|Jareth the Goblin King|
|First appearance||Labyrinth (1986)|
|Created by||Jim Henson|
|Designed by||Brian Froud|
|Portrayed by||David Bowie|
|Title||King of the Goblins|
Master of the Labyrinth
|Nationality||Goblin Kingdom (the Underground)|
Jareth the Goblin King is a fictional character and the main antagonist of the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth. Portrayed by David Bowie, Jareth is the powerful and enigmatic king of the goblins to whom protagonist Sarah Williams wishes away her baby brother Toby. Jareth gives Sarah 13 hours to retrieve the baby from his castle at the centre of an enormous labyrinth, during which time he sets obstacles in her path and tries to entice her away from her quest.
Jareth also appears in the film's adaptations, including the novelisation, Marvel comic books, story book, computer game, colouring books, and photo album. He is a main character in the manga sequel Return to Labyrinth published by Tokyopop, and various spin-off comics published by Archaia.
Concept and creation
Labyrinth started as a collaboration between director Jim Henson and conceptual designer Brian Froud following their previous collaboration, The Dark Crystal. In making Labyrinth, Henson wanted to create a film that combined elements of fairy tales and classical stories in a script that would appeal to a modern audience. According to Froud, he and Henson decided to have human characters as the lead roles in order to make Labyrinth "more accessible and immediate" than The Dark Crystal, which had featured only puppets. In the film's initial discussions between Henson, Brian and Wendy Froud and co-writer Dennis Lee, the character of Jareth was first conceived as a shapeshifting "prince of darkness" who kidnaps a king's baby, spiriting it away to the Castle of Darkness at the centre of a great labyrinth inhabited by goblins. Wishing to avoid similarities to Ridley Scott's original fairy tale film Legend, which was in development near the same time as Labyrinth, Henson and his team made significant changes to Labyrinth's main characters and story. Instead of sending a male character to rescue the baby from the centre of the labyrinth, they decided to have the protagonist be an adolescent girl, Sarah, who makes the journey after wishing away her baby half-brother to the goblins. Describing the subtext of Labyrinth as being "about the growing-up process of maturity ... a young girl right at that point between girl and woman, shedding her childhood thoughts for adult thoughts", Henson intended to partly represent this in the figure of Jareth, who exists in Sarah's imagination. Henson said of the character:
"He's never completely evil. He's more the antagonist in the story than an arch villain. He represents a lot of things that are a part of Sarah's world, what she's trying to figure out and what she's going through. The movie plays off the elements of Sarah's real life vs. the grid of her imagination. [Jareth] has no reality except what Sarah gives him, which she can constantly change."
Casting and filming
According to Henson, Jareth was at one stage going to be a creature in the same vein as his goblin subjects, which were all portrayed through the use of puppets produced by Henson's Creature Shop. Deciding that the role should be filled by a live actor, Henson initially considered offering it to Simon MacCorkindale or Kevin Kline. After Labyrinth score composer Trevor Jones proposed the idea of using contemporary music for the film, Henson decided he wanted a big, charismatic pop star to sing and act as the Goblin King. Several contemporary singers including Sting, Freddie Mercury and Prince were considered for the role before Henson's sons Brian and John convinced him to offer it to David Bowie, who they believed would have the most lasting appeal with audiences. Familiar with his music, the Hensons had also seen Bowie act on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and felt that his "other-worldliness" and energy would be a good match for the fantastic creatures and settings planned for the film.
"I wanted to put two characters of flesh and bone in the middle of all these artificial creatures," Jim Henson explained, "and David Bowie embodies a certain maturity, with his sexuality, his disturbing aspect, all sorts of things that characterize the adult world." Henson expounded, "The character must have something attractive and menacing about him at the same time. David Bowie has that quality; he is positive and negative at the same time." Froud similarly felt that Bowie was the perfect choice to play Jareth, noting that his "protean persona" made him well-suited to the role, as "Jareth needed to be a mercurial figure who would constantly throw Sarah off balance emotionally".
