We woke up to the news as weather giants threw the sky against our windows and rocked the house in their rollicking. I had just been thinking about Bowie yesterday, but I suppose everyone has.
He is the kind of guy that makes you believe in life on Mars. Everybody has their heroes, and the rebel Starman was one for many. Modern love is like that, I guess, helping us deal with changes by dancing in the street with all the young dudes. An oddity in space, Bowie helped young Americans–and a few others–in the late age of rock ‘n’ roll ask the question, “Where Are We Now?” Today, he is the man who sold the world.
Thinking about Bowie, I have a little Ziggy Stardust in my eyes.
My first memory of Bowie wasn’t the music, which I didn’t get until I was older. I would go back to Bowie with “Under Pressure”–he and Freddie Mercury improvising their way to new musical heights.
But my very first memory was the Jim Henson film, Labyrinth. This has to be, without doubt, the creepiest Muppet film ever. I reacted strongly to the film as a child: frustration, intrigue, terror, revulsion, surprise, delight, and an awkward boyhood crush on Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, the heroine. It was a powerful film, not least because of David Bowie as Jareth. Evil and allure, Bowie is my archetypal Goblin King.
You can never trust a goblin king, for the goblin king loves to steal children’s lives.
Sarah knows this, yet she struggles to keep her distance from Jareth and to focus on her task. It is only an hour and a half, but when I watch the film I feel like I have spent hours with Sarah in the hopeless maze of her imagination.
One of the brilliant, understated parts of Labyrinth is Sarah’s bedroom. Have you looked carefully about how her room is designed?
The adventure that Sarah faces, with friends on one side, enemies on the other, and traitors in her midst, are all in Sarah’s room. Her teddy bears, her toys, the games and friends of her childhood imagination–now sitting immobile in her teenage dislocation–will soon animate the nightmare of a generation. Even the impossible moving stairs scene that Sarah faces–really Escher’s world–is in the poster on Sarah’s wall.
Still, Sarah is not without resources. Her favourite stuffie is called Lancelot, and Lancelot always takes up adventures. Her entire childhood has prepared her for the adventure to defeat the Goblin King and save her little brother. Most important of all, Sarah has her books.
Sarah’s bookshelf is a valuable resource for fighting goblin kings and other foes. The Halloween Inn has catalogued the books that we can see in Sarah’s room:
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- Hans Christian Anderson’ Fairy Tales
- Grimm’s Fairy Tales
- Walt Disney’s Snow White Annual
- Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
- Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
While my list would be different–much like J. Aleksandr Wootton’s list here–the principle is the same: faërie stories are essential for preparing us for life’s adventures. These books, their stories and characters and hard choices, echo through Jareth’s challenge and Sarah’s adventure. In thinking about fairy tales, C.S. Lewis reminded us that sometimes there are dragons in life that we must slay. Echoing that sentiment, Neil Gaiman quoted G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” (Coraline).
Modern life is like Bowie as the Goblin King. Not just because modern life is often frustrating and sometimes dances with Muppets in effeminate clothing. Life, like the Goblin King, tends to steal our childhood. One of the greatest resources we have for conquering the labyrinthine quality of daily struggles is to return to the books and stories and imaginative art of our nursery days.
David Bowie is gone, but his character lives on. It is intriguing that the art we make–and the decisions too–live long past our mortal lives. This is something that fantasy literature reminds us of all the time.
David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust
That Neil Gaiman quote is a paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton in “The Red Angel.” http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/Tremendous_Trifles.html#2H_4_0018
That was super helpful. I hadn’t read (or coded) that in Chesterton.
I would have chosen the Goblin King over Sarah’s little brother any day. David Bowie’s portrayal of him was a triumph – who would not have fallen in love with him?
In my fantasy he is out the amongst the stars, building a new, rainbow bright world.
As I wrote those words the sun came out from behind the clouds for the first time today…
That’s lovely. The sun did peak through here, after torrential rain. I don’t know any other film that captures the problematic allure of faerie.
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Torrential rain in Narnia? I suppose it happens…
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Thank you for a fine appreciation of one of the most influential people of the last 50 years. I cannot resist telling a story about the closest I ever got to him and then I promise I won’t inflict it on anyone else. At the time he was breaking through in his stellar career he was booked to play a gig at my school in Higher Wycombe, England. The hall held about 1000 people and some really fine artists played there. Well, he didn’t turn up. I guess something better turned up. The impresario walked onto the stage and told us that Bowie would never work for him again. I guess he never did! We didn’t mind too much. A really popular local artist stepped in at the last moment. We all loved him and he played a great gig so we all went home happy. That is the closest I ever got to him.
