In myths and fairytales, the hero/ine crossing from the mundane world to the world of magic often encounters a symbolic gatekeeper. Gatekeeper figures are often an anthropomorphic animal or other embodiment of humanity’s subconscious, and serve as a guardian or psychopomp, accompanying and only sometimes protecting the hero/ine…
Sarah hit ‘save’ and glanced out the window, at the white owl perching in the linden tree, a telltale smear of paleness in the leafy nighttime. The owl was frequently there for Sarah to see, just as she sometimes (often) heard, or thought she heard, the clink of a crystal ball rolling down a lino-covered university hallway, or the shrill titter of goblins late at night, issuing from somewhere behind the corner at the end of her street, as she walked home after the library closed.
Sarah never turned around to investigate the laughter, seek the crystal ball, or follow the white owl. She was no longer willing to play goblin games, and anyway, in all the stories, the human who responded to the disembodied voice calling to her late at night came to an invariably sticky end.
Sarah also had no intention of getting herself committed as a schizophrenic, so her study of magic took the form of pursing a Ph.D. in Anthropology with a specialization in Folklore Studies and a dissertation topic on systems of magical thinking reacting to environmental and economic change. In her more frivolous moments, she toyed with the idea of prefacing her dissertation with an unattributed (because she had coined it) epigraph: I have put away childish things, but stories are the stuff of humanity. Imagining her advisor’s reaction to this piece of unscientific frippery made her smile.
She opened the window. A breeze rustled the linden leaves, and the owl rotated its head to look at her.
“Tell Jareth he knows where I am, if he wants to talk,” Sarah told the owl, closed the window, and went back to her notes on magical structures and their rulers. She had questions – crucial to her, only tangentially related to her research – which only the Goblin King could answer, but she would not ask for his help directly. He could satisfy his vanity as well as protect his pride by pretending he’d made the choice to seek her out without her permission.
In magic, words carry greater significance than deeds or intentions, Sarah typed. Magic can begin with a child’s wish unfiltered by acquired morality or learnèd restraint. Someone for whom an angry declaration (“I hate you, you’re the worst”) is both the most terrible and the most powerful act, who does not appreciate either the powerlessness inherent in such declarations or the pain that words spoken in anger can cause.
“A bit verbose,” Jareth said, leaning over Sarah’s shoulder to read off her screen, “and that last sentence isn’t an independent clause, but it is quite accurate. Well done, Sarah.”
Sarah suppressed a shriek, though it was too late for the involuntary, full-body start she performed at the simultaneous sound of his voice and presence of his body, so close and warm. Her voice shook only a little when she replied, without turning her head to look at him, hitting ‘save’ again.
“I began to work it out when I remembered that the formula always has to start with ‘I wish’ in order to work, like pressing ‘send’ on an email.” She could feel Jareth’s frown of incomprehension – a cheap victory, but it fortified her. “Also, the formula has to be exact, no improvising.”
“Magic is exacting and precise,” Jareth said.
“Don’t you mean exact and precise?”
“I meant what I said, and I say only what I mean. ‘Exact and precise’ would be a tautology.”
Sarah swiveled around in her office chair, a quip about having Jareth proofread her dissertation poised on the tip of her tongue.
Jareth loomed over her, untouched by the passage of time. Sarah knew that, if she stood up, she would be nearly as tall as he now, but she remained sitting, letting him have the illusory advantage of height, of being a man standing over a woman. All grown up. Perhaps she was not so above games after all.
“I also realized that I was wrong about you,” Sarah said, unwilling to lose the advantage with a quip.
Jareth raised an elegant eyebrow.
“You don’t steal children. They get wished away, and you get to keep them unless they are redeemed.” Really, you are quite powerless, except in manipulating the labyrinth to play your little tricks, she thought but prudently did not say. “I also suspect, though I have no proof, that it’s not just objects of sibling jealousy who come to you. I would imagine you also get many spurned lovers, boring spouses, children unwanted by parents, and unloved teachers and bosses.”
Jareth smiled. “Clever girl.”
Not a girl, not anymore. Sarah tamped down her temper. “So where do they all go?” she pursued. She imagined she was giving a seminar presentation to an audience of one. “They cannot all become goblins, there were too few goblins for all those centuries of people wished away. You said ‘one of us,’ but you didn’t mean goblins.”
“Well? Isn’t it obvious?” The relish in Jareth’s voice was obvious too.
It was, once Sarah had figured it out, like everything in life.
She thought back to all she’d seen, and met, and spoken to in the labyrinth. Moss with eyes. Married Cockney worms. Stone hand signposts. Twin Irish dog squires. Officious false alarms. A senile sideshow wiseman with a talking bird hat doubling as his barker. Grumpy New York comedy duo doorknockers.
Sarah took a deep breath, made her hands lie still in her lap. “The whole labyrinth is sentient. Because it is made of the wished-away people, who spent long enough in the labyrinth to be transformed and absorbed by it. Like any living thing, the labyrinth wishes to prolong its existence by replenishing itself.”