Henson met Bowie in the summer of 1983 to seek his involvement, as Bowie was in the U.S. for his Serious Moonlight Tour at the time. During a meeting in New York on 18 June 1984, Henson showed Bowie some of Froud's concept art to pique his interest in the film. "That impressed me for openers," Bowie later said, "but he also gave me a tape of The Dark Crystal, which really excited me. I could see the potential of adding humans to his world of creatures". Henson continued to pursue Bowie for the role of the Goblin King, developing the character with him in mind and sending him each revision of the script for his comments. The two men met again in Gstaad, Switzerland on 11 February 1985, and Bowie's deal was set on 15 February 1985.
Bowie began shooting his scenes on 3 June 1985. On playing the role of Jareth, Bowie said, "I loved the magic, the mystery." Henson commented that he "barely directed" Bowie while shooting the actor's scenes, as Bowie "had the character of Jareth quite well in hand, and I [Henson] agreed with what he was doing". However, Bowie initially had difficulty acting with the puppet characters, as the puppets' voices did not come from the puppets themselves but from the side of the set or from behind Bowie. Henson recalled that Bowie's first few scenes were with the puppet Hoggle, "and he kept wanting to look off-stage to where the voice was coming from ... instead of where Hoggle, the puppet, actually was. It took him a while to get used to that aspect of filming." Bowie completed many of his scenes in two or three takes, except for very technical scenes or those involving complex puppets. Bowie enjoyed making the film, stating, "Labyrinth was great fun to do".
Jareth's elaborate crystal-ball contact juggling manipulations were choreographed and performed by juggler Michael Moschen. Henson wanted Jareth to have a visible skill with which to express his magical powers, and said was that Moschen's work was "as close to real magic as anything that I really know." During filming, Moschen crouched behind Bowie's cloak and placed his hands through the sleeves to replace Bowie's arms. This meant that Moschen could not see the objects he was juggling, and it took many takes to film the scenes with the crystal balls.
Design and influences
Froud stated that Jareth is "Sarah's inner fantasy, a figure made up of her daydreams and nightmares...He is seen, through her eyes, as part dangerous goblin, part glamorous rock star". The concept behind the character is that Sarah, having reached the age of sexual awakening, creates Jareth as the living embodiment of her adolescent interests and desires. Froud sought to reflect this in the character's outfits and appearance, and drew upon classic "romantic dangerous" figures from a range of sources. In his afterword to the 20th-anniversary edition of The Goblins of Labyrinth, Froud wrote that Jareth references "the romantic figures of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and a brooding Rochester from Jane Eyre" and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Jareth's costumes are intentionally eclectic, drawing on the image of Marlon Brando's leather jacket from The Wild One as well as that of a medieval knight "with the worms of death eating through his armour" from Grimms' Fairy Tales. Jareth's close-fitting tights are a reference to ballet dancers. The Goblin King also has a popstar aspect; Froud designed him a sceptre topped with a crystal ball as "a visual echo of a microphone". The sceptre also functions as a swagger stick and riding crop, as Froud regarded Jareth as "the proud lord of the manor, lord of his goblin domain, with his hounds at his feet, ready to go hunting for human souls." Hanging from his neck and adorning his leather jacket, Jareth wears the "goblin symbol". Jeweller Mitch Nugent was commissioned to make the baroque amulet and sceptre. Jareth's cloak was designed by costume designer Vin Burnham.
The design of the character's countenance and hairstyle went through various stages. Henson revealed, "For a while, we thought we'd give [Bowie] lots of prosthetic make-up, and horns", while Froud said at one stage they attempted to make Jareth's hair look like a wolf. They eventually settled on "just the wild Kabuki hair", which was also reminiscent of "a popstar from a rock band". Bowie also gave input into the creation of the character's look.
For the ballroom scene, Froud and costume designer Ellis Flyte fashioned Jareth a velvet tailcoat shot with blue, black and silver, and embroidered with broken jewels and mirrors on the front and shoulders. Worn underneath this was a silver silk satin shirt with a jabot, and black leggings printed with a silver snakeskin pattern.
Froud's son Toby, who as an infant played Labyrinth's character of the same name, stated that the Goblin King is meant to be a sexual icon and a temptation to Sarah. This fact was accentuated by a prominent codpiece added to the costumes. Jareth's deliberate sexual allure alludes to "the dark fairy in folklore [who] are meant to be tempting," Toby said.
