Pan's magic book. Ofelia can only read it when she's alone (i.e. without adults/unbelievers around) because its pages are blank and a magic ink forms letters and drawings. The book is empty because Ofelia creates her own fantasy. After reading over and over her old books, she's now prepared to write her own story. The insect mistaken for a fairy, is named as such by Ofelia herself (she initiated this fantasy by projecting her imagination onto a detail of the real world, the fantasy world doesn't come to her, she spells out the magic identity of a common insect).
Pan orders 3 symbolic tasks to the young cursed princess who lost immortality. A crescent on her shoulder proves the unbelievable prophecy. Fable of regressive initiation, from an abominable reality to the retreat of an idyllic fantasy, from orphan to recomposed family, from unbearable life to dreamlike death. War killed the child, her innocence, her world. A painful and sudden transition to adulthood.
Pan's 3 tasks (dreamwork analysis) :
1) First Test
A giant toad lives under the roots of the biggest tree in the forest, and made it die out. Ofelia shall toss 3 magic stones into its mouth and retrieve a golden key from its guts.
This is a test of fear domination (dark hole with bugs, disgusting monster), and transgression of parental authority (runaway, dirty fancy clothes, late to dinner). Ofelia spells it out under the tree : "you don't scare me, I'm the princess". She also says "Look at you, you're so fat, aren't you ashamed to live under there and eat bugs?". I wonder if the 3 magic balls are the pills given by the doctor to her mother, and through fantasy she allows herself to blame her mother (for her deformed pregnant belly). The key is usually a male sexual symbol, if found inside the toad's belly, maybe it's an allegory for the fecondation of her mother by Vidal, which she disagrees and secretly wishes the abortion (the toad expels out its guts and deflates). She also says at the beginning of the film that the baby is the reason her mother is sick, so all this (Vidal and the baby) takes her mother away from her. She craves to return when she was the only center of attention, before the new baby, before her father died (ideal situation she finds again in death, in the final scene).
Only that she wears the fancy dress her mother wanted Ofelia to wear for the official dinner with her step-father. She wears a "princess gown", but doesn't want to make her stepfather happy so she's drawn to disobey : her dress is all dirty (to hurt her mother) and she's late (to hurt Vidal who is maniac with punctuality). The test is a success for her fantasy mission (she earns credit), but it's disastrous in the real world (punished).
This first task is her first attempt to help cure her mother by taking out the baby (out of anger).
Ofelia cannot go on with her next task because her mother is sick. When she opens the magic book, red ink forms a bloody uterus (like a Roshach inkblot test), and fills the page with red. Like a divination, Ofelia foresees the next scene when Carmen loses blood. Maybe this traumatic experience has to do with the first menstruation of a girl (blood, entering womanhood, fecundity, association with mother's pregnancy, pain).
Pan, impatient, comes to remind her duty. Then offers a mandrake (foetus symbol) that will cure Carmen if placed under her bed, bathed in milk and fed with 2 drops of blood every day (echo of the 2 drops of drug prescribed by the doctor in real world). This vegetal foetus evokes the doppleganger substitutions in Ferrara's Body Snatcher (1993).
2) Second Test
Magic chalk that opens passages to another dimension (symbol of her desire to get out of this world). Hourglass (time symbol referring to Vidal's obsession). One of three safe (wooden, iron, silver, or something like that) to open with the golden key (reminds of the choice for the right Grail, which is not the shiniest), and find the dagger for the final sacrifice (mirrors Mercedes' knife that will stab Vidal). Feast table temptation (interdiction to eat anything, echo of her punishment after first task).
Pale Man : Ogre threat to enforce the interdiction through terror ("what lives there is not human" says Pan). 2 fairies die to save Ofelia because she fell into temptation.
Pale Man is a peculiar monster, scary looking but slow and handicapped (no ears, eyes in his palms). Del Toro explains the orbits in his hands are christlike stigmata, but the symbolism is more complicated. It's disturbingly analogous to the aspect of a phallus (floppy bare skin, bold head, it's called "Pale Man"). The association to treat temptation (grape) from a pervert, the illustrations on the wall of the Pale Man chasing children, devouring them... suggests discreetly a sexual/incestuous molestation in symbolic form (maybe Vidal, although this subplot is very shy). Next to the stoic monster lays a pile of children shoes, remnant of his past victims (a shocking sight recalling the imagery of extermination camps).
Ofelia eats grape from the forbidden table (original sin of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Bible = loss of innocence, shame of nudity, sexual guilt of mortals), thus fails her task, but surprisingly manages to escape the monster by opening another door after the hourglass exhausted (which is a contradiction of the rules imposed upfront by Pan, apparently threats and orders aren't as incorruptible as in traditional fairytales... re-interpretation and last minute changes are always welcome).
Ofelia hands over the dagger, but confesses eating the grape, Pan is furious and abandons her, she will never be immortal. Although the mandrake dried up, Carmen feels better, the doctor can't explain this remission. Vidal finds out, and Carmen throws the root in the fire "Magic doesn't exist!" she says, and she suddenly falls very ill again. Vidal had just killed the doctor so Carmen won't be saved... only the baby survives. Ofelia, orphan, is definitely separated from her past, and her mother who compromised with the evil side, now her surrogate mother, Mercedes takes over, and she can fully embrace the rebel side (denial of order, passage to clandestinity).
3) The sacrifice
The final task is to bring the baby to the altar where Pan will shed his blood to re-open the gates of Ofelia's kingdom and grant her immortality. Test of faith (in Pan) v. reason (of her heart). But she refuses, and like Vidal had to choose between saving Carmen or his son, Ofelia offers her life in exchange to save the baby (saved twice from death by the mimetic sacrifice of both Carmen and Ofelia).
Del Toro makes a special twist of the Bible's archetypical sacrifice. Abraham surrenders his reasoning to pure blind faith when God asked him to kill his only son Isaac. The philosophy of this act is not the horror of murdering one's own child, but the absolute trust in a superior Good that man cannot foresee and shall not question. In fact God stops the sword to spare Isaac's life once Abraham has proven his faith to comply without arguing. But Del Toro turns this reference upside down, and questions the faith in a superior messenger and the application of solemn promise (dispute of unjust orders). A 12 yold girl doubts the command from the god Pan, who purposely tricked her to follow a deviant order. The film makes a case for the sovereignty of the individual's choice, and even suggests God can be fallible.