So, I wanted to get this published, but it's too long for student journals and too undergraduate for professional journals. So I'll just hurl my findings out at the internet hoping that somebody scholarly interested in Life of Pi will read this and see the connections with it and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.
Pan and Pi: Epic Metaphors for Spirituality in the Twentieth Century
Throughout the history of humanity, in no epoch was there such a staggering amount of war, mass murder and doubt as was present in the twentieth century. With this bloody period as a back-drop, two works, Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth, emerged at the dawn of the twenty-first century to argue that life—in spite of atrocities like the ones just experienced in the 1900s—has meaning, and that there is a deeper significance to the events which transpire around us.
Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi and Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth are both stories about two self-contained stories—one profane and one sacred. In this paper, I will contend that both works are metaphors for the spiritual crises of the twentieth century. I will further show how Life of Pi uses parallels in its structure to demonstrate the choice of faith, and then how Pan’s Labyrinth uses its structure to show the significance of the application of that choice.
1. Metaphors for the twentieth century
Both works extend the range of their significance by tying themselves into other events from the twentieth century. Life of Pi in its entirety is an extended metaphor for the twentieth century. While not as intricate in its extension, Pan’s Labyrinth achieves the same effect by inserting iconic images from that time period.
This extension of meaning through metaphor lends the two works an even more epic feel than they already have. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Pan’s Labyrinth deals with a war, while Life of Pi deals with a fantastical journey. And as those classic epics are timeless, by extending the two modern works’ frame of reference, they too acquire a timeless quality. Because of this quality, the two modern works have the power to inform their future audience’s spiritual paradigm in a similar fashion to how Homer’s works have informed Western civilization for millennia.
1.1 Pi and the “Helsinki Roccamatios”
In order to understand how Life of Pi is a metaphor for the twentieth century, readers must first go back fifteen years prior to its 2001 publication. In 1986 Martel wrote a short story titled “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.” In it, the protagonist’s friend is dying of AIDS, so they decide to do something “important” by writing a novel with eighty-six chapters, each chapter being a metaphor for an event in the corresponding year of the twentieth century up to the point of the then-present (16). That format for a novel seemed to me like too brilliant an idea for such a gifted author like Martel to leave exclusively in the realm of his short story.
As it would happen, in 2001 (after the end of the 1900s), Martel’s Life of Pi went to print—a book with a hundred chapters, each chapter corresponding to an event from that year of the twentieth century. The text itself calls attention to the number of chapters. Towards the end of the novel, Pi says, “ Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example—I wonder—could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less (279)?” The secondary literature surrounding Life of Pi has universally neglected this connection between Martel’s novel and his earlier short story, but the link is critical to understanding the novel in terms of structure and message.
1.2 Year to chapter correspondences
For this paper, an exhaustive list of parallels between events in the years of the twentieth century and corresponding chapters in Life of Pi would be as impossible as it would be unnecessary. Although “The Roccamatios” serves as a good tool for deciphering the connections between years and chapters in Life of Pi, the short story itself is not exhaustive and leaves out the last forty-four years. Furthermore, even though there are some clear carry-overs from “Roccamatios” to Pi which I will discuss in the next section, there is no way of knowing if Martel used all the same events for “The Roccamatios” as he did for Life of Pi. And although an exhaustive list of connections would be interesting, the most critical point to take from the structure is that the work is, in fact, an extended metaphor for an extended time period. In my analysis, I have extracted five of the more defendable metaphors to make the case for the book as a whole.
In “The Helsinki Roccamatios,” the characters pick the Wright brothers’ first flight for the event from 1903 to base the metaphor for their third chapter (21). In chapter three of Life of Pi, Pi first learns to swim in the ocean (9). Pi glides through the expanse of the ocean much like the Wright brothers flew through the air, and it was as revolutionary (and ultimately vital) for Pi to learn how to swim as it was for the world to begin to conquer flight.
The “Helsinki Roccamatios” protagonists choose Mein Kampf as their event from 1925. Their note reads: 1925—Adolf Hitler publishes The Settlement of Accounts, the first volume of his political manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle)…. The book is pompous in style, repetitious, meandering, illogical, and filled with grammatical mistakes. The ranting of a half-educated nut” (39).
