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History and Mysticism in the Film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the Book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’

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The 1930’s were a traumatic time in many parts of the world. Spain has also endured its fair share of ideological conflicts, of which the Spanish Civil War is a clear example. From 1936 to 1939, Spain saw the most brutal civil war in its history. Often considered a struggle between democracy and fascism, general Francisco Franco’s right-wing nationalists eventually triumphed over the democrats of the Second Spanish Republic. For the next 36 years, Franco ruled Spain with the hope of turning the country into a totalitarian state much like Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy.

Spain’s traumatic history has turned out to be a source of inspiration for many artists. Famous examples are Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Hemingway’s stories of Spain. Two creators that more recently have utilized the Spanish Civil War as a theme for their artefacts were the director Guillermo del Toro and author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. In particular, they both opted for the period of time just after the Civil War as the setting for their stories. The remnants of the Spanish Civil War play a clear role in their respective film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. Even though the war plays a role in both artefacts, it does so in different ways. A commonality between the two works is that the war is not described directly, in a documentary or true-story format, but it is used indirectly in order to attain another effect. Furthermore, both works also incorporated some mythical and fantasy aspects. In this essay will be explored what the roles of history and mysticism are in the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’.

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

The film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish nationalist movement has taken the upper hand and Franco has been recognized as the official general and dictator of the country. Even though the Civil War is officially over, there are still some rebellious groups operating in the woods of Spain, waging a guerrilla war against the fascist regime. The main character of the film, Ofelia, is placed in the middle of this situation. After Ofelia’s father passed away, her mother remarried to captain Vidal, a fascist leader who is stationed at a post in the woods. Together with his soldiers, he aims to silence the remaining Republican rebels that are based in these woods.

Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with Vidal’s child, and Ofelia is expected to treat Vidal like her new father. When Ofelia and her mother are being transferred from their previous home to the fascist post in the woods, Ofelia encounters a small elf on their way. When they reach the post, she sees the same little elf. She is mesmerized by it and decides to follow it. The elf leads her to an old labyrinth in the woods, close to the post.

At night, the little elf appears in her room again, and Ofelia follows it back into the labyrinth. There, she meets a Faun, who informs her about her real identity. She is in fact Princess Moanna of the Underground Realm, and in order to return to her father’s kingdom, she has to fulfil three tasks before the full moon. In addition to the fairy-tale-like elf and Faun, the tasks are also mythical in nature. The first two tasks involve eliminating an enormous frog that is eating an old fig tree from the inside, and retrieving a sword from the basement of the Pale Man, a child-eating monster.

The Civil War is portrayed both directly and indirectly, through Ofelia’s experiences, and the people that are living around the fascist post. The magical elements of the story also add another indirect dimension through which Del Toro was able to comment on the history of the Civil War and fascist Spain. Captain Vidal and his soldiers are a direct connection to the Civil War. His behavior around his territory – his post – can be considered as an allegory for the way Franco behaved in his territory, Spain. Another group of people that directly represent the war is the group of rebels in the woods.

Besides those two clear sides, the fascists and the rebels, there is a group of people that are not clearly linked to any side. This group includes the maid Mercedes, Doctor Ferreiro, Ofelia’s mother, and Ofelia herself. All four of them work and live at the post, but are in different ways not necessarily part of the fascist camp. Both Mercedes and Doctor Ferreiro formally work for Vidal, but they secretly help the rebels in the woods, of which Mercedes’ brother is also part. It is arguable which side they help most in this way. They are functioning as supporting staff at the fascist post, but in that way, they can provide valuable things to the rebels. Often, they bring them medicine, supplies, and maybe most importantly: information. Had Mercedes and Doctor Ferreiro not been in that position, they might not have been able to help the opposition as much as they did. Ofelia and her mother are also not clearly linked to the fascist side. Ofelia is now considered Vidal’s stepdaughter, and is treated with all the privileges that come along with that. However, she is only a child, and ended up in this situation because of her mother. Ofelia’s mother is a realist. She does not believe in fairy-tales anymore and thinks Ofelia is too naïve and has too much fantasy. After the death of her husband, she remarried to Vidal, but the question is whether she is content with the situation, or whether it was out of necessity for her and Ofelia to stay safe in this new situation. These characters function as allegories, and allowed Guillermo Del Toro to express in an indirect way his thoughts on the situation in Spain at the time.

