Labyrinthine Literature

Of all the myths that have captured the imaginations of writers, artists and musicians, the myth of the labyrinth is surely one of the most potent. The myth centres on a maze built by the great craftsman Daedalus to contain the minotaur, a half-bull, half-human monster. Further strands of the myth branch out from this centre  – the minotaur was conceived when Queen Pasiphae of Crete fell in love with a bull, and Daedalus built her a wooden cow in which she hid in order to consummate her passion. The minotaur was fed on the flesh of Athenian youths and maidens, exacted as payment for the Athenians having killed a Cretan prince. The Athenian prince Theseus was one of the minotaur’s intended victims, but the Cretan princess Ariadne fell in love with him and gave him a red thread and a sword, so that he could kill the minotaur and then find his way out of the labyrinth. Afterwards Theseus sailed away with Ariadne – but then abandoned her on the island of Naxos. The god Dionysos fell in love with Ariadne and rescued her – Theseus went on to marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra – but Phaedra fell in love with Theseus’ son Hippolytus – and so the myth winds on.

It is the many twists and turns of the myth of the labyrinth that are explored by writer and journalist Charlotte Higgins in her new book, Red Thread. Higgins has previously written about the classical world in It’s All Greek to Me and Under Another Sky, a travelogue of her walks around the remains of Roman Britain*. Red Thread is more complex than these earlier books, hovering uneasily between fact, fiction and autobiography. Rather than being a systematic exploration of labyrinths, their usage and symbolism throughout history, Red Thread is instead more of a journey through Higgin’s own imagination and personal feelings about the labyrinth myth. This is a shame, for when Higgins writes straightforwardly about labyrinths she is excellent – clear, eloquent, and extremely engaging. Particular highlights include her summary of the labyrinthine motif in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and her section on ‘Troy Towns’ – turf mazes found in some English and Welsh villages. ‘Troy towns’ can be linked to ancient writings and art depicting Troy as a confusing maze-like city, and also to the Roman tradition of the Trojan games, in which youths rode in intricate patterns, patterns described in Virgil’s Aeneid as like the ‘Labyrinthus’ in ‘lofty Crete’. Higgins also explores the use of the labyrinth myth by artists such as Titian and Picasso (for one example of the myth in art, see my previous blog post Classics in Flux). Red Thread also touches briefly on the labyrinth myth in film (Kubrick’s The Shining) and in music (Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos) – although Higgins doesn’t include my personal favourite musical labyrinth, The Minotaur’s Song, by the British psychedelic folk group, the Incredible String Band.

Those searching for a more comprehensive examination of the history of labyrinths should look to some of the multitude of non-fiction books on the subject, such as Hermann Kern’s Through the Labyrinth – though do be aware that many purportedly non-fiction books on the subject contain a hefty dose of spirituality. Alternatively, for those more interested in fictional mazes, lose yourself in some of this labyrinthine literature:

Catullus 64

This Latin ‘epyllion’, or miniature epic, only 408 lines long, is undoubtedly Catullus’ masterpiece. Although purportedly about the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, over half of the poem is taken up with a scandalously long ‘ekphrasis’ –that is to say, a vivid description of an artwork or landscape, in this case a tapestry, which depicts the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. Catullus’ text is a labyrinth in itself, featuring confusing and impossible contradictions of time, space and reality.

Labyrinths – Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges

The celebrated Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges frequently explored the idea of labyrinths within his short stories. This selection of his writings, translated into English, includes The Garden of Forking Paths and The House of Asterion (an alternative name for the minotaur).

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

In my last blog post I wrote about Madeline Miller’s new novel Circe (which also features the birth and imprisonment of the Minotaur) and about the brilliant novels of Miller’s predecessor, Mary Renault. In The King Must Die, Renault depicts the career of a young Theseus in glowing colour, and imagines how the various myths around the labyrinth might have begun. 

Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Fourth in Riordan’s madcap series about Greek gods and monsters in modern America, this novel sees a path to Daedalus’ labyrinth open up in Camp Half-Blood itself, threatening the demigods’ defences against the armies of Kronos. Four heroes must set out on a quest to destroy the labyrinth, in the course of which Percy accidentally blows up Mount St. Helens! 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K Rowling

I have previously written about the influence of classical mythology on Rowling’s magical spells. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling reveals her classical background again, for in the third task of the Triwizard Tournament the champions must navigate a maze, containing monsters such as a sphinx – but with Lord Voldemort as the minotaur at its centre.

Mines of the Minotaur by Julia Golding

Each book in Golding’s Companions Quartet is named after a creature from classical mythology – from Secret of the Sirens to The Chimera’s Curse. In the third book in the series, Mines of the Minotaur, heroine Connie Lionheart must face not only a physical labyrinth, but the labyrinth of her own mind.

*I previously interviewed Charlotte Higgins about Under Another Sky for the Guardian Children’s Books Website – to read the interview, click here.

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