And here is an excerpt from Life of Pi’s twenty-fifth chapter, detailing Pi’s views on religious bigots: “Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening” (68). Here, there is a clear connection between the characters in “The Helsinki Roccamatios’” disdain for Hitler’s loose anger and the anger of over-zealous apologists in Pi’s commentary. The two descriptions are almost interchangeable. Simply changing the pronoun reference could make the section from Life of Pi an adequate description of Hitler’s later speeches. “His face goes read, his chest heaves mightily, he sputters angry words. The degree of his indignation is astonishing. His resolve is frightening.”
In 1929, the American stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression. In reference to that event, Chapter 29 of Life of Pi discusses the political and economic turmoil in India which led the Patel family, as well as people in general, to emigrate.
People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right, but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.
Although there was not a massive emigration from the United States following the stock market crash, historians and survivors of the Great Depression have expressed that that was the sentiment of the times—a “gnawing feeling” that “happiness and prosperity [were] possible only somewhere else.”
In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, sinking a significant portion of the US fleet. To parallel the sinking of all those ships and the start of war, chapter 41 of Life of Pi details the sinking of the Tsimtsum and Pi’s first confrontation with the hyena, which would later prove to be a source of violence among the other animals in the life boat. Here is an excerpt:
I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching. Lights flickered and went out. I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy….
A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin…. It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena. (105, 107)
In this metaphor, not only does the Tsimtsum symbolize the sinking of the U.S. fleet, but Pi’s first encounter with the hyena and the ensuing conflict mirrors that initial clash with the Japanese which began the U.S. involvement in World War II.
Finally, 1969 saw the peak of the Cold War’s space race with the Americans finally landing on the moon. As a metaphor for the rockets going into space, this chapter details Pi’s efforts to signal ships. “On many nights I was convinced I saw a light in the distance. Each time I set off a flare” (193). Likewise, every time the Americans or Russians saw the hope of space travel or landing on the moon (a light in the distance), they set off their own rockets (flares).
Perhaps a reason for establishing such a laborious and extended metaphor is to argue that the primary conflict of Life of Pi, the decision to believe in spirituality, was the real conflict of the twentieth century—not merely survival. It also shifts the emphasis from nations onto individuals. In a century brimming with global conflict, Martel stresses the spiritual journey of the self rather than world wars.
1.3 Paleman's extension
If the key to understanding Life of Pi’s twentieth century metaphor lies in an earlier short story, the key to Pan’s Labyrinth lies in a monster.
Two of the most terrifying characters in Pan’s Labyrinth are Child-Eating Paleman and Captain Vidal. But the two characters share more than terror. Guillermo del Toro shot them in such a way as to provide them with striking parallels. For example, while Ofelia is fulfilling her first task, Vidal is hosting a dinner at a long table covered with extravagant dishes. He sits at the end of the table, in front of a fireplace with his hands resting on the table’s surface. When the camera first introduces Paleman, he is also sitting at the end of a long banquet table in front of a fireplace, with his hands resting on the table.
Later in the film, as Vidal is slowed by the sleeping drug, he waves his gun, staggering after Ofelia. His staggering in pursuit mirrors Paleman’s chase scene where he fumbles around and tries to grab the girl before she escapes his lair. By connecting the two characters, del Toro not only helps them share each other’s terrifying effect, but he also ties Vidal into Paleman’s larger themes of violence and abuse of power, which del Toro established by placing the monster in an abandoned cathedral full of images of gluttony, holocaust and murder.
Next to Paleman’s lavish feast is a pile of abandoned shoes, apparently from his previous victims. This image brings to mind the hoards of shoes and spectacles that would later be harvested in Auschwitz, and even later be put on display in museums like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., and in the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. Like the events in Life of Pi, the images in Pan’s Labyrinth metaphorically reference events outside itself in the twentieth century to emphasize that its themes and messages are not bound to an isolated incident or geographic region.