The white barn owl that appears in Labyrinth "is one of the many manifestations of the Goblin King", according to the film's early production notes. Henson described the owl as "vaguely...the symbol of the Goblin King." Jareth as the owl was performed by a live owl and a puppet owl built by the Creature Shop in alternating shots. The computer-generated owl that flies over the film's opening credits was created by animators Larry Yaeger and Bill Kroyer, and marked the first use of a realistic CGI animal in a film.
David Bowie performed as Jareth three of the five songs that he wrote for the film's soundtrack: "Magic Dance", "As The World Falls Down" and "Within You". "Magic Dance", which has been described as "a full-blown Muppet showstopper", is performed along with spontaneous dance by Jareth and his goblins to entertain baby Toby at the castle. The dialogue starting with phrase, "you remind me of the babe" that occurs between Jareth and the goblins at the beginning of the song is a direct reference to an exchange between Cary Grant and Shirley Temple in the 1947 film The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. "As The World Falls Down", described as a "sparkling, subdued ballad", is sung by Jareth to Sarah during a dream sequence at a masquerade ball, and through which he confesses love for her. Henson wanted the song to be "fairly old-fashioned in its sentiments", according to Bowie. Jareth sings "Within You" at the film's climax before his final confrontation with Sarah at the top of his castle. "I had to write something that sounded like stone walls and crumbling power," Bowie said, as the song concerns Jareth's emotional turmoil as he anticipates his nearing defeat.
Jareth is the king of the goblins and ruler of the Labyrinth — a vast, maze-like domain within a magical realm referred to as "the Underground" in the film's theme song, "Underground". Though the Goblin King, Jareth is never said to be a goblin himself, appearing instead as a handsome human. In an early draft of the Labyrinth script, however, he turned into a goblin when Sarah rejected him. Besides his goblin subjects, Jareth also reigns over the fairies, dwarves and various creatures that dwell in the Labyrinth.
Magical powers and abilities
Jareth's powers include the ability to form crystal orbs in his hands, which can create illusions of all types or allow him to view any place within his kingdom. He uses his crystals to show dreams, and offers a crystal to Sarah as a symbol of her dreams in exchange for her baby brother.
Jareth is also a master of disguise. He can shapeshift into a barn owl, a form in which he appears at the beginning and the end of the film. In another scene, he disguises himself as a blind beggar. He is able to magically appear and disappear at will, and can walk through material.[a] He can also project his disembodied voice to distant places.[b]
Jareth can defy gravity — walking on upside-down staircases, ledges and walls in one of the rooms of his castle — and also has the ability to reorder time. After Sarah belittles the Labyrinth as being too easy, Jareth moves time forward by three hours so that she has a stricter time limit in which to solve it. Although Sarah spends a total of ten hours in the Underground,[c] when she returns to the human world less than five hours have passed.[d]
— Jim Henson on Bowie's portrayal of Jareth.
According to Brian Froud, Jareth is a Romantic hero, a rebel and an outsider. Jim Henson said that Jareth's "role is similar to being the leader of a gang. Everyone in the kingdom does what he says until Sarah comes along — and she defies him. The goblins [Jareth] controls are like members of his gang. He treats them terribly but they do anything he says." However, Froud said that "in many ways the character is ridiculous" as he is never quite able to control the unruly goblins. Jareth has to remind the goblins to laugh every time he makes a joke, and is often annoyed by their lack of intelligence.
— Brian Henson on Bowie's performance.
According to David Bowie, Jareth has reluctantly inherited his position and runs his kingdom under duress. Though he would prefer a different life, Jareth is resigned to his role as Goblin King and runs his kingdom "as well as he can", Bowie said, expressing the character's weariness at having to "sort out the whole situation" whenever the goblins collect a baby that has been wished away. Bowie stated that Jareth is not evil; however, he described the king as spoilt, childish and accustomed to getting his own way. "I think Jareth is, at best, a romantic; but at worst, he's a spoilt child, vain and temperamental — kind of like a rock 'n' roll star!" Bowie said, adding that the king is "completely smitten" by the character Sarah, admiring of her strong will and virtue. He described the dynamic between Jareth and Sarah as being like a battle of wits, without true hostility. According to Bowie, Jareth is lonely and longs for companionship, a sentiment which underlies his pleading for Sarah to remain with him in the Underground.
