PAN’S LABYRINTH By Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke. Book review

PAN’S LABYRINTH By Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke, Bloomsbury £16.99, Website

Reviewed by H T Scott

I have long been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro and was super excited to read this book version of one of my all-time favourite films. I already knew that in addition to his awesome talents as both a scriptwriter and director Del Toro is quite an accomplished author. Having read ‘The Strain’ trilogy penned by him, I was not at all disappointed with this book.

Ophelia is an eleven-year-old girl who finds herself travelling to a remote Spanish forest with her heavily pregnant mother. The reason? Having lost her father in WW11, her mother has remarried a Captain in Franco’s army, Vidal. It is his child she carries and he has been stationed in the woods in the hope of flushing out the guerilla resistance to Franco’s ruling of Spain. 

Unable to influence the world around her Ophelia loses herself in fairy tales and fantasy books. Admonished by her mother for her flights of fancy she is encouraged to accept her new life and call Vidal her father. But Ophelia hates the Captain and she’s concerned about her mother, who now in the late stages of her pregnancy is very ill and growing weaker day by day. On the journey to meet the Captain her mother becomes nauseous and they stop at the roadside. Ophelia wanders off into the woods and finds a stone with an eye carved into it. Walking further into the woods she comes across a carved obelisk and discovers that the stone eye fits perfectly into the hole in it. Upon inserting the eye Ophelia has unknowingly awoken a magic, the kind that she reads about and believes in. She first realises that something special is happening when then and there an insect-like creature crawls from the mouth of the carving and Ophelia believes it to be a fairy.

Later that night the fairy visits her again and leads her to a labyrinth situated on the edge of the forest. Following the fairy, she is taken into an underground chamber where she meets a Faun. Ophelia is told that she is a princess called Moanna, if she doesn’t believe him then she should look for the mark of the moon on her shoulder. Many centuries have passed and the Faun has been waiting for her to return so that the magical world she comes from can exist again. But first, she has to complete three tasks set by the Faun before the full moon. He hands her a book and bag with three stones in and sets the first task.

Meanwhile, Ophelia’s mother Carmen is trying to find some common ground between her husband and Ophelia before the baby comes. But with Vidal preoccupied with his duties and the conflict he has with the ever more troublesome guerillas and Ophelia disappearing off into the woods she is struggling. Ophelia has become friends with Mercedes, the head maid who along with the doctor are helping the resistance fighters in the woods. Mercedes becomes a mother figure to Ophelia and a reason for concern to the Captain for a completely different reason.

 With the disturbances from the resistance, the tasks to complete for the Faun and her ailing mother, Ophelia finds herself overwhelmed by her circumstances. Subsequently, she almost fails one of the tasks and two of the fairies suffer for her mistake. Pan tells her she has failed and can no longer return to the kingdom. Ophelia begs him for another chance, she tells him about her sick mother and he gives her a mandrake root with instructions to put it in a bowl of milk and feed it two drops of blood a day. She is to place it under Carmen’s bed. Then Ophelia is to complete the tasks. 

This book follows the same general storyline of the film but there are more in-depth details that you don’t get in the film. Written in chapters that have two storylines running alongside each other. One narrative is about the present and the other narrative is about the legend of the labyrinth, its genesis and the back story to some of the characters. I liked that both Mercedes kitchen knife and Vidal’s razor blade have more meaningful mythology in the book and therefore a greater significance to the storyline. I also really enjoyed the chapters that were more fairytale-like but gave substance to the whole book. In addition, the illustrations throughout the book are just stunning and contribute to the beauty of the storytelling. Each character has substance and purpose. This book is so well crafted, the writing flows so easily that you get caught up in it and find yourself immersed, even when you put it down your mind will ruminate about it. Del Toro and Funke have taken what was already a darkly perfect fairytale and made it exquisite. Like all good fairytales, there is no happy ending. As you can probably guess I loved it and this book is now one of my favourites. Magical just magical.