I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).
I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.
And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.
Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).
1. Alan Garner: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960).
If the prehistoric cave was indeed a major strand in the development of the archetype, then the journey underground certainly deserves a place on this list. There have been many such novels: my first memory is of Becky and Tom lost in the caves in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which the pair parallel Ariadne and Theseus’ journey through the Minotaur’s lair in the original labyrinth. Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel The Two Faces of January plays with the classical setting, updating a plot that Mary Renault had successfully explored in 1958 in The King Must Die. However, Alan Garner’s fantasy — set within the hill of Alderley Edge — perfectly captured for me the claustrophobic nature of caves: they will have evinced a primitive fear that will have featured in prehistoric rituals, a fear that seems to have been replicated in Neolithic barrows and similar megalithic structures.
2. Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971).
Le Guin’s Earthsea fantasy features a labyrinth by name, a multicursal maze of staggering complexity under the titular tombs. A large proportion of the novel is set within its confines; again this is an example of an author drawing freely on anthropology, archaeology and mythology, not least in her borrowing the trope of Ariadne leading Theseus in the Cretan puzzle with Tenar’s rescue of the mage Ged. The monster in the maze is the oppressive presence of the Old Ones whom we never see: like Humbaba in the confusing cedar forests of The Epic of Gilgamesh — he whose face itself resembles a maze — they must be overcome before the pair can escape from their stultifying confinement.
3. Robert Silverberg: Tales of Majipoor (2013).
The giant planet Majipoor was first introduced to the world in the author’s Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980). On this planet are aliens of various kinds, as you might expect from this example of the SFF genre, along with humans and magic, but what struck this reader strongly are the outsize physical features we encounter: the monstrous Castle Mountain (which requires artificial atmosphere for humans to survive) and the vast complex of the Labyrinth. This massive underground construct of several levels is essentially a bureaucratic institution for which the term ‘labyrinth’ is both a description and a metaphor. Tales of Majipoor is a collection of short stories but there’s a whole series of full-length novels covering the long chronology of human habitation.
4. E Nesbit: The Enchanted Castle (1907).
Many people — if they ever think of mazes at all — think of hedge mazes, and in particular famous ones such as those at Hampton Court or Longleat. (This last was designed by Greg Bright, whom I briefly helped when he built a earth maze at the 1971 Glastonbury Festival.) Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle introduces us to a hedge maze at the fictional Yalding Castle. Three children trespass on the grounds, expecting magic, and find a young woman at the centre of the maze. Mabel — for that is her name — lives up to the origin of her name (from French aimable, ‘amiable’) and all have a truly enchanting time.
5. Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths (1964).
Mention literary labyrinths and everybody will cite Jorge Luis Borges, and quite rightly. So many of his intriguing short stories feature mazes of one kind or another. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ is the most obvious example of a physical labyrinth, but tales such as ‘The Circular Ruins’ and ‘Death and the Compass’ feature physical puzzles of a philosophical or intellectual kind, while ‘The Two Kings and their Two Labyrinths’ and ‘Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in his Labyrinth’ specifically reference mazes in their titles. Haunting they all are: some of these ficciones appeared in the Penguin collection called Labyrinths, and others can be found in The Aleph and Other Stories (1971) and A Personal Anthology (1967), later published in paperback by Picador. Worth reading, and rereading.
6. Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (1980).
Another work cited in lists of literary labyrinths is this outstanding debut novel by Eco. Borges had conceived the universe as a library in ‘The Library of Babel’; Eco described his library in the medieval Italian monastery as a veritable labyrinth. Anyone familiar with this metaphysical whodunit will recognise its metafictional nature. A wonderful complex novel, one I’ve left far too long to reread.
7. Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946).
Gormenghast Castle is a confusing, rambling, crumbling edifice, one which for the author may have drawn inspiration from a number of sources and experiences but which I’ve since thought may also include the, now largely disappeared, Fonthill Abbey of William Beckford. Reading the first novel in the trilogy (or quartet, if one counts the posthumously published Titus Awakes) the seat of the Groan dynasty is in effect a labyrinth for the reader, one in which it becomes so easy to get disorientated and lost.
8. Diana Wynne Jones: House of Many Ways (2008).
Many readers are familiar with the author’s Howl’s Moving Castle in which said castle is able to perambulate wherever and whenever it wants; whenever whoever is resident opens an outside door a different bit of scenery or countryside may present itself. In House of Many Ways the reverse is true: the house stays put but whenever an inside door is opened a different corridor or room presents itself, sometimes a different moment in time. Coloured threads, like Ariadne’s clews, allow one to navigate through, otherwise the wanderer may remain entirely confounded.
9. J R R Tolkien: The Return of the King (1955).
Those literary labyrinth lists inevitably include the Mines of Moria from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a choice which makes sense if we choose to go for the subterranean concept of the labyrinth. Here, however, I’d like to make a case for Minas Tirith, that mighty city of Gondor. Like the classical Cretan maze with its seven paths, the way to the centre (the summit in this case) of Minas Tirith was up a route snaking through seven levels. While not so circuitous as the maze, the description of the city in the third part of the trilogy makes it clear that the road turned round and about to reach its goal. This ‘turning’ is exactly the meaning of the Welsh name for a maze, namely caer droia, literally a ‘turning city’; and it’s also a near homonym for Troy, Troia, the ultimate labyrinthine city guarding the palladium at its heart.
10. China Miéville: The City and the City (2009).
The last of my top ten maze works continues the labyrinthine city theme, except here it involves two cities: Besźel and Ul Qoma. The confusion comes from a mental state of ‘unseeing’ the adjoining, overlapping conurbation when one is in one or another. The minotaur in this tangle of perception is a secret police force called Breach; unlike Theseus in his Cretan maze there is no escaping Breach. Reading the novel, scanning the pages for clues, the literature detective will never establish the relationship between one area and another, becoming lost in translation as it were.
Caverns, hedge mazes, libraries, buildings, cities: all are capable of becoming places where one loses oneself. It follows therefore that books which touch on these areas are also liable to be places to wander in. I love physical mazes: tracing with one’s finger the circular pattern inscribed on a pillar outside Lucca Cathedral, attempting to tread the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, marking out for racing a physical path on the ground using rope, stones or a lawnmower on grass or a stick on a sandy beach. As absorbing is being, figuratively if not literally, lost in a book.
Are you as fascinated as I am with these magical paths, or is it just me? Do you enjoy books using the concept, such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Maze Runner or the execrable Labyrinth by Kate Mosse? If so, what are your favourites?