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Jim Hensen’s “The Dark Crystal” Essay

With its “animatronics” technology, Jim Henson’s 1982 film, The Dark Crystal, in both form and theme depicts key elements of David Leeming’s description of the hero myth’s rites of passage in The World of Myth: An Anthology. As in Leeming’s rites of passage, in this film the protagonist’s heroic experiences lead him to “wholeness” and “full individuation” (220). At the formal level, by concealing puppet strings, providing puppets with exceptionally life-like and fluid motions, and creating convincingly vital puppets, Henson’s detail-rich and realistic animatronics technology allows his puppet-hero, Jen, to grow both beyond his filmic father figure, urSu, as well as beyond the confining puppet strings of the traditional puppet master. Thematically, too, Jen experiences the rites of “[being] born when . . . needed” (218), of being “call[ed] to adventure” (219), and of being faced with trials and danger (219), that Leeming discusses as making up the passage into individuation.

As Leeming describes, heroes are born when the need for them arises; this usually happens during a dark period in the culture’s history (218). In The Dark Crystal, Jen, who belongs to a nearly extinct race known as Gelflings, is born after the Crystal is cracked and a shard of it is lost. As with Leeming’s “dark period,” the events initiated by the crystal’s shattering mark the end of a period of light; here the thousand years of the green and goodness of the land once maintained by the Crystal become darkness and ugliness once the crystal is shattered. This dark period is also marked by the claiming of the land by the cruel and evil race of Skeksis.

Making this period of the hero’s emergence in the film even darker, the Skeksis, in their attempt to avoid fulfillment of the prophecy that a Gelfling would destroy them, begin to kill all of the Gelflings. Ushering in Jen’s position as the hero who is called, the Skeksis kill his family. Sole survivor from his family, Jen is kept safe by a race of gentle mystics, known as the urRu. This trajectory of birth, threat, and protection likewise follows Leeming’s description of the story line of the hero myth because, wherein “a further dimension is added by the threat to the young hero’s life” (218-19).

Also like the traditional hero myth, Jenson’s film traces the experience of the hero’s “call to adventure.” In this case, typifying the “wise old man” archetype (219) Leeming discusses, Jen’s mystic master, urSu, sends Jen to find the missing crystal shard and heal the Dark Crystal. As he will wonder throughout the film, Jen responds to his dying master’s assignment by asking, “How can I? I’m only a Gelfling.” In his anxiety and near refusal to find the shard, Jen represents another element of Leeming’s description of the hero’s experiences: “it [the quest] usually begins with a call to adventure. . . . Often the hero refuses the summons. We all resist radical change, and the hero. . . is no exception. ‘Who am I’ to perform such a task” (219). As Leeming indicates, this initial refusal of the adventure is meant to show the hero’s lack of wisdom, confidence, or, “individuation”; the hero is not yet a whole, individuated, wiser and more confident adult. Jen decides to go on his quest outside of the valley of the mystics after his master dies.

Additionally, Leeming explains that the hero’s quest is marked by many trials and confrontations with evil monsters (219). While Jen never actually has to fight or destroy any monsters in order to complete his quest–the common expectation for heroic behavior–he does fit Leeming’s definition in his regular escapes from a range of threats, especially the Garthim, beetle-like creatures “programmed” by the Skeksis to seek out and destroy all Gelflings. Whereas Jen does not actually confront the Garthim, he is often face to face with them before he turns to run for his life. Also, when he does come face to face with the Skeksis, it is not until he is about to destroy them by returning the shard to its place in the dark crystal. Leeming goes on to explain that “the monsters … are balanced by sources of strength. Heroes are often guided … by a spirit who takes the form of a fairy godmother, a wise old man, or a wise fool.” (219). Jen begins his journey alone, but, as the hero myth tradition dictates, he encounters many other beings that help him on his way.

Aughra, a wise, witch-like woman who is said to be born from the rocks and trees before time began, in order that they might have an eye with which to see the world. Aughra gives Jen the crystal shard that he is in search of. She also, before saving him from an attack by the Garthim, gives him the insight he needs to realize how important the successful completion of his journey is. Finally, Jen is given an additional “source of strength” by another surviving Gelfling named Kira. She is joined by a dog-like creature named Fizgig, his antics and heroics in the film could place him in the role that Leeming refers to as “the wise fool”. Kira’s ability to communicate with and receive help from the animals in the story, her tendency to trust her intuition, and her harmonious relationship with the natural environment, all play a pinnacle role in Jen’s ability to complete his journey.

Ultimately, with these rites of being born in a time of need, of being called to adventure, and of experiencing great trials, as well as with the animatronics technology, Henson’s Jen, like Gepetto’s famous puppet, Pinocchio, experiences the process of individuation, becoming both whole and (almost) wholly human.


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