In his paper, film scholar Jacob Hodgen noted the general oversight in many critics’ reviews of Pan’s Labyrinth by calling attention to the film’s reception as simply an adult fairytale or commentary on just WWII Spain. He acknowledges that the film does, among other things, argue against fascist ideology. But then he quotes an interview with del Toro to establish that the themes and messages behind Pan’s Labyrinth are not strictly political. The quote is as follows:
It's the difference between a parable and a pamphlet. A parable discusses things that are relevant in the past, the future, and the present—regardless of the outcome in the present. A pamphlet, on the other hand, is completely concerned with affecting an outcome in the present, the most immediate present. I would like to think that movies like [Pan’s Labyrinth] or The Devil's Backbone or Cronos are definitely more parables than anything else. They try to discuss things like immortality and death and truth and choice. (cited in Hodgen 16-17)
Both Hodgen and del Toro emphasize the necessity of a more expanded analysis of the film by allowing it to speak for more than just its immediate context. This is in part because Ofelia’s journey is not exclusively hers—it is the human struggle to make moral, ethical and spiritual strides in the midst of horror, violence and ambiguity.
2. Parallels in Life of Pi
Although both Pi and Pan use parallel stories, they use the parallels for different effects. Since Life of Pi primarily concerns itself with the crisis of faith, its two stories are in conflict. They are mutually exclusive, and preferring one over the other leads to radically different interpretations that do not find a happy reconciliation. For that reason, unlike Pi’s eclectic religious convictions, readers cannot subscribe to both versions.
2.1 Mutually exclusive interpretations
As is the case with Life of Pi’s hundred chapters, the text itself calls attention to the parallels between the stories. The Japanese officials point out the correspondence between the zebra with a broken leg and the Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg. They are both the first to die. The officials then mention the parallel between the orangutan and the hyena and the mother and the French cook. The hyena/cook eats the orangutan/mother.
And then comes the elusive Richard Parker and the first divergence of the two texts with respect to the significance of their interpretations. The Japanese official Mr. Okamoto says that the tiger represents Pi. But if Pi is present in both stories, Richard Parker cannot represent Pi in his entirety. According to their initial reading, he would most likely represent the Id, while Pi (as his own Ego and Superego) remains detached from the lifeboat on his raft of life jackets. This interpretation lends a chilling effect to Pi’s line, “It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story (158).”
But that is assuming the second story is true. Canadian scholar Michel Biron’s paper “Réalismes d’aujourd’hui” provides an alternate stance:
L’histoire de Pi est cependant autre chose qu’une banale illustration des lois naturelles. La vérité empirique est carrément inversée : c’est grâce à Richard Parker que Pi trouve l’énergie pour survivre. « C’est la vérité pure et simple : sans Richard Parker, je ne serais pas vivant pour vous raconter mon histoire. » (177) Vérité transcendante et non plus seulement empirique : l’individu devient humble devant le grand désert du cosmos. Il a besoin d’un tigre, qui est ici un puissant symbole d’une divinité à la fois terrible et fascinante. (164)
Here, Biron explains that Life of Pi’s true complexity and message lies not in being a banal, fictitious experiment with the laws of nature, but in the reversal of apparent reality. In this reading, Pi would not have survived without Richard Parker not because he would have lacked the animal instincts of “kill or be killed,” but because he would have lacked the motivation and inspiration to cling to life. Along with inspiring fear in Pi, the tiger was also a constant source of beauty and grandeur, thus his genuine heart-break when the Richard Parker unceremoniously leaves him upon their arrival in Mexico (279).
Once again, Martel shifts the emphasis from a conflict with others to a journey of the self. According to Biron’s reading, Pi’s danger lies not in competing with rival animals or people, but in succumbing to the hopelessness which accompanies the expanse of “the emptiness of the cosmos.” With Life of Pi seen as the metaphor that it is, the argument emerges that the real threat to man in the twentieth century was not international conflict. It was the threat that none of these tragedies carried any greater meaning—that they failed to fit into a grander context. Were it not for Richard Parker and all the divinity he symbolized, Pi would have succumbed to the death of isolation in the midst of a vast void.
This is but one illustration of the divergence in interpretation the two stories provide—that Pi survived because of his depraved animal instinct, or that he survived because of his reliance on the divine and a grander spiritual context.
