Tag Archives: MirrorMask

Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

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The film is the 2005 collaboration, MirrorMask, between fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. The story follows Helena, a teenager and daughter of circus performers, who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into the world she has unintentionally created in her drawings to find that the Queen of the Light has fallen into a deep sleep and cannot be awoken without the charm. Helena volunteers to find the charm, and her quest leads her into the Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess has just run away. The charm, the MirrorMask, helped the princess to leave the world entirely and switch places with Helena. Knowing that Helena may eventually find the mask, she slowly destroys the drawings hoping to prevent Helena’s return. Helena outsmarts her, and returns home to a happy ending with her parents.

The archetype present in this film is the mother/daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I propose an alternative reading of this myth that implies that Persephone’s abduction was not entirely a plot by Zeus and Hades, but, rather, an opportunity for Persephone to gain independence away from her mother. Under this reading, Persephone’s grief at being separated from her mother was exaggerated to appease her mother, and that she knew with certainty what it would mean for her to eat the pomegranate seeds on her way out of Hades. This reading hinges entirely on a Jungian interpretation as a myth of individuation. The only other evidence that suggests that Persephone’s story was not a simple abduction and rape is that there is no concrete evidence of a child between Hades and Persephone. Myths involving sexual intercourse between a god or goddess often include the birth of a child.

One other central theme to the film is the concept of the shadow. Helena’s adventure is plagued by the chaos left by the princess, identified in the script as Anti-Helena. Similarly, the queens of the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Shadows are both sides of Helena’s perspective of her mother. Helena’s journey involves exploring both sides of her dream world and reaching an understanding that the two sides of her mother (kindly versus possessive) are out of love for her. In order for Helena to succeed on her mission, she has to confront her own shadow self, Anti-Helena, with the MirrorMask and reflect her back into the realm of her psyche in which she belongs.

The shadow is an important theme in Neil Gaiman’s stories, especially to the extent that one must both confront and integrate with one shadow, otherwise one’s personally balance is disrupted in a bad way. In this film, the balance is disrupted with a complete teeter-totter and the shadow lives in the conscious realm, and the ego is forced to live in the unconscious. The unconscious is slowly destroyed in the film by Anti-Helena as she destroys Helena’s drawings. The possibility exists of Anti-Helena’s balance as long as she learns how to better relate to her mother, which is the exact thing Helena has to learn in her own life.

Intro, 0.44-4.54 minutes

This scene establishes the relationship between Helena (Persephone) and her mother (Demeter), and how her mother’s love and worry for her daughter will induce to her do whatever is necessary to find her. Helena, on the other hand, reveals her feelings and desire to get out of the circus. The circus represents the garden of the gods. It is removed from “reality” in a contained fashion. As Helena cries out that she wants to leave this “garden,” her mother remarks that she could not handle “real life.” This scene also establishes the theme of the shadow, as depicted in Helena’s sock puppets playing against each other.

After the end of this scene, Helena’s mother falls ill and is rushed to the hospital to have surgery. This is parallel to Demeter’s distraction when Persephone goes off to pick flowers.

Descent into the Underworld, 20.09-24.34 minutes

In this scene, Helena is lured by some late night violin playing, and is pushed through the door by Valentine, a juggler, trying to escape some deadly black stuff. Valentine represents both Hades and Hermes throughout the movie, but mostly Hades in this scene. He is the one who forces Helena into the dream world and becomes her consort throughout her adventure.

Once through the door, Helena encounters a sphinx, which, much like the Sphinx that guarded the gateway into Thebes in Oedipus the King, represents a threshold guardian between the conscious/unconscious, living/dream, or rational thought/primordial thought. Rather than answer a riddle, however, Helena has to feed him a book. Then she can proceed fully into the underworld.

After the end of this scene, Helena realized that there is a Kingdom of Light, whose queen is sleeping and can only wake with the help of the charm, and a Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess ran away using said charm, the MirrorMask, and who bears strong resemblance to Helena.

Light versus Shadow, 37.17-38.53 Minutes

I wanted to include this scene because it sets up the idea of the shadow, but otherwise has nothing to do with the Demeter/Persephone story.

Following this scene, Helena continues on her journey and winds up in the clutches of the Queen of Shadows, who is really angry that her daughter ran away and really just wants her home.

The Dark Palace, 1:10.27-1:11.39 & 1:19.51-1:20.59 Minutes

This scene shows the extent of the Queen of Shadows’ longing for her daughter, to the point that she will accept Helena as a substitute, giving her full power and benefit of the princess. Helena is transformed into a copy of Anti-Helena, much like how Demeter placed the baby into the fire to make it immortal. Although we see her at the dinner table and talking about food, we never see Helena actually eat, suggesting that she will be able to return home. Helena reminds the Queen that the chaos in the world is caused by Anti-Helena, just like the personal chaos Demeter experienced after Persephone left her.

Meanwhile, Valentine, who all this time has lead Helena around her dream world, returns to take Helena home to the upper world, fulfilling his Hermes role.

The Return and Homecoming, 1:32.10-1:34.45 & 1:36-28-1:38.02 Minutes

Valentine and Helena find the MirrorMask in the Princess’s bedroom and run away from the Queen. When they get to the threshold, Valentine almost keeps her in the underworld (feeding her pomegranate seeds) by keeping the mask for himself. Helena returns to her correct world by integrating Anti-Helena back into her psyche and the world is right again. Her mother wakes up, the two are reunited, and they live happily ever after. Helena now has a better appreciation for her mother.