In combination with the characters, the mythical figures also play an important role. Multiple frightening fantasy figures, such as the Faun, a giant frog, and the Pale Man, are used as allegories as well, and serve to display the commonalities between Vidal and themselves.

Ofelia experiences two different, but parallel worlds: the ‘real’ world, where she lives at the post with her mother and the fascists, and the fantasy world where she is a princess and encounters many magical creatures. The monsters of both worlds are similar in multiple ways.

In the ‘real’ world, Captain Vidal is used to be the embodiment of fascism. This becomes clear in a direct way through his profession and position, but also in an indirect way through his character. He is very strict, obsessed with rules, and very thorough. He reigns over his community in the woods in a similar authoritarian and totalitarian way as Franco ruled over Spain. One of the scenes where this is highlighted is when Vidal hosts a dinner party with colleagues and friends. When he hears his wife talking to another woman about her previous husband, he immediately silences her. He clarifies to the rest that she is foolish and does not understand that others are not interested in those stories. Vidal dismisses any conversation unrelated to the war. Anyone that does not obey this, is silenced immediately.

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In the fantasy world, the monster that shows most similarities with Vidal is the Pale Man. Ofelia meets this frightening, child-eating monster during her second task. She has to retrieve a dagger from his room. She can do so safely, as long as she does not touch anything on the buffet that is displayed in front of him. When Ofelia has captured the dagger and is on her way out of his room, she does eat two grapes of the buffet. The Pale Man wakes up, and in anger eats two of the fairies that had accompanied Ofelia. This is a way for him to regain control over his buffet: Ofelia ate two things of his, so he eats two things of hers.

Both Vidal and the Pale Man are aggressive, anxious for control, and punish any act of disobedience or freedom. The director did not just create parallels between Vidal and the Pale Man in character, but also in a visual way. These two scenes follow shortly after another and show a clear parallel between the situations. In both cases, the setting is a buffet, with Vidal and the Pale Man at the head of the table.

In the fantasy world, the Faun reveals to Ofelia her true identity. She starts a journey of self-discovery, and learns of her own powers. She can be considered as to represent the Spanish nation. Just like the Spanish resistance, Ofelia has to fulfil challenging and dangerous tasks in order to become her ‘real’ self again. However, just like the resistance had to bow to Franco, Ofelia is shot by Vidal in the end. This can be considered a metaphor for how fascism annihilated the rebels, and with that the self-discovery of the Spanish nation. Ofelia, like the resistance, can be considered as having died a martyr death, for the future generation, which is her little brother. The director shows through his character how the fascist regime of Franco crushed Spain’s innocence, imagination, and freedom. The film’s tagline emphasizes this: “Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine”.

‘The Shadow of the Wind’

‘The Shadow of the Wind’ describes the story of Daniel Sempere’s youth in Spain after the Civil War. He is very close with his father, because his mother died when he was young. One day, his father takes him to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a secret library, where he may choose one book to adopt. He chose a book called ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, by a mysterious author named Julian Carax. Daniel becomes obsessed with the book and its author, and is determined to discover more about him. However, as soon as he starts this quest, he starts seeing the same odd man over and over again. The odd character, with burned face and the smell of burned paper surrounding him, calls himself Laín Coubert, just like the devil figure in ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. Coubert has been on a quest as well, which is to find and burn all the books Carax has ever written. That is why he is now stalking Daniel, because he knows he has got one of the last copies. However, Daniel is determined to keep his special book, and through his research he learns more about Julian Carax. Members of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are not allowed to talk about their findings, but after some time he decided to let his friend Fermín Romero de Torres in on his secret search. Together, they find out more, and turn over some stoned that some would prefer had been left unturned. When Inspector Fumero learns about their quest, he is furious and threatens them to not look into it any further.