2.2 Mutually dependant interpretations
But for all the conflict, competition and difference that the two stories present, neither makes sense independently. In her paper on Life of Pi, Florence Stratton observed:
The meaning of “Richard Parker” is further complicated by an essay Martel has posted on the internet which makes evident that, while “clerical error” may be the official intratextual explanation for the name Richard Parker, there is another history of the name’s origin. A cabin boy of the same name is murdered and eaten by his lifeboat companions in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Martel informs us. There are also two historical Richard Parkers who were victims of shipwreck and cannibalism in the nineteenth century. (11)
The name “Richard Parker,” then, can only be understood in reference to the story without animals; otherwise, such a heavy reference to cannibalism has no ground to stand on within the story with animals. Not only are there no other humans involved (besides the brief encounter with the adrift Frenchman, where he did eat small strips of his dead flesh which he was using for bait), but there is not a single pair of alike species once the story reaches the life boat until it arrives at the algae island. And even then, the meerkats show no signs of cannibalism. The cannibalistic theme has its roots almost exclusively in the second story.
As Stratton also points out, there is a scrambling of the cook and Pi’s identities. For example, in the first story, the hyena eats the flies, while Richard Parker eats the rat, except for a small piece which Pi eats. In the second story, the cook eats both the flies and the rat (Stratton 13). Perhaps the best identity jumble, though, is when Pi uses strips of the Frenchman’s corpse as bait (Martel, Pi 249), which is exactly what the French cook did to the Taiwanese sailor (301). If the French cook’s actions are seen as a retro-projection of Pi’s use of the adrift sailor’s flesh, the cook’s irrational barbarity suddenly makes sense. His actions become a parable of Pi’s desperation much later in his journey.
2.3 Equal validity
The effect of the competition and interplay between the two accounts of Pi’s survival create a kind of cognitive dissonance. What makes the ending of Life of Pi so jarring is that there is no definitive reason to believe one story over the other. The first story is absurd, and yet it has proof. Who could take his account of the floating carnivorous algae/meerkat island seriously? But when he reaches Mexico, there are meerkat skeletons in his lifeboat—an animal which was not on the Tsimtsum (296). And although it seems unlikely that Pi would be able to tame a Bengal tiger, the first story gives a detailed account of how he did it, whereas the second story is silent as to how he survived. Pi merely says, “Solitude began. I turned to God. I survived” (306).
Likewise, the second story has its own merit. It illuminates and darkens parts of the first story which would otherwise be incomprehensible. And although the cook’s behavior is outrageous and almost unbelievable, his actions could easily just be the diabolical product of his personality and scenario. Based on the information Pi provides, either story is valid.
And this equality extends to the “happy ending” argument many critics of the first story dislike. The first story—looking purely at the facts—is still very much a tragedy. As Pi poignantly reminds the Japanese officials, “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer” (311). Few would sign up for or survive Pi’s first ideal. Therefore, the first story is not a childish escape from the tragic. It is not Disney-fying his suffering or his loss. In terms of raw facts, both are equally tragic.
3. Choosing the “better story”
In several points throughout the novel, Pi mentions the idea of “the better story” (61, 311-312). As would be expected, the driving force behind much of the commentary surrounding Life of Pi is deciding which story that is. With no factual reason to choose one over the other, what other motivation is there to decide which story is better?
Concerning this road block on the way to certainty, Terryl Givens, a scholar of religion wrote:
The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true, and to have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing them to be true. I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice—and, therefore, the more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. (Givens)
Givens then goes on to recount the story of the ass of Buridan—a beast with access to two equally desirable piles of hay. Without a reason to choose one over the other, the animal starves to death. Givens continues:
But in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance…is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.
He argues that when it comes to the decision to believe in God, there is no conclusive reason to choose the side of faith or doubt. Belief in either direction, then, is very much a choice.
And so it is with Life of Pi. If readers choose the story “with animals” over the story “without,” it is because that story resonates more with their “principles and values and ideals.” Like the Japanese investigators, they will choose the story with animals because although it is still a story full of suffering and terror, it is, at least, a story pregnant with hope and triumph.
I personally think this is the mystery behind that controversial line in the author’s note, that Pi’s is a story “that will make you believe in God” (x). Life of Pi is not concerned with apologetics. It is not at all worried about compelling its readers to believe in God. But by bringing the reader into the narrative in a rather uncommon way, the story becomes a meta-story, and that experience itself becomes the metaphor that will “make you believe in God.” It does not prove anything. The message of the metaphor lies in that readers cannot prove either story, just as they cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God. Instead, they must consciously choose one story over the other. They must consciously choose faith or cynicism.
