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Jareth the Goblin King
Created byJim Henson
Designed byBrian Froud
Portrayed byDavid Bowie
TitleKing of the Goblins and Master of the Labyrinth
OccupationMonarch, magician
NationalityGoblin 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 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 sings a song called magic baby dance in the movie.

Jareth also appears in the film's adaptions, including the Marvel comic books, story book, graphic novel, novelization, computer game, colouring books, and photo album.

Concept and creation[edit]


English singer-songwriter and actor David Bowie portrayed Jareth. He also wrote the songs for Labyrinth.

According to Labyrinth director Jim Henson, Jareth was originally conceived as a creature in the same vein as his goblin subjects,[1] which were all played by puppets produced by Henson's Creature Shop.[2] Deciding that the role should be filled by a live actor, Henson initially considered offering it to Simon MacCorkindale or Kevin Kline.[3] 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[4] 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.[3] Familiar with his music, the Hensons had also seen Bowie act on Broadway in The Elephant Man,[4] and felt that his "other-worldliness" and energy would be a good match for the fantastic creatures and settings planned for the film.[5]

"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."[6] 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."[7] Labyrinth conceptual designer Brian 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".[8]

Henson met David 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.[2][9] During a meeting that took place 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. Bowie formally agreed to take part on 15 February 1985, shortly before filming began.[4][5]

On playing the role of Jareth, Bowie said, "I loved the magic, the mystery".[10] Henson commented that he "barely directed" Bowie while shooting the actor's scenes, as Bowie "had the character of Jareth well in hand, and I agreed with what he was doing".[1] Juggler Michael Moschen performed Jareth's elaborate crystal-ball contact juggling manipulations.[2]

Design and influences[edit]

Bowie's costume as Jareth and masks from Labyrinth at the Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle

Conceptual designer Brian 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".[8] 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.[11] Froud sought to reflect this in the character's outfits and appearance, and drew upon classic "romantic dangerous"[12] figures from a range of literary sources. In his afterword to 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.[8] Jareth's close-fitting tights are a reference to ballet dancers.[11][12] On designing Jareth's hairstyle, Froud said "We went through a stage where we were trying to make it look like a wolf - that's what Jim [Henson] felt, a wolf. And we didn't quite succeed in it. But it became very strange...rather referring to Kabuki theatre. It also is like a pop star from a rock band."[13] To add to the Goblin King's rock star aspect, Froud designed him a sceptre topped with a crystal ball as "a visual echo of a microphone".[8] The sceptre also functions as a swagger stick[13] 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."[8]

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 built into the costumes. Jareth's deliberate sexual allure alludes to "the dark fairy in folklore [who] are meant to be tempting," Toby said.[14]


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.[15] Henson described the owl as "vaguely...the symbol of the Goblin King."[1] Jareth as the owl was performed by a live owl and a puppet owl built by the Creature Shop in alternating shots.[15] The computer-generated owl that flies over the film's opening credits was created by animators Larry Yaeger and Bill Kroyer,[16][17] and marked the first use of a realistic CGI animal in a film.[18][19][15]


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",[20] 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.[21]

"As The World Falls Down", described as a "sparkling, subdued ballad",[22] is sung by Jareth to Sarah during a dream sequence at a masquerade ball, and through which he avows his love for her. Henson wanted the song to be "fairly old-fashioned in its sentiments", according to Bowie.[23]

Jareth sings "Within You" at the film's climax before his final confrontation with Sarah, in a room full of staircases based on M. C. Escher's Relativity. "I had to write something that sounded like stone walls and crumbling power," Bowie said,[23] 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, suggesting that he was a goblin to begin with and his outer appearance was only an illusion.[24] Besides his goblin subjects, Jareth also reigns over the fairies, dwarves and various creatures that dwell in the Labyrinth.[25]

According to David Bowie, who portrayed the character, Jareth has reluctantly inherited his position and runs his kingdom under duress.[23] Bowie said that Jareth "would rather be down in Soho" or some such place, but is resigned to his role as the Goblin King and "runs [his kingdom] as well as he can".[2]

Magical powers and abilities[edit]

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.[25]

Jareth is also a master of disguise. He can shapeshift into a barn owl, a form in which he appears at both the beginning and the end of the film. In another scene, he disguises himself as a blind beggar, altering both his appearance and voice.[25]

Jareth 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, when she returns to the human world only a couple of hours have passed.[25] The notion that Jareth is immortal has been included in comic books based on the film.