Jareth mimed a silent clap in his blue kidskin gloves. “Got it in one. How does it feel, Sarah, to reach the secret at the center of the labyrinth at last?”
Sarah felt no pride in her cleverness, only a vague desolation. She hated being right sometimes.
“The labyrinth is people,” she repeated dully. “That’s horrible!”
Jareth shrugged, but only with one shoulder, so little did her outrage touch him. “That’s magic. There are firm rules. Nothing is ever for free, and nothing comes from nothing. Can you imagine what it would be like, if every human who entered the labyrinth did turn into a goblin? There’s no living with them as it is!”
Sarah tried to see things from his perspective, rebelled against it, was disappointed at the failure of her own objectivity. Then a new thought occurred to her: “Wait, does that mean the chickens were once people too?”
Jareth looked at her, inscrutable.
“There were a lot of chickens in your castle and in the Goblin City,” Sarah pointed out.
“Of course the chickens were not once people. What an absurd idea!”
Sarah nearly gave into the temptation to bite back with a remark about Jareth hardly being an authority on what was and was not absurd. Instead, she adopted what she hoped was a sly expression and a sweet tone of voice.
“Poor Goblin King. You must get so bored. So frustrated. No one but goblins to talk to, save the lost humans, but once they are transformed I wonder if they still remember their old lives. That is why you keep hovering near me, isn’t it, a bit of variety? A different perspective.”
Jareth’s teeth were very sharp when he grinned, oh what big teeth you have! “Don’t flatter yourself, Sarah. If I want a different point of view, you are not the only one to have got out of the labyrinth still human.”
Sarah stood so violently, her office chair rolled back and struck the edge of her desk. “You leave Toby alone! He has enough on his plate without you messing with his head.”
Jareth fell back a step, raised his hands as if in surrender. “So fierce,” he mocked. “The big sister who cannot be bothered to speak to Toby very often, but would walk into the labyrinth to save him. As it happens, I did not mean your brother. The labyrinth has been around for a very long time, Sarah.”
Still smarting from Jareth so easily using Toby against her, Sarah seized on his last remark. “How long?”
Jareth produced a crystal ball out of thin air, began rolling it over and around his palms and forearms.
“You don’t know, do you?” Sarah said softly. For all that, whenever she thought about him (often), she comforted herself by remembering the limits of Jareth’s power, she hated to see him not get the last word.
“I am but a humble servant of the labyrinth’s power. Omnipotent within my realm, unable to transcend it,” Jareth said in a voice as solid as a stone, his mismatched eyes fixed on the dancing crystal ball and away from Sarah’s face. “No more, no less.” His eyes glittered when he did turn them on Sarah. “Though I could still make you my queen. A king in a cage is still a king.”
“Only I don’t want to be your appendage and jewel, Jareth.” This was solid ground. Sarah knew the correct formula for this situation.
“Are you certain that’s how it goes? Oh Sarah, still a little girl wanting to play at being the damsel in distress, when we both know it is I who would be a jewel in your crown, an amusement to keep your boredom at bay.”
Sarah pressed her lips together. She hated having this argument, the light in which it made her see herself.
Before she could reply, Jareth said, exaggeratedly casual: “Anyway, being my queen may be the better alternative.”
Sarah felt like she’d been encased in ice: glittering, and special, and unable to move. “What does that mean?” The words came out annoyingly adolescent.
Jareth watched her, like they were equals and he owed her a dram of honesty. “The labyrinth has been with you since you were fifteen. You’ve spent time in it, you’ve studied it and thought about it even longer. It may claim you for itself yet, in life or after death transforms you. I cannot be certain, but it may.”
That must have cost him a lot, to admit his lack of knowledge about his realm. Sarah suppressed the urge to thank him. She found, to her surprise, that she did not feel as disturbed by Jareth’s revelation as she might have anticipated – magic did follow fairly predictable rules, as she well knew.
Sarah raised her chin and adopted an airy tone. “You and the labyrinth have that in common – wanting to claim me,” she said. “I’ll take my chances.”
She wondered, if it did happen, what she might become in the labyrinth. She hoped she would turn into something nice. No – something useful. Not moss with eyes. Something which spoke, and moved, and performed a function.
Jareth’s voice broke through her reverie. “I… shan’t be able to save you, Sarah.”
“I know,” she said. “And I know which bargains I am willing to make. Now it’s time you were leaving. I have much to think about.”
Jareth came to her, so close she felt his warmth again, and touched her cheek with his gloved fingertip. “I must depart when my mistress commands. I’ll miss you, Sarah.”
Sarah kept her hands down by her sides, unwilling to risk touching him, and managed a smile which, she hoped, concealed the tears gathering in her eyes. “If what you say is true, Jareth, you’ll see me all time, only I may not know you. Won’t that be strange for us both?”