And what better message for the twentieth century? During those hundred years, sociologists and historians have noted the steep decline of the fortunes of religion. With the expansion of astronomy and our greater understanding of how infinitely small this earth is, at no other point has humanity been so exposed, as Biron said, to the “great emptiness of the cosmos” (164). Subsequently, we have been in danger of “throwing out the universe with the bathwater” (Martel, Pi 294). Life of Pi leaves readers at the crossroads of faith and doubt, showing them that there is equal factual reason to pursue either of the two convictions, but that one is still, nevertheless, “better.”
4. Parallels in Pan’s Labyrinth
Life of Pi largely leaves spirituality at the choice of faith, and Pan’s Labyrinth then takes the spiritual journey beyond the initial decision to believe. Therefore, the parallel stories cannot serve the same function of creating a controlled crisis of faith as they did in Life of Pi. The reality of the fantastical story in Pan’s Labyrinth is never called into question, and it has tangible reference points within the story of the war: Ofelia brings back the magical book Pan gave her, which she hides in the house. Vidal finds the mandrake root which Pan also provided.
Since the parallels cannot represent alternate versions of the same story, I contend that they actually communicate different epiphanies and dilemmas encountered in spirituality, but there is always a juxtaposition of innocence and guilt, peace and violence, the spiritual and profane.
One of the first parallels in the film is Ofelia and Vidal’s use of mirrors. After her first encounter with Pan, Ofelia looks through the mirror at the back of her shoulder and sees the mark that Pan told her would be there if she were the true princess. She smiles when she sees it. The mirror, then helps her see a future Self. She is able to understand, to a small degree, who she will become if she continues in her present course and passes all of the faun’s tests.
In contrast, during that eloquent scene where Vidal is shaving, he considers his reflection in the mirror, and then slices his reflection’s throat with his straight-razor. He is also seeing a future Self. His own actions foreshadow his death. If he continues on his path of violence and bloodshed (and he does), he will meet a violent end.
Ofelia is a strong counterpoint to Vidal. While she happily contemplates her destiny, he is filled with self-loathing. As someone who will ultimately pass her moral trials, she is able to be at peace with who she is then and who she will become. Vidal, on the other hand, detests his current and future Selves, and this because of his depravity.
Such parallels between Ofelia and Vidal, however, are rare. Ofelia’s most common foil throughout the film is Mercedes. The next two examples are parallels between those two characters. Ofelia retrieves a key from the belly of the frog she defeated and uses it in her next trial. Similarly, Mercedes has a secret key to Vidal’s store-house, which she uses in a moral trial—assisting the rebels, who are running dangerously low on supplies.
In both cases, the two characters choose to follow their conscience rather than the established authority figures. In Ofelia’s case, both the illustration in her book and the fairies themselves told her to put the key into the middle box, but for a reason that is not clear in the film, she feels they are wrong, and she instead opens the box on the left, which turns out to be the correct choice. Mercedes chooses to steal from the authorities to aid her family and defenders of her social convictions.
Because both characters act according to the mandates of their conscience rather than external pressures, these two episodes with the keys emphasize the importance of conscience in an applied morality—profane (as in the case of Mercedes) and spiritual (as with Ofelia). This theme of conscience is further explored and heightened in the two characters’ handling of their respective knives.
The last parallel I will explore is Ofelia and Mercedes’ use of the knives. Ofelia retrieves her knife from the cabinet she opened with the key. Mercedes takes a knife from her apron while she is tied up in the storehouse (the place that her key opened). The difference, though, is what they do with their knives. Ofelia refuses to let Pan use the knife to slice into her infant brother to open the portal to the netherworld. Mercedes, on the other hand, uses her knife to brutally (albeit, justifiably) attack Vidal.
Here, the parallel underscores the difference between a moral ideal, and actual applied morality, the latter being a much messier affair than the former. Although Ofelia’s decision to spare her brother was (especially by the end of the film) clearly the right choice, it still took courage, as any viewer can see in the terror in her face as she is pinned between Vidal and Pan. Mercedes’ scenario, however is not so clean cut. Her decision is to either let herself be tortured or seriously wound, if not kill, her adversary.
As thousands of years of history and literature have shown us, such a moral dilemma is an integral part of the human experience—especially the spiritual experience. What is significant, though, is that Mercedes does not kill Vidal, making her and Ofelia one of three even semi-major characters who do not kill someone during the course of the film (the other being Ofelia’s mother). Also, the nature of their two tests are quite different. Ofelia had to choose between letting herself die or killing an innocent baby. Mercedes, on the other hand, was dealing with a man whose blood could not approach innocence.
