Henry Eliot, author of Follow This Thread, shares a selection of literary mazes to get lost in from Ovid to Jorge Luis Borges
When Queen Pasiphae bears a monstrous child with a bull’s head, King Minos commissions a building for it to live: a shrine, a prison and an oubliette. The legendary craftsman Daedalus creates this structure, known as the Labyrinth. ‘In such a treacherous maze its very designer could scarcely retrace his steps to the entrance,’ writes Ovid, and he goes on to tell the story of Theseus, who faces the fearsome Minotaur at the heart of the baffling labyrinth, and returns, aided by Ariadne and her scarlet thread. A ball of thread is called a ‘clew’ and, thanks to this story, the word ‘clue’ has come to mean anything that helps to unravel a riddle.
‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ Dante finds himself lost in a dark forest at the start of the Divine Comedy. His only means of escape, explains his guide Virgil, is to push forward into the mouth of Hell. The concentric structure of Hell is reminiscent of the pavement labyrinths on the floors of contemporary Gothic cathedrals. Virgil guides Dante on the convoluted route to the centre, where they grapple with a horned beast. Along the way, they come across many souls who have met literal dead ends, including the furious Minotaur. ‘Begone you beast,’ shouts Virgil, ‘for this one is not led down here by means of clues your sister gave him.’
There were once turf mazes on many village commons around England, but now only eight survive. They had started to disappear in Shakespeare’s day: ‘the quaint mazes in the wanton green,’ complains Titania, ‘for lack of tread are undistinguishable.’
At the start of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus is preparing to marry Hippolyta. It is years since he escaped the labyrinth, but the play is still full of maze references. Puck is a mischievous guide, leading the four youths ‘amazedly’ through the metaphorical labyrinth of love, and at the centre of the wood is a comical Minotaur, a half human half donkey. This weaver, who follows threads for a living, is named after the spindle at the centre of a ball of thread, the ‘bottom’.
As Jean Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the sewers, Hugo visualises the palimpsest of mazes beneath the soil of Paris. ‘A sponge has hardly more defiles and passages than the tuft of earth of fifteen miles’ circuit upon which rests the ancient great city,’ he writes. ‘Without speaking of the catacombs, which are a cave apart, without speaking of the inextricable trellis of the gas-pipes, without counting the vast tubular system for the distribution of living water which ends in the hydrants, the sewers themselves alone form a prodigious dark network under both banks; a labyrinth the descent of which is its clue.’ .
Alice’s second adventure begins with a ball of thread, and her experiences in the Looking-Glass world are entirely maze-like: she follows a path ‘like a corkscrew’ and meets characters who seem just as lost as she is. At one point she tries to approach a little hill but every path twists her away in the opposite direction. ‘I should advise you to walk the other way,’ suggests a talking rose, and this counter-intuitive method works beautifully. Charles Dodgson loved mazes. He used to draw them for his three brothers and seven sisters to solve and he stamped them into the snow.
In this long short story, an unidentified creature constructs an intricate underground sett with labyrinthine defences and elaborate decoy entrances. The beast becomes increasingly paranoid, convinced that a predator might stumble across his lair.
The outer windings of the burrow form a brilliant ‘little maze of passages’, designed to trap intruders. ‘I must thread the tormenting complications of this labyrinth physically as well as mentally whenever I go out,’ muses the creature, ‘and I am both exasperated and touched when, as sometimes happens, I lose myself for a moment in my own maze.’
‘It’s absurd to call it a maze,’ says Harris. ‘You keep on taking the first turning to the right.’ Once inside the Hampton Court Maze, however, he discovers it is harder to solve than he imagined. He gathers a group of lost visitors and eventually leads them to the centre, but every time he tries to lead them out again, they end up back in the middle. Increasingly desperate, they call a young maze keeper who comes to fetch them, but he’s new to the job and becomes hopelessly lost himself. Harris’s technique should have worked, however: if you enter the maze at Hampton Court and keep your right hand in contact with the right-hand wall at all times, you will eventually reach the centre.
The greatest writer of literary mazes was the blind Argentinian librarian, Jorge Luis Borges, whose mind-bending micro-fictions repeatedly play with the concept of mazes. He chose Labyrinths as the descriptive title for this English-language selection of his best stories and essays: he imagines tortuous labyrinths, metafictional labyrinths and a vast labyrinth without walls; ‘The Library of Babel’ presents a maze-like universe and ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ imagines infinitely dividing parallel universes. In ‘The House of Asterion’, Borges imagines himself into the mind of the Minotaur, wandering stone galleries, growing increasingly deranged with solitude, longing for a redeemer to enter his labyrinth and liberate him.
More about the author
'Uniquely magical, each page offers new delights. Many books are described as 'journeys' but Follow This Thread really is one' Alan Connor
Take an immersive journey into the labyrinthine world of mazes
Labyrinths are as old as humanity, the proving grounds of heroes, the paths of pilgrims, symbols of spiritual rebirth and pleasure gardens for pure entertainment. Henry Eliot, co-author of the acclaimed Curiocity, leads us on a twisting journey through the world of mazes, real and imagined, unravelling our ancient, abiding relationship with them and exploring why they continue to fascinate us, from Kafka and Kubrick to the myth of the Minotaur and a quest to solve the disappearance of the legendary Maze King. Are you ready to step inside?