Dark Crystal Jim Henson’s pride and joy is one of his less famous works, a fantasy film named Dark Crystal that was filmed completely with originally made puppets. The film is complete with heroes, villains and the other main components of fantastical narratives as described by folklorist Vladimir Propp who states that in fairytale narratives there are 31 functions. A function is defined as, “an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” which is a stable and constant element of the fairytale (Berger, 116).
The 31 functions Propp describes are actions that the character fulfills to advance the plot to the eventual happy ending and include plot advancements such as “return” which is described as the heroes return to his/her homeland (Berger, 117). Although fairytales may sound simple, the functions and relations the characters fulfill are varied and complex; there is more than meets the eye at first glance to such a fairytale as Dark Crystal.
The complexities include character relationships that are described as identifying one character due its contrast from another, such that a villain is only a villain because there is a hero to contrast their evil qualities (Berger, 118). Ultimately, there is more to fairy tale narratives than the simple battle between the hero and the villain, Dark Crystal exemplifies this through the display of Propp’s 31 functions and theories dealing with character relationships.
Furthermore, due to puppetry as the medium in Dark Crystal, Propp’s functions and theories dealing with fantastical narratives are more obvious as the puppets are able to exaggerate the fantastical elements. In the Dark Crystal the main characters are Jen, an elf like puppet called a Gelfling, the wise old Mystics, and the villains known as Skeksis. Each type of puppet parallels their place in the story by how they look on the outside, which is how puppets as the medium in a fantasy story work to exaggerate fantastical elements as well as Propp’s functions.
The Skeksis are a mixture of everything grotesque with vulture like faces and deformed reptile-like gnome bodies, which in turn parallels their place in the story of being the villains. The designers and creators of the movie were able to manipulate every aspect of the film because they designed every single detail; therefore they were able to perfectly create what they envisioned as the villainous Skeksis. This holds true for every type of puppet on the show such as for the Gelflings and Mystics.
As described before, the two lone Gelflings of Jen and Kira are medium sized elfish creatures that also have some humanlike qualities, which enables the audience to be able to relate to and pity the main protagonist as the hero. According to Propp the hero tends to be young and needs aid from others in order to triumph in the end (Berger, 119). This is significant in the creation of Jen as a Gelfling because the designers were able to create Jen as young and naive looking with his huge innocent eyes, which depicts the same characteristics of a hero Propp argues thrives in a narrative.
Then, there are the Mystics whom are large, wise creatures that are characterized by their long white hair and huge magical walking sticks. The Mystics in appearance due to their hunchback form, long white hair and huge walking sticks are able to easily signify that they are the old wise beings. It is important that the creators of Dark Crystal were able to manipulate the design and actions of the puppets as needed in order to fulfill their functions and character roles as Propp describes them.
In the puppeteer designer’s ability lays the possibility to create an entire fantasy world as so desired by the director and writers. In Dark Crystal the world is called Thra, which is diverse in fantastical habitats as well as in creatures. In one scene Jen walks cautiously through a swamp like atmosphere wherein the flowers become alive and creatures exist that would not be possible if it weren’t for the puppets as the medium. The significance of these fantastical creatures resides in Propp’s 31 functions of a fairytale wherein such puppets are able to exaggerate the character functions and advance the plot further.
In the previous description given of the fantastical swamp, Jen is manipulated by his puppeteers and designers to look and act afraid, but upon his decision to persevere through the swamp meets Kira, who becomes his magical helper. Jen fulfills the 12th function of Propp, which reads, “Hero tested, receives magical agent or helper” (Berger, 117) and is able to exaggerate fulfilling the function due to being manipulated as a puppet.
It is then that the puppet in a fantasy narrative is able to be flawless in completing their function according to Propp. Character relationships in terms of opposing characters are what Propp argues are the building blocks out of which narratives are constructed (Berger, 118). Dark Crystal has opposing actions and characters that define them as heroes, villains, and aids. In the opposition of Jen and the Skeksis, Jen is defined a hero and the Skeksis as the villains.
Jen’s actions of trying to put the crystal back together in order to bring peace back to the world of Thra, deems him a hero. His actions contrast those of the Skeksis who are the current evil rulers that oppose the hero’s actions by killing and destroying anything and everything that gets in their way of power. Propp describes a hero as young, obtains helpers, possess love and the villain as old, ugly and obtains henchman, to name a few of the many descriptions, and in Dark Crystal each Jen and the Skeksis fulfill these definitions.
Berger defines Prop’s concept of a hero and a villain clearly by stating, “every time we think of a villain, we must think of a hero (or if we think of villainess we must think of a heroine) because concepts gain their meaning by relationships” (118), in this case the relationship is in the contrasting characteristics and actions of the villains and the hero. Another contrasting relationship is that of the Mystics who are defined as the aids or wise men of the story.
They are depicted as the old, intelligent creatures in contrast with young naive Jen who knows nothing of the quest he is given. In the introduction of Dark Crystal, Jen’s master, an old Mystic who lies on his deathbed, tells him of the quest he has to embark on through an old prophecy. Jen’s questions contrasted with his Master’s answers gives the concept of the Mystic’s intelligence. The example of the young Jen and the wise, old Mystic prove that, the action by one character is a reaction or counteraction by an opposing character and is what defines the two (Berger, 118).
The character roles as defined by their opposites is a complexity beyond the stigma of the simple fairy tale as described by Propp and exemplified in Dark Crystal. Dark Crystal is a fantastical narrative that is complete with heroes, villains, magical helpers, and the wise aids. Each of these characters plays an important role in fulfilling Propp’s functions in a narrative, which naturally starts with what Propp calls the “initial situation” wherein “members of the family are introduced, Hero introduced” (117).
This holds true as the first scene spans on the wise Mystics and the young hero-to-be Jen, who then looses his Master as predicted by Propp who calls the function “absentation”. It is then by function 11 Jen leaves home in what is logically called “departure” to go onto his journey where he encounters what he was seeking for (the crystal shard), his magical helper (Kira), and takes part in many battles with the villains henchmen (the large beetles and crystal bats). In some aspect, every function Propp describes is carried out either by Jen, Kira, the Skeksis, henchmen, or the Mystics.
The functions Propp describes are more complex than a battle between the villain and hero and contain many different variables, which is the framework of a narrative that Dark Crystal follows. Jen does not simply reach victory in the end, but receives aid in overcoming his own doubts, the henchmen and eventually the Skeksis themselves where he was finally able to put the Crystal back together and ascend the throne and marry Kira as predicted in the last function of Propp. It is then proven that in the framework of the narrative described by Propp’s 31 functions that Dark Crystal follows that the fairytale is complex.
It is in the puppet as the medium in Dark Crystal that Propp’s framework for a fairytale narrative is exaggerated and proven. The puppet has the ability to be molded and crafted to fit the fantastical aspects to an extent that is not possible in human actors, such that Propp’s functions and character theory is easily illustrated in a movie such as Dark Crystal. It is in the puppet’s construction outside that its inside character functions are displayed to make it available to the audience what character and function the puppet fulfills.
The character relationships and functions are what make a fairytale such as Dark Crystal more intricate than a single battle between a villain and hero. It is in the relations and oppositions of Jen, Kira, the Skeksis, and Mystics the make up a fairytale as defined by Propp as well as what makes Dark Crystal unique as a fantasy film. Works Cited Berger, Arthur. “Propp, de Saussure, and the Narrative. ” Print. Dark Crystal. Dir. Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Universal Studios, 1982. DVD.
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