5. Meaning in the midst of tragedy
I would now like to focus more on Ofelia’s final moral dilemma with the knife, for therein is the message of the film. Ofelia’s final test is to see if she would spill her own blood rather than the blood of an innocent. It is to see if she would be willing to pay ultimately to spare an innocent Other. When she decides not to give the baby to Pan, Vidal shoots her in the stomach. This scene harkens back to the image of her mother’s navel oozing blood down her dress before she delivered Ofelia’s brother. In other words, it is a symbol of birth. It is an iconic version of Jesus’ proverb, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it (King James Version, Matt. 10.39).” In putting her morality first, she gives birth to her true self—she achieves the projected identity she saw in the mirror.
This concept of achieving the true self through living up to a spiritual standard rather than a profane expectation finds articulation in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. He writes: “But in being himself he [the Christian] is not dependent upon the multitude, before God he is himself. For from ‘the others,’ naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a man from being himself” (43). The application of this philosophy is especially powerful in Ofelia’s case. She was, after all, trying to prove exactly that—that she was not “what the others are.” She had to prove that she was the true daughter of the king of the netherworld.
In turn, only by consistently refusing to let others mandate her morality and belief system does she become her true self. The conflict of her beliefs with others begins with her mother’s insistence that Ofelia’s fairy tale books are beneath her. The conflict continues as Ofelia rethinks which cabinet to open with her key. The tension ultimately finds its climax when she disobeys Pan.
But the film does not ignore the tragedy of her death, nor does it pardon the evil of a grown man murdering a defenseless girl. At this point, the score becomes a veritable dirge, and we see the whole leftist army mourning over Ofelia’s body. Mercedes is closest to Ofelia, singing her the lullaby introduced earlier in the film. The film does not turn its focus away from such an honestly terrible event, but it does show that that event is part of a larger, even more significant context. With her father’s post facto explanation of Ofelia’s last trial, it would seem that the greater tragedy would have been to not resist Vidal, and thereby lose her true self and ultimate destination.
This message of greater significance because of and in spite of death finds a voice in Victor Frankl, who was a Holocaust survivor and the founder of Logotherapy. Logotherapy argues that humanity’s primary drive is to find meaning in life (rather than pleasure, which was Freud’s theory). He writes:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves (135).
Here, Frankl contends that there is always a way to give meaning to an event, no matter how tragic. Death itself—even and especially tragic and horrible deaths, like those from cancer or in a concentration camp—can be replete with beauty and significance and achievement. The key to that achievement is in the decisions and dignity of the victims as they approach death.
It is significant that Frankl and del Toro’s message is the same: despite tragedy, meaning and even triumph can still be found. The sameness in message shows that del Toro’s themes resonate with Frankl’s experience, which was part of one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. It highlights the efficacy of del Toro’s parable and shows that it does, indeed, have real-life application. And since genocide and war and tragedy do not seem to be leaving the global stage any time soon, del Toro and Frankl’s philosophy should continue to play powerful role in the saga of the human experience.
In conclusion, both Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth are epic in scope and subject. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Pan’s Labyrinth details a war while the Life of Pi recounts a prolonged journey. And like those two classical texts, these two modern works have the power to inform not only the values of their contemporaries, but also other people for years to come.
Life of Pi exhibits the crisis of and decision for faith. It projects the dilemma of the work onto the reader, and creates a meta-reading experience where the crisis is just as real for the reader as it is for the Japanese investigators. Pan’s Labyrinth then goes beyond the choice to believe, and shows the significance of applying that belief.
By establishing themselves as metaphors for man’s struggle in the midst of tragedy, or the twentieth century, Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth speak powerfully about the role of spirituality in an otherwise bleak existence. Lacking this perspective, tragedies like the bombing of Hiroshima and natural disasters are simply unfortunate and pathetic, and the story of the deceased ends with their death. But like the voice-over for the trailer of Pan’s Labyrinth says, the message of Life of Pi and Pan’s Labyrinth is that “In darkness, there can be light. In misery, there can be beauty. In death, there can be life.”