Jareth is gentle and friendly towards Toby, and at one point playfully muses on renaming the baby after himself.[e] However, he is cruel in his treatment of Hoggle, using intimidation and the threat of the Bog of Eternal Stench to coerce him to obey, and tormenting Hoggle over his friendship with Sarah.
Brian Henson described Jareth as an immature "Peter Pan type of character" who is "locked in a sort of teenage sensibility ... He’s a little petulant and unpredictable and he's spoiled rotten". However, Jareth "learns his lesson" about his faults, Brian said, remarking that "Labyrinth is both a coming of age for Sarah and a coming of age, in a way, for Jareth".
Although Labyrinth received mixed reviews, Jareth has earned a mostly positive reception from entertainment critics. Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times considered Jareth to be one of the film's strong points, writing, "he has a nice, mocking sense of irony, and he looks suitably magical with his Kabuki lion-mane hair ... He might, in fact, make a fine Shakespearean Oberon, and he'd hardly have to change costume." Paul Byrnes of The Sydney Morning Herald also likened Jareth to Oberon as a "charming tempter", while Mary Mae Goris of the Irish Independent wrote, "with staring hair and svelte in clinging pantaloons and high hessians [...] he'd make a good Hans Heiling if he could sing."
He is often described as a scene stealer. "Jareth is a dazzling character we feel at once threatened by and compulsively drawn to," wrote Taryn McCabe of Little White Lies. Hailing the character as "one of cinema’s most daring and eccentric bad boys" in a feature for film website OneRoomWithAView.com, Amy Hubbard wrote: "Bowie’s Jareth does exactly what he is designed to do – he is the ultimate heartthrob, a representation of danger, love and lust as well as the confusion that such feelings inspire." Bridget McGovern of Tor.com likened the Goblin King to the eponymous villain of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, writing that such characters "tend to represent an unsettling mix of childhood fantasies and adult fears and desires; they draw their would-be victims in through a disturbing blend of infantilization and seduction". Nona Willis Aronowitz of Splinter said that Jareth teaches young audiences about lust, while Adrienna Borda of Taste of Cinema wrote, "He is flirtatious and protective, yet mysterious and menacing. He is Prince Charming combined with a bad boy. Without a doubt, Jareth is simply one of the most attractive villains ever created." Nick Wanserski of The A.V. Club acclaimed Jareth as "a spectacularly realized character," while VultureHound's Jack Edwards praised him as "a wonderful villain without ever truly being evil," writing: "He has that whimsical nature of a folklore antagonist; he provides the chance for victory for the hero by giving Sarah 13 hours, he doesn’t turn Toby to a goblin immediately and when he has been beat he is not destroyed, he is bound by the terms of his world." Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib of MTV News found the Goblin King to be "not a villain in the traditional sense...he want[s] to be feared, respected, but mostly adored," concluding, "Jareth represent[s] a lot of things, perhaps the greatest being anxiety over whether we will ever be truly loved". Glamour's Ella Alexander appreciated that, unlike many male film antagonists' attitudes towards a young female protagonist, Jareth "notes the complexities and intelligence of Sarah, and is eventually defeated by her", calling it "pretty groundbreaking stuff".
Bowie's performance as Jareth has been variously lauded and derided. Time's Richard Corliss praised Bowie as "charismatic", referring to his character as a "Kabuki sorcerer who offers his ravishing young antagonist the gilded perks of adult servitude". Nina Darnton wrote in The New York Times that Bowie was "perfectly cast as the teasing, tempting seducer whom Sarah must both want and reject in order to learn the labyrinth's lessons," and Bruce Bailey of the Montreal Gazette also commended the casting of Bowie, commenting, "He has just the right look for a creature who's the object of both loathing and secret desire. And this is one rock star who can deliver his lines with a combination of menace and playfulness that few seasoned actors could even begin to match." However, Victoria Mather in The Daily Telegraph panned his acting as "robotic", writing, "Bowie makes himself quite ridiculous as the Goblin King complete with punk hair do and black leather, desporting himself with a small, non-speaking character in a babygro". Hal Lipper of the St. Petersburg Times found, "Bowie forgoes acting, preferring to prance around his lair while staring solemnly into the camera. He's not exactly wooden. Plastic might be a more accurate description." Variety dismissed Bowie as "too serious to be campy, too dumb to be serious."
McGovern attributed much of Labyrinth's humour to Bowie's performance, observing that his portrayal of Jareth seemed to draw upon his "penchant for spoofing his own image as a spoiled, out-of-touch rock star and willingness to poke fun at the stereotype of the pretentious, self-obsessed pop idol". Jessica Kiang wrote for IndieWire that Bowie "brings his trademark ambiguity to making the villain both attractive and repulsive, lending the film a slightly more grown-up slant". Praising Bowie as "the indisputable star" of the film, Nick Chen of Dazed enthused that Bowie's voice "is tailor-made for a family movie villain". While judging the songs Bowie wrote and performed for Labyrinth as "far from his best work", Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club praised Bowie's portrayal of Jareth as "gloriously iconic, a perfect blend of predatory, leering rock star and hurt, rejected emo lover". Writing for AXS, Michelle Lavallee said, "Bowie combines a theatrical flamboyance and a sinister style that makes for one of the most memorable villains of the 1980's".
Jareth the Goblin King has become a cultural icon. Bowie's most famous film role, the character is particularly popular amongst the generation of children from the 1980s and 1990s; Daily Telegraph writer Robert Colvile described it as "childhood-defining". Bowie told an interviewer in 2002, "There's a generation that know about Labyrinth...a lot of kids are brought up to me and their mums say, 'This is Jareth, from Labyrinth!' ". The film's lasting popularity and cult status have been attributed in large part to the character.
Pop culture website The Portalist listed Jareth as one of 50 "best fantasy characters ever", stating that "his fashion sense, musical abilities, and magnetism make Jareth one of the most iconic characters to come out of the dark fantasy films of the '80s." According to Into Film, Bowie's costume featured "one of the most remarkable wigs in movie history". Jareth has been recognised as one of cinema's most fashionable villains by Tor.com, ShortList and Bustle, and is commonly regarded as a sex symbol.
A fan favourite, Jareth is the subject of fan art, cosplay and fan fiction. Since 1997, the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball, an event inspired by the character and film, has been held annually in various cities, including San Diego, Hollywood, and, most recently, Los Angeles. According to event founder Shawn Strider, in the mythology that has developed around the ball, Jareth is a legendary "faerie prince or a goblin prince" who, due to a broken heart, eventually left the Labyrinth to reunite with Sarah.
Props and costumes Bowie wore as Jareth have been showcased in numerous exhibitions, including: the Museum of Pop Culture's permanent installation Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic (opened 2013), the Victoria and Albert Museum's touring exhibit David Bowie Is (2013-2018), the Center for Puppetry Arts' display Jim Henson's Labyrinth: Journey to Goblin City (2016-2017), and the Museum of the Moving Image's permanent feature The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited (opened 2017).
Jareth appears in Labyrinth's tie-in adaptations, which include the novelisation by A. C. H. Smith and the three-issue comic book adaptation published by Marvel Comics, which was first released in a single volume as Marvel Super Special #40 in 1986. He also appears in the film's picture book adaptation, photo album, and Labyrinth: The Computer Game.
The Labyrinth novelisation includes a thematic subplot that was left out of the film, in which Sarah's mother had left her father to become an actress and had become romantically involved with an actor. According to Henson, the actor was to be played by Bowie in the film, "so when Bowie turns up as Jareth, [Sarah] was to feel this attraction to him, but also anger". The subplot was ultimately cut from the script as "it loaded the story down". However, in the film various photos are briefly shown in Sarah's room depicting the unnamed actor (Bowie) with Sarah's mother Linda Williams, alongside news clippings reporting their “on/off relationship”. In the novelisation, Linda's costar is named Jeremy. The novelisation elaborates on Sarah aspiring to become an actress like her mother, idolizing both Linda and Jeremy, and fantasising about living their celebrity lifestyle.
Bowie portrayed Jareth in two music videos for the songs "Underground" and "As The World Falls Down" from the Labyrinth soundtrack. Produced by Steve Barron in 1986, both videos were released on the 1993 VHS tape Bowie - The Video Collection and the 2002 two-disc DVD set Best of Bowie. The videos feature footage of Bowie (as himself) performing the songs, appearances by various Labyrinth puppet characters, and footage of Bowie as the Goblin King taken from the film.
Return to Labyrinth
Jareth appears as one of the main characters in Return to Labyrinth, a four-volume original English-language manga sequel to the film created by Jake T. Forbes and published by Tokyopop between 2006 and 2010. In the manga, Jareth has been the Goblin King for 1,300 years, and is not a goblin like his subjects but had decided to rule them out of boredom. Having created the Labyrinth to isolate himself and protect his heart, Jareth is weakened by Sarah's defeat and his powers have diminished. In the series, which is set more than a decade after the events of the film, Jareth abdicates his throne, establishing the now teenaged Toby as his heir and leaving him in charge of the Labyrinth, which is in a deteriorating state. Jareth then goes to the human world to entice Sarah, with whom he is still in love, into creating a new world with him using the power of her dreams.
Unreleased graphic novel
Archaia Comics, in collaboration with The Jim Henson Company, announced in 2012 it was developing a prequel graphic novel about the story of how Jareth became the Goblin King. Project editor Stephen Christy described the graphic novel as "a very tragic story" featuring a teenaged Jareth, and not featuring Sarah or Toby. Prior to his death in early 2016, David Bowie was approached by Archaia in order to seek permission to use his likeness, and ascertain if he wished to have any involvement in the project. As a creative consultant on the project, Brian Froud was involved in producing character designs. The official synopsis states the plot revolves around Jareth's "attempt to rescue his true love from the clutches of the wicked and beautiful Goblin Queen."
Labyrinth 2017 Special
Jareth appears in the Labyrinth 2017 Special, a single-issue comic book published by Archaia. Released in November 2017, the comic is a collection of six short stories by multiple authors set in the world of Labyrinth. Jareth mainly features in the fifth story, Beauty or the Beast by Roger Langridge, in which he shows the captive baby Toby some of the wonders of his kingdom and informs Toby that he will inherit it someday.
Jareth is the central character in Labyrinth: Coronation, a 12-issue comic series published between 2018 and 2019 by Archaia which details the history of the Goblin King as well as the history of the Labyrinth itself. Written by Simon Spurrier, the series takes place within the timeline of the events of the film, framed as a story told to baby Toby by Jareth during their off-screen time together. Beginning in 1790s Venice, the story revolves around an infant Jareth who has been stolen by the previous ruler of the Labyrinth, known as the Owl King, and follows the quest of Jareth's mother, Maria, to rescue her son.
Labyrinth: Under the Spell
Jareth appears in Labyrinth: Under the Spell, a collection of three comic short stories set in the Labyrinth universe published by Archaia in November 2018, which detail some of the individual histories of Jareth's subjects.
In 2008, NECA released three Jareth action figures: a 12-inch speaking doll, dressed in black, speaking lines from the film, and two 7-inch versions, one of which comes with a figure of Hoggle the dwarf. McFarlane Toys in 2017 released a 7-inch action figure, in his Ballroom dream outfit with a mask and a crystal orb, followed by another 7-inch figure in 2019, in his "Dance Magic" outfit with his sceptre and a miniature goblin. In 2019 Ikon Collectables released a 1/6 scale (34 cm) resin statue of Jareth in his feathered clock, holding out a crystal, as in his final scene in the film.
- Jareth walks through Sarah during the staircase scene.
- Jareth's voice remains after he has faded from view showing Sarah the Labyrinth. Later, his disembodied voice issues a warning to Hoggle at the Bog.
- 13-hour clocks appear throughout the film showing the passage of time, from 13 o'clock at the start of Sarah's journey to 13 o'clock at the end. Jareth takes away three hours (adjusting the clock from approximately 4:40 to 7:40) after Sarah insults the Labyrinth. Therefore her journey takes only ten hours in total.
- It is after seven o'clock in the evening when Sarah makes her wish. She returns home from the Labyrinth at 12 o'clock (midnight).
- While sitting with Toby at one point Jareth remarks, "Well, he's a lively little chap. I think I'll call him Jareth. He's got my eyes."
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