Maze crazy

Diagram of Saffron Walden turf maze (Wikipedia Commons)

Jeff Saward Magical Paths:
labyrinths and mazes in the 21st century

Mitchell Beazley 2002

Mazes and labyrinths are indeed magical paths, whether as pastimes or puzzles, whether as art or for ritual uses, or experienced visually or physically. They have a great antiquity, seen in natural features such as subterranean caverns or on artefacts such as coins, mosaics or pots. They can have a perplexing randomness or a mathematical precision, there can be several routes or just one to the goal — if indeed there is a goal — and you can simply enjoy it or you can panic, as I did when there was only 15 minutes to get a coachload of school students out of Longleat’s maze, then the world’s largest hedge maze.

Longleat hedge maze (Wikipedia Commons)
Longleat hedge maze (Wikipedia Commons)

Magical Paths is a splendidly assembled book marrying text and, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, colour photographs and archive illustrations. The text, by the editor of the labyrinth journal Caerdroia, is authoritative and full of fascinating titbits — for example, medieval clergy used to play pelota at Easter on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral and the famous Saffron Walden turf maze is not ancient but was based on a design in Thomas Hyll’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth of the 1560s.

Following a brief history and a discussion of traditional mazes, the author launches into an overview of the recent explosion of interest in winding paths which has seen an almost exponential increase in the creation of new examples at the end of the 20th century. These reflect the availability of modern materials, enthusiastic patrons and innovative designers. Above all, they “capture our modern imaginations as successfully as they did those of our ancient ancestors” with the result that the world seems to be in the grip of a maze craze without parallel.

Cretan-labyrinthMazes and labyrinths work not only on a physical level: they can be symbolic of death and birth, journey and pilgrimage, and of course the quest. Glastonbury Tor even features here, and while question marks hang over its alleged antiquity there is no doubt that modern treadings of its supposed ancient route have created a genuine pathway.

The illustrations are a joy to peruse, and all credit is due to the editorial team for a sympathetic blend of visuals and text. Do search out this title — sadly now out of print — and, even if you know your unicursal from your multicursal or the difference between a Cretan and a Chartres maze, at least enjoy it as an attractive coffee table book.

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