First, Bowie at your high school! Wow. I’m not sure I’ve ever been closer than a 1000 miles form him.
Do you remember the local artist’s name?
Nice to come so close to Stardust.
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Bowie not turning up at my high school! Deus Absconditus! The artist’s name was Jonathan Kelly.
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It being Christmastide, I was just wondering whether I should rewatch Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (my first Bowie film) – I’m still always hoping to catch up with The Man Who Fell to Earth, and somehow didn’t even know I had Labyrinth to catch up with, as well (I saw Dark Crystal, though I cannot remember its plot! – but have no sense of Labyrinth having come along), nor did I remember it was him whom I so enjoyed as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, till I went to IMDB to check his filmography. (Speaking of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, I’m still always meaning to catch up with Laurens van der Post, too…)
I didn’t know about the Man Who Fell to Earth, so we are trading films here. Awesome!
I should probably add, part of the reason I was wondering (and have not rewatched Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, yet), is that it is ‘heavy going’, and variously shocking, in ways other ‘heavy’ Japanese POW-camp films are not. (A good reason to try to read its Van der post source).
I don’t know what Bowie music I know without knowing it’s his, or much about his life (which seems to have involved a lot of self-destructive behaviour, and various degrees of escapes from it). Going on reading various blog (etc.) posts about him, I just encountered (without link) a quotation of his answering the question, ‘What was his music about?’ in an interview with the BBC in 2002, by saying:
“Personally, I feel that I’ve consistently written about the same subjects for 35, nearly 40 years. There’s really been no room for change with me. It’s all despondency, despair, fear, isolation, abandonment.”
And I am running into references to creepy-sounding music videos of recent work (such as “The Next Day” and (apparently) Blackstar track-related ones) – which I have not steeled myself to check out, some contending (I know not how knowledgeably) secret-society ritual magic stuff being used malevolently rather than critically…
(A sort of ‘Charles-Williams-and-then-some’ figure, I begin to wonder?… a tiring thought!)
No, not Charles Williams (I think). For all his flaws, Williams reintegrates the human after the disintegration. I think that Bowie leaves us at disintegration.
Perhaps Bowie makes better art, I don’t know. There are hardly two voices any different. But many of our artists today that attempt integration (i.e., moralistic art, Christian writing, after-school special TV), is very, very bad.
Your Neil Gaiman quote is a Chesterton quote, methinks.
You are right. Another reader pointed out that Chesterton said the same idea in Tremendous Trifles. C.S. Lewis said a similar thing, but he was always recomposing Chesterton forhttps://widgets.wp.com/notifications/2239358367# a new generation.
In this case it is Gaiman quoting GKC (epigraph).
Just ran into this, for what it is worth…
I heard this too–on CBC I think, or maybe I read it. I love the announcement, but does something strike you as weird? I, for one, never imagined the stories were only a few hundred–or even a few thousand–years old. However long we’ve been telling stories, I presume that the core structures or idea grandparents of our main 200 storylines (all disintegraiton and redemption) must have been in play.
“I, for one, never imagined the stories were only a few hundred–or even a few thousand–years old.” No – and/or – I don’t know…, with “for what it is worth” including, ‘just what are we talking about?’
Reading your comment, I had the opening of Robert Graves’s “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” come swimming into mind – “There is one story and one story only”… Looking to check it online, brought me not only Graves reciting it on YouTube, but the sample of Mark Ford’s 1995 review of six books at once with its ref to “Graves’s dotty belief-system”:
Just before (ahem) Graves arose, however, I had thought of the marvellous reminiscences by H.S. Benedikz (which, entirely thanks to Dale Nelson, I just caught up with), “Some Family Connections with J.R.R. Tolkien, Amon Hen, 209 (Jan. 2008), 11-13. He attended various of Tolkien’s lectures and recalls “Tolkien’s reading of the parallel bits of The Feast of Briciu” in his Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight series, in which “he reminded us that in order to understand an English masterpiece of the Middle Ages we must realise that its basic theme would, as likely as not, have travelled all round Europe in quite a variety of guises. It may even have travelled further, for it was from him that most of us heard the name Mahabharata in connection with The Pardoner’s Tale!”
Nice: Graves arose. I have about 200 issues behind in Amon Hen reading!
I think–and I might be wrong–that we are narrative beings, us humans. Part of this is the dance that Northrup Frye lays out–the seasons, the Biblical epic, the dissolution and resolution. I think too, though, that stories move and live and spread. Thus the good ones, when they are adjusted and translated, stick.
I think, for example, that part of the “truth” of the Christ story is that it reflects the essential human experience (plus its prophetic and religious importance).