My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Clay mask of Huwawa/Humbaba depicted as a coiled intestine (British Museum)

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.

The library from The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco – Editore Bompiani)

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.

A plan of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill (1823).

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.

Cretan maze

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?

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31 thoughts on “My top ten mazes

  1. I’d add to your list Simmons’ SF tetralogy: Hyperion and Endymion, with their labyrinthine worlds and the farcaster-induced veritable infinity of connections… Not to mention the convoluted labyrinths in time, in which the Shrike so freely roams. And of course Cook’s Plain of Glittering Stone, which, if you want to traverse its seemingly straightforward routes, often lethal and leading to dangerous places, needs to be unlocked with a key… Labyrinths are indeed an often used trope, still keeping their inexplicable, mysterious charm :).

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Ola, though I’m not sure when I’ll find the time to search these out — the Mortal Engines’ series excepted — let alone the time to actually read them, but who knows, they’ve already piqued my curiosity!

      And bearing in mind that the walnut-looking folds of the brain are already maze-like I might still be in the mood for exploring, against my better judgement… 😁

  2. Pingback: My top ten mazes — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. earthbalm

    As I read, scrolling downwards, I wondered if we might see “The Name of the Rose” included. A fascinating read – as always. Too much to add to my ‘to read’ list. Thanks for posting.

  4. I’d add Mary Renault’s take on the Theseus legend, The King Must Die. And The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, in which the Tam Lin story is brought into Elizabethan times, with the fascinating premise that the “fairy folk” are remnants of pagan days who have retreated into a labyrinthine lair under a hill.

    1. Yes, I did briefly touch on the Mary Renault novel under the Alan Garner paragraph, but you’re right, it’s a must-read — except it’s so long since I read it I can barely remember anything about it except that I had determined to read it again sometime!

      And The Perilous Gard, another treatment of the Tam Lin story — I’d not come across this before. The people under the hill, though, that’s a marvellous trope, from Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to the medieval legend of King Herla, from Merlin or King Arthur sleeping in their caves (crystal or otherwise) to Susanna Clarke’s weird evocations of fairydom. And I’ve seen labyrinthine markings in situ at the megalithic cairn, LaTable des Marchands, at Locmariaquer in Brittany, and imagined what it may have been like for our prehistoric ancestors to access its cavern-like interior and commune with the dead, and spirits, and goodness knows what else.

      Definitely archetypes deep in our psyches! 🙂

  5. Like you, Chris, I’ve long been fascinated with labyrinths and mazes, and walk them wherever I can find them (including the two in Saffron Walden). There’s a lovely tiny City of Troy labyrinth in Dalby, Yorkshire, that I highly recommend.

    I’m glad to see this list — and will add some of these books to my TBR list.

    As for obscure novels that feature the structures, I can recommend Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth.

    1. I’ve only seen the turf maze at Saffron Walden (when on a visit to in-laws), but if we ever get to Dalby I’ll look that up! Bristol, where we used to live, is graced with two: one is on a medieval roof boss in the north aisle of St Mary Redcliffe, and the other is in a park in South Bristol, unusual in that it it is a water-fed maze with the water welling up in the middle and exiting by the usual ‘entrance’.

      I’ve actually heard of the Durrell book! Our son Cameron is in Corfu as I write, doing a recce for the next tv series of ‘The Durrells’, and he’ll be back there as grip for the filming in a couple of weeks’ time.

      1. Dalby Maze is on a minor road near Castle Howard, but not too difficult to find via on-line search. As for the 2nd SW maze (a small hedge maze), in 1995, the key to enter it was available from the tourist office. My daughter and I had the maze to ourselves for an hour. Heaven.

        And I envy your son his work on Corfu. The Durrells were quite the family.

        1. He says it’s sweltering there (as is the rest of the planet) but at least the hotel has a pool. Hopefully it’ll be cooler as the summer draws out. I’ve seen much of the previous series and it looks great, a sort of period sitcom with a bit of romcom thrown in.

          Thanks for the info on Dalby, though heaven knows we’ll be heading that way again! Still haven’t seen Castle Howard…

  6. Ooo, I like labyrinths too. Also in movie format, since Labyrinth is a favorite of mine. It strikes me that you may like The Bone Clocks, though I’m not too sure. The labyrinth theme is some of the strongest stuff in it, but I only half-liked it — here’s my review https://howlingfrog.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-bone-clocks.html

    I’m very fond of the Garner and of course DWJ titles