1. Life of Pi
The first portion of Life of Pi deals with Pi’s conversion to Christianity and Islam while maintaining his beliefs in Hinduism. It also establishes his experience with animals at his father’s zoo. The narrative then turns to his ill-fated journey on the Japanese vessel, Tsimtsum, with his family and father’s zoo animals to Canada. The ship sinks, and his family dies. He is alone on a solitary lifeboat with an orangutan, a wounded zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The hyena first eats the zebra, then the orangutan. Ultimately Richard Parker eats the hyena, and the bulk of the novel then shows how Pi survived on the boat with Richard Parker until they reach Mexico. In the Mexican hospital, two Japanese officials from the boating come to interrogate Pi. They don’t believe his story, so he tells them an alternate version “without animals (299).”
In this telling, his mother (the orangutan) is with him in the boat, along with a French cook (the hyena) and a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg (the zebra). In their analysis, the Japanese officials point out the parallel characters. The cook first kills and eats the sailor, then Pi’s mother, and ultimately Pi (Richard Parker) kills and eats the cook. Pi points out that the officials (and by extension, the readers) have no way to prove either story, and asks them which they prefer. The officials say they prefer the first story and include it in their official report.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth
After a brief explanation of how the protagonist, Ofelia, is the reincarnated princess of the underworld, Pan’s Labyrinth begins with Ofelia en route with her mother to her monstrous stepfather’s (Captain Vidal) fascist outpost. On the way, she repairs a statue of a faun, out of which flies an insect which parallels the fairies in her book. When she arrives at the outpost, she finds an ancient Labyrinth. That night, the insect (which indeed is a fairy) leads her into the heart of the Labyrinth, where she meets the faun, Pan. He tells her of her identity, and informs her that there are three tasks she must complete before she can return to the netherworld. The film intersperses the three tasks with tensions between the communist rebels and the fascist outpost.
As the communists are about to completely wipe out the fascists, Ofelia learns that her final task is to bring her baby brother to Pan at the center of the Labyrinth. She does so, but then Pan tells her that he needs to spill some of the baby’s blood to open the portal. At that same moment, Vidal, with his gun drawn, finds her. She wants to give the baby to neither of the two, and fights with Vidal, who promptly shoots her in the stomach and takes the baby.
Mercedes, who is both Ofelia’s nurse and the head servant, has been conspiring with the communists. When Vidal exits the labyrinth, she is waiting with the leftist troops. She takes the baby from the captain, whom an officer then shoots to death. They rush into the Labyrinth and find Ofelia on the verge of death. Then her spirit is taken to the netherworld, where her father, the king, explains that the final test was to see if she would spill her own blood rather than that of an innocent. Her kingdom welcomes her back.
Biron, Michel. “Réalismes d’aujourd’hui.” Voix et Images : Littérature Québécoise. 29.2 (2004) : 163-68.
Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Books 1984.
Givens, Terryl. “Lightning out of Heaven: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community.” speeches.byu.edu. Speeches, 29 Nov. 2005. 18 Nov. 2009.
Hodgen, Jacob. “Embracing the Horror: Tracing the Ideology of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Velox. 1.1 (2007): 15-30.
Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye. Christian Discourses. Walter Lowrie, trans. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Martel, Yann. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Harvest ed. Harcourt: 2005.
———. Life of Pi. Illustrated ed. Miami: Harcourt 2007.
“Pan’s Labyrinth—Trailer.” trailers.apple.com. Apple.com, nd. 18 Nov. 2009
Stratton, Florence. “Hollow at the Core: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes en Littérature Canadienne. 29.2 (2004) : 5-21.
 See the Appendix for a detailed synopsis of both works.
 Life of Pi is, however, something other than a banal illustration of natural laws. Empirical truth is seemingly inversed: it is through Richard Parker’s grace that Pi finds the energy to survive. “It’s the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you my story (158) [His page number is for the French translation].” It is transcendent truth and not just empirical: the individual becomes humble before the great emptiness of the cosmos. He needs a tiger, which is itself a powerful symbol of divinity both terrible and fascinating. (Translated by the author)
 It is significant that ultimately Pi is alone with Richard Parker. As I will later discuss in my analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth, it is an illustration of the idea that only with God does the true self emerge. The other animals or people have been removed. What remains is the self, deity and vastness.