During their research, Daniel and Fermín also discover the love story between Julian and Penelope Aldaya, the daughter of a wealthy Spaniard. Their relationship had been a secret for years. When Penelope’s parents discovered this, they became furious and Julian fled to Paris. The plan was for Penelope to escape with him, but she never showed up at the meeting point. Apparently, Julian’s mother and Penelope’s father had been having an affair in the past, which meant that Julian and Penelope were actually half-siblings. Ashamed of this incestuous relationship, Penelope’s parents imprisoned her. Many years later, when Julian returns to Barcelona, he finds the abandoned home of the Aldaya family. There is a secret room with a crypt, containing two coffins. One is Penelope’s, and one is their stillborn child’s. Julian, who is still under the impression that they were not related, is heartbroken and evolves into the character Laín Coubert. He starts burning all of the books he had ever written.

Interestingly, the Spanish Civil War does not play a very prominent role in The Shadow of the Wind. However, there were certainly reasons for the author to utilize that period as a background on which he created this story. Just like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ portrays fantasy-elements. The capacity in which this is portrayed in Zafón’s book, can be described as magical realism. This genre can also be found in works of famous authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom Zafón has often been compared to.

The setting of the end of the Spanish Civil War is always present and threatening in the background, which gives the book a gloomy overall atmosphere. Seemingly, the war is a minor theme in the book, which described more about love and Daniel Sempere’s search for information on Julian Carax and their seemingly intertwined lives. The theme of the war never overtakes the story. However, the importance of the theme should not be under-estimated. It can even be argued that it is in fact the main theme of the story.

There are some characters in the novel that have ‘direct’ experience with the war. Daniel’s friend Fermín Romero de Torres, for instance. He used to be a Republican spy during the Civil War, and had been locked up in the Montjuïc Castle. He later became homeless. When Daniel saved him from the streets, they became close friends. However, Fermín’s real past remains unclear. He has changed his name multiple times. Another character that is directly linked to the war is inspector Javier Fumero. He used to be a mercenary, and after the war he became a police torturer in the Montjuïc Castle. Fermín knows him quite well, and it later becomes clear that Fumero was one of Julian Carax’s childhood friends.

As Julian Carax’ life story unravels, it becomes more and more similar to Daniel’s. Lessons that can be taken from his life are similar to the lesson that a war learns. The tragedies that had happened in Carax’ life can be seen as parallels to tragedies that have taken place during the Spanish Civil War. The novel suggests that a war does not end when the victorious side takes over the government. The anger and hostility live on in the former combatants, who continue to want violence and revenge, and in the moral paralysis of civilians who continue to fear them.

The end of the ‘civil war’ in Carax’ life could be portrayed by Penelope’s parents imprisoning and starving her, which eventually led to her and their baby’s death. This is the end of the conflict between Julian and Penelope’s family, who would never accept their relationship. However, this ending does not resolve anything. It makes Julian even more furious and restless. Also, the fact that Penelope’s own parents were so extreme in imprisoning her and leaving her to die is remarkable. It is a parent’s natural obligation to care for their children, just like it is a governments obligation to care for its citizens. The author might have pointed to similarities between the Aldaya family and the fascist government of Spain, both incapable or unwilling to care for their subjects.


‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ show many similarities. The most apparent one is their choice of post-Civil War Spain as a décor for their stories. Although more prominent in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, the Civil War is a major theme in both artefacts. Second, both ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ describe the coming-of-age stories of Ofelia and Daniel. In this way, both artefacts can be interpreted as coming-of-age stories of the Spanish nation as well. Both characters encounter traumatic events, either experiencing them directly (Ofelia) or through reading about them (Daniel). Many of these events show parallels with and symbols of the Spanish Civil War and its remnants. Both Del Toro and Zafón express their opinion on the post-war period, and show their negative view of the Franco government. The film appeared in 2006, and the book in 2001. Perhaps the director and author thought it time to regain awareness for the cruel legacy of the fascist regime, as neo-fascist movements gained frightening popularity again in Spain during the mid-90s. There are numerous ways in which a country can deal with its traumatic past. One is through art, and these two artefacts are good examples of that. Spain’s past is brought to life again through two fairy-tales. The fantasy elements of both works strengthen its underlying message through allegories, and also help to reach a greater amount of viewers and readers. Works like these are important for keeping the collective memory alive, in new and creative ways.

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History and Mysticism in the Film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the Book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
“History and Mysticism in the Film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the Book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
History and Mysticism in the Film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the Book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Jun. 2023].
History and Mysticism in the Film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and the Book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2023 Jun 8]. Available from:
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