Labyrinths. There’s something about labyrinths that I find endlessly (no pun intended) fascinating. I think it must the element of danger or the excitement of the unknown. Something beautiful, intricate, deadly – always alluring and yet sure to hold something nasty.
Maybe when you think of labyrinths you are transported first to ancient Greece. On the island of Crete King Minos would periodically chose seven boys and seven girls to be sent into his labyrinth. Inside they would be hunted and eaten by ‘Asterion’ – the Minotaur, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. So the legend goes, when the third sacrifice approached Theseus volunteered to slay the monster. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos fell madly in love with Theseus and offered him a ball of thread to help him to find his way out of the labyrinth. Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and was able to lead the surviving youths out of the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s thread.
Skipping forward to more modern times the labyrinth has proved popular fodder for creative types.
Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the labyrinth at Knossos (Crete) from the point of view of the Minotaur. Lonely and bored he plays games, imagines meeting another Minotaur and reflects on the labyrinth itself,
‘All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is like another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are infinite in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.’ ~ The House of Asterion, 1947
Another Argentinian writer, Ernesto Sabato drew upon the image of the labyrinth in his short story The Tunnel. The Tunnel is a tale of the dark psychological distress of painter Juan Pablo Castel and his obsession and subsequent murder of Maria Iribarne. Sabato uses the dark twisted pathways of the labyrinth to reflect the state of Castel’s mind. The painter muses that;
‘And it was as if the two of us had been living in parallel passageways or tunnels, never knowing that we were moving side by side, like souls in like times, finally to meet at the end of those passageways before a scene I had painted as a kind of key meant for her alone, as a kind of secret sign that i was there ahead of her and that the passageways finally had joined and the hour for our meeting had come.’
But eventually Castel comes to realise that:
‘ . . . the whole story of the passageways was my own ridiculous invention, and that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood , my youth, my entire life.’ ~The Tunnel, 1948
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth explores the idea of a mythical labyrinth as imagined by a little girl named Ofelia. Despite appearances Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a suitable film for young children, the real life drama will give you nightmares if the mythical monsters don’t do the trick. Ofelia is going through some tough times. The story is set in Spain in 1944, and Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to live with Captain Vidal who is to be Ofelia’s new father. It’s post civil war era and Captain Vidal is busy rooting out anti-Franco rebels and being generally unpleasant. Ofelia finds a labyrinth in the woods nearby, and it here that she meets a faun who recognises her as the long lost Princess Moanna. As things become more difficult at home, her mother is ill and Vidal reveals himself be bloodthirsty in his pursuit of the rebels; Ofelia increasingly escapes into the world of the faun, completing a number of tasks for him. When everything really begins to fall apart at the end Ofelia runs into the woods and is drawn back to the labyrinth.
Ofelia’s labyrinth is very much one that is linked to her emotions and her mind; a psychological retreat. I’m never quite sure what to make of the faun, as at times he is creepy and cold and although he ultimately helps Ofelia I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a benign influence. Interestingly enough the word ‘pan’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘all’ – like the all encompassing nature of the labyrinth perhaps? Pan was the Greek god of the wild, and in Roman mythology appeared as a faun.
If you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth then it’s definitely worth a look as it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of cinematography and actually deals with some very difficult themes. (I also highly recommend The Orphanage, 2007, which del Toro worked on as executive producer).
I’m a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s Death and Sandman, and they’re probably amongst a small pile of books that I’d describe as ‘comfort reading’. Easily my favourite out of the lot is the seventh book in the series; Brief Lives. Brooding and miserable after being ditched by his girlfriend, Dream is drawn into Delirium’s hunt for their missing brother Destruction while harbouring his own ulterior motives. After a series of mishaps and arguments Delirium and Dream eventually decide to consult their brother Destiny for help in finding their missing sibling. They decide to walk to the garden of Destiny, and there’s only one way there: through a labyrinth.
As Dream and Delirium walk through the labyrinth it twists and changes until they finally emerge into the Garden of Destiny. It is interesting that this should be the route to Destiny and is a thoughtful reflection on the course of our lives. No matter what paths we take are we always ‘destined’ to end up at the same place? Are all paths really the same path? I have mixed thoughts on the concept of ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ so my answer to this is that I just don’t know.
The indisputable beginning of my obsession with labyrinths was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of my all time favourite books. This book is quite long and complex so I’m only going to give a very abbreviated summary. An average American family moves into an average American house in what is supposed to be a dream move to the country. Shortly after moving in the family discover that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside, something which the father – Will Navidson is determined to get to the bottom of. One day a doorway appears in the living room, the doorway leads into a cold dark corridor that seems to extend impossibly beyond the dimensions of the house. Navidson is eventually moved to assemble a team of professional explorers to plumb the depths of the labyrinth he has discovered. The story has several different narrators, each calling into question the accuracy of the next. The entire book is a semioticians dream – if you’re into that sort thing. And if not, well it’s still pretty addictive.
The labyrinths in House of Leaves are varied and many. First of all it is possible to get lost in the text itself which twists and turns according to the story:
The house is often linked to the mental state of those exploring it. If they are frightened or lost then it expands, if they are sure of the way then they paths become shorter and easier to navigate. All those who come into contact with the house are moved to explore the depths and pathways of own their mind, forcing them to reflect on the things that have shaped them and the things that are important.
The final labyrinth on my list is one that I have actually been to at The Salon zur Wilden Renate in Berlin. This labyrinth is inside a very cool club, and for 10 euros you are given a gold coin and a message of welcome:
After waiting in the bar for a while I was blindfolded and taken to the entrance of labyrinth. Once there I deposited my gold coin in the the door and entered. Although I’d heard people talking about this place and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a real labyrinth I have to say I was a little bit nervous – anything could have been inside. What I actually discovered was a womb or heart like chamber with a number of ‘corridors’ leading off it. Some of the corridors became crawlspaces, some were dead ends, and when I finally did want to leave pretty much all of them seemed to lead back to the same place! The most terrifying part was a door that lead into a completely pitch black brick corridor. However old you are there is always something terrifying about being unexpectedly alone in the pitch black in an unfamiliar place, and I could hear my heart beating. As I felt my way along the corridor a bright light would flash every few seconds, and I am now reminded of Ernesto Sabato’s words, ‘My mind is dark as a labyrinth. Sometimes there are flashes, like lightening, that illuminate some of the passageways . . .‘ When I finally did find the exit and was talking to my friend afterwards he suggested that it wasn’t scary in there unless you made it that way – what you find in there is yourself.