Using the Mask to Confront the Shadow: A Look at MirrorMask

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MirrorMask, a story by Neil Gaiman and film directed in 2005 by Dave McKean, is a graphic fairytale of how a young girl, Helena, is forced to cope with her mother’s illness, which she does by retreating into her world of fantasy. One night, she wanders through a door and is stuck in a world where everyone believes she is the daughter of the Black Queen and responsible for the White Queen’s illness. When given the opportunity to glimpse into her own world through windows, she sees this Princess, named Anti-Helena in the credits, destroying her world. These glimpses help Helena realize many things about herself. In order to return home,Helena must face her shadow by finding the MirrorMask and facing the Princess with it. This raises the question of why one would wear a mask, specifically a mirrored mask, to confront the shadow. This film demonstrates that the mirrored mask, literally and figuratively, acts as a portal between the conscious and unconscious and as a tool for owning the shadow.

The shadow refers to aspects of oneself that are hidden in the unconscious during the course of persona development. On occasion, these aspects can boil to the surface and cause a temporary uncharacteristic outburst, or can cause long term personality shifts. According to Carl Jung, the shadow is a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscous of it involves recognizing dark aspects of the personality as pruent and real” (Jung 8). The contrast between Helena and the Princess illustrates this stark contrast: for every aspect of Helena that is light, it is dark within the Princess. Helena hones her creativity through art, whereas the Princess is destructive. The film highlights the relationship between the conscious and the shadow by emphasizing the striking ressemblance between Helena and the Princess: “Yes, you look like her, but you’re not her are you?” asks the White Queen’s Minister. Helena’s moral challenge is one we all face in our lives, that of owning the shadow and being conscious of how it affects decisions and relations between people. Before Helena enters her shadow world, she argues with her mother, who falls ill with an uncertain outcome. She blames herself for her mother’s illness, having allowed her shadow to temporarily control the situation.

 

The processes of “owning the shadow” and not allowing it to get out of control involves recognizing and honoring it. The confrontation between the conscious and the shadow is not a battle between hero and boon guardian, though it can manifest as such, but rather more of a truce. The conscious agrees to honor the shadow, and the shadow promises to behave itself. In the coming-of-age story, the hero does not fully defeat the shadow figure, but does come to an understanding.

 

Helena’s journey through her shadow world, which she created in her drawings and hung on her bedroom wall, forces her to confront the world she not only created in her drawings, but also within her unconscious. This world consists of neighboring Light & Dark kingdoms. The mythology within this world talks of a young girl who sat down one day and began drawing. When she ran out of room, she flipped the paper over and continued on the other side, thus creating the two kingdoms. Helena’s mission is to restore peace between the two kingdoms by finding the charm that will awaken the White Queen (her manifest desire to cure her mother). The Kingdom of Light knows that Princess Anti-Helena came for a visit and then the queen fell ill (her unconscious self-blame for her mother’s illness). The Kingdom of Dark accusses the Light of kidnapping. The Charm, as Helena discovers, is the MirrorMask, and by finding the mask she an awaken the queen, restore the delicate balance between the two worlds, and go home.

In stories and in mythic ritual, masks are often used to alter the appearance of an individual, either for a disguise or in imitation of a specific figure. In either case, this represents a supression of the individual ego in favor of an adopted persona. Masks help shield one’s identity, temporarily pushing traits below the surface. Whether the mask is temporary, permanent, or permanent but constantly changing, it provides a metaphor for the process of individuation as one pursues one’s own hero’s journey.

Masks play a large role in Helena’s life. Her father runs a circus, and both she and her mother perform alongside clowns, acrobats, and other performers. Helena’s teenage crisis extends from her desire to have a “real life,” meaning one in which she is valued for herself not valued as a circus performer, a stable life with friends with real faces. When she enters her shadow world, she finds that she is the odd one for not wearing a mask. Her friend, Valentine, criticizes her for not having a proper face, and the White Queen’s guards comment upon her changeable expression as they carry her to the palace. Valantine asks, “How do you know if you’re happy or sad without a mask?” Although masks are commonly used to hide one’s feelings, they become the means to understanding expression within Helena’s shadow world. This characterizes not only the opposite nature of the shadow world, but also the importance of masks in Helena’s psyche. Her life is marked by masks, always having to put on an alternate face for circus goers.

 

Because masks act as the keys to true expression between this world, a mirrored mask melds the expressions of both the mask’s wearer and of the outside person facing the mask, bringing them into each other. The MirrorMask also acts as a portal between the shadow and the conscious worlds. Its reflective properties force the shadow and the ego to look upon each other, forcing them to unite, before crossing between boundaries. When the ego wears the MirrorMask, the shadow is kept within the shadow world, but the opposite is true when the shadow wears the mask, allowing it to enter the conscious realm. Allowing the shadow to gain control, as Anti-Helena did, can lead to dischord in the consciousness and imbalance in the unconsciousness. Such dissonance distracts the hero, ourselves, from the archetypal journey, and one will have to spend time cleaning up the mess, in addition to atoning for mistakes.

A film like MirrorMask serves as a reminder that one’s worst enemy is often within oneself, and that Self must be confronted at some point during life’s journey. This does not mean that Helena has conquored all of her dragons and has become unified with the Self, but she at least now possesses an awareness. This insight gives one the ability to navigate the remaining mysteries of the unconscious. The journey is never complete, especially not after one task, but every success adds experience and wisdom to interpreting one’s life.

Works cited:

Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 9, part 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

MirrorMask. Dir. Dave McKean. Perf. Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. Jim Henson Productions, 2005.