Jareth is an mercurial being, prone to sudden changes of mood. He often grows impatient with his goblin subjects, annoyed at their lack of intelligence and having to remind them to laugh whenever he makes a joke. He uses intimidation and threats, such as that of the greatly feared Bog of Eternal Stench, to coerce his subjects into obeying his will. However, he also has a playful and affectionate side which is evident in his interactions with baby Toby. Jareth is highly emotional and often expresses his feelings through singing.[25]

Bowie stated that Jareth is not evil;[10] however, he described the king as spoilt, childish and used to getting his own way.[2] "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. He added that the king is "completely smitten" by the character Sarah, admiring of her determination and virtue. 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.[23]

Brian Henson has said that Jareth is emotionally immature and "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 by the end of the film, Henson said, remarking that "Labyrinth is both a coming of age for Sarah and a coming of age, in a way, for Jareth".[26]


Critical response[edit]

Although Labyrinth received mixed reviews,[27] Jareth has earned a 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."[28] Taryn McCabe of Little White Lies praised Jareth as "a dazzling character we feel at once threatened by and compulsively drawn to".[29] He has often been described as a scene stealer.[30][31][32][33][34]

Hailing the character as "one of cinema’s most daring and eccentric bad boys" in a feature for film website OneRoomWithAView.com, Amy Hubbard stated: "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."[35] 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".[36] Nona Willis Aronowitz of Splinter said that Jareth teaches young audiences about lust,[37] 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."[38] Nick Wanserski of The A.V. Club acclaimed Jareth as "a spectacularly realized character,"[39] 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."[40] 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".[41]

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".[42] 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,"[43] 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."[44] In a largely critical review, 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."[45] 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".[46] Variety, however, dismissed Bowie as "too serious to be campy, too dumb to be serious."[47] 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".[48] 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".[49] 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".[50]


A Jareth cosplayer at the 2015 New York Comic Con

Jareth the Goblin King has become a cultural icon[51][52] and David Bowie's most famous film role,[53][54][55][34][56] particularly popular amongst the generation of children in the 1980s and 1990s.[57][58][59] Bowie told an interviewer in 2002, "a lot of kids are brought up to me and their mums say, 'This is Jareth from Labyrinth!' ".[60] The film's lasting popularity and cult status have been attributed in large part to the character.[61][62][63]

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."[64] According to Into Film, Bowie's costume featured "one of the most remarkable wigs in movie history".[65] Jareth has been recognised as one of cinema's most fashionable villains by Tor.com,[66] ShortList[67] and Bustle,[68] and is widely regarded as a sex symbol.[69][70][35][37][71]

A fan favourite, Jareth is the subject of fan art, cosplay and fan fiction.[72] 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.[73] According to event founder Shawn Strider, in the mythology that has developed around the ball, Jareth is a legendary "fairy prince or a goblin prince" who, due to a broken heart, eventually left the Labyrinth to reunite with Sarah.[74]

In other media[edit]

Jareth appears in Labyrinth's tie-in adaptations, which include the novelisation by A. C. H. Smith[75] and the three-issue comic book adaptation published by Marvel Comics,[76] which was first released in a single volume as Marvel Super Special #40 in 1986.[77] He also appears in the film's picture book adaptation,[78] photo album,[79] and Labyrinth: The Computer Game.

Music videos[edit]

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.[80] 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.

Comic books[edit]

Return to Labyrinth[edit]

Jareth appears as one of the main characters in Return to Labyrinth, a four-volume original English-language manga sequel to the film that was published by Tokyopop between 2006 and 2010. In the series, Jareth has ruled the Labyrinth for 1,300 years, and is not a goblin like his subjects but had decided to rule them out of boredom. In the manga, which is set more than a decade after the events of the film, Jareth establishes Sarah's then-teenaged brother Toby as his heir, leaving him in charge of the Labyrinth, which is in a deteriorating state. Jareth then returns 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.

Labyrinth 2017 Special[edit]

Jareth appears in the Labyrinth 2017 Special, a single-issue comic book published by Archaia, an imprint of Boom! Studios. 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.[81]

Labyrinth: Coronation[edit]

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 and illustrated by Daniel Bayliss, 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.[82] 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.[82][83]

Labyrinth: Under the Spell[edit]

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.[84]

Action figures[edit]

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.[85]

In October 2017, McFarlane Toys released an action figure, in his Ballroom dream outfit, including a mask and a crystal orb.[86] In June 2019, McFarlane released another Jareth figure, in his "Dance Magic" outfit.[87]


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