Lancelot, her dog's name is Merlin, and another "character" played by that same dog is named Ambrosius (a name connected with Arthuriana through some of its older instantiations such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae). And there is Sir Didymus, who rides Ambrosius (humorously, usually away from battle) and is himself much in the mold of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and similarly extreme examples of the perceived trappings of later medieval chivalry. But while his behavior evokes the Arthurian, and his name sounds like something that would appear in Arthurian legend, he is not an explicit figuration of a character from Malory or other Arthurian works. Instead, the name partakes of the religious, which, although certainly embedded in the medieval, is not necessarily consistent with the medievalism other figures in the movie convey.

The disjunction is not something most moviegoers would likely notice, admittedly, although those who caught the Arthurian references might be prompted to look (case in point, this essay). Its insertion might therefore be indicative of a belief of the producers, tacit or explicit, that the audience would need nothing more than a veneer of the medieval in its fairy-tale-like entertainment--and, indeed, Labyrinth does not seem to set out to be medievalist so much as a play upon fairy-stories. The medievalism that it deploys can be read, therefore, as a nod to the conventions of the genre and the popularity of medievalist films as Labyrinth was initially released. Yet such a reading seems disingenuous; given the care which Henson and his colleagues usually take with their work (as witness, for instance, The Dark Crystal), merely making a nod to prevailing conditions (rather than making a joke of them explicitly) is out of place. It is more likely that there is another explanation for the name as applied to the character to which it is given than simply reinforcing a veneer of medievalism not strictly necessary to the movie and which would be equally well served by calling the character by another medievalist name such as Galahad or Roland.

One possibility arises in the religious resonance of the name; Didymus is another name accorded to the Doubting Thomas of Scripture. His entry in the online Catholic Encyclopedia notes that he is reputedly among the furthest-traveled of the Apostles, having been sent to India and encountering "strange adventures from dragons and wild asses" in his ministry there--not out of line with the kind of encounter typical of the chivalric figure the movie's Didymus embodies. Alternately, the Didymus being referenced could be one noted in the Reverend Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints; the Didymus of Butler's piece appears in the guise of a soldier who substitutes himself for Theodora in a successful attempt to preserve her chastity and an ultimately unsuccessful gambit to save her life. Butler claims to be working from older records and the writings of St. Ambrose, both of which would have been nearly as well known to the medieval mind (insofar as such a construction can be asserted to have existed) as Thomas the Apostle. And in that theoretical medieval mind, Didymus would have exhibited characteristics that came to typify the knight of chivalric romance: valor and extravagance in the defense of a woman's sexual integrity. As such, for its resonance with the wide-ranging, dragon-meeting, extravagantly lady-saving Didymi of medieval lore, it is an appropriate name for the hyper-chivalric caricature that is Sir Didymus of Labyrinth.

Yet even that explanation does not wholly suffice. The references are markedly obscure; the journey of Thomas to India is apocryphal, and Butler's commentaries were buried in older printings before the advent of the internet. How accessible they would have been to Henson and his colleagues as they put together their film is questionable; it seems to me to be fairly unlikely they would have reviewed the texts in question as they would have existed in the middle of the 1980s (although I will admit that I may be mistaken). Too, their fit to the chivalric tradition Sir Didymus seems almost to satirize (almost because he is a character of some effect in the film; a true satire would have had him bluster wholly impotently) is somewhat tenuous; they partake of the medieval chivalric, but they are not themselves medieval or chivalric in fact. The religious resonances alone cannot account for the applicability of the name to the character, although they may well influence it in some way. Something else has to be at work in the choice to name the character Didymus (perhaps a pun through the evocation of Thomas the Apostle of the Sir Thomas Malory through which readers of English typically encounter the Arthurian), although what it is likely lies outside the scope of this paper to ascertain wholly.

What is of more importance, at least for this piece as it appears in this venue, is what the context of Sir Didymus reveals. He is himself a medievalism, albeit a somewhat tangled one that calls back to the late Roman Imperial / Late Antique, and he is surrounded and accompanied by other medievalisms. Their collected popularity nearly thirty years after their appearance in film suggests that there continues to be an avid thirst for figurations of the medieval, not only among scholars who delight in seeing what they study continue to enjoy relevance (even as and if they may seethe at what they see as inaccuracies in the presentations), but also among the general public. Helping to slake that thirst offers some hope for those scholars that they can find some use in working at the wells to draw up histories that are yet beneath the present surfaces of things.

Works Cited
  • Barh, Lindsey. "Labyrinth Sequel in the Works? Not Exactly." Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, 10 October 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Butler, Alban. "April 28. SS. Didymus and Theodora, Martyrs." The Lives of the Saints., 2010. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • The Dark Crystal. Dir. Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Sony, 2006. DVD.
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About a Trope of Medievalist Movies: Empty Countrysides." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 28 July 2014. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. and ed. Michael A. Faletra. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2008. Print.
  • Gildas. On the Ruin of Britain. Trans. J.A. Giles. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 4 February 2012. Web. 30 October 2014.
  • Labyrinth. Dir. Jim Henson. Perf. David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly. Sony, 2006. DVD.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dir. Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones. Perf. Graham Chapman et al. Sony, 2001. DVD.
  • Thurston, Herbert. "St. Thomas the Apostle." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight, 2012. Web. 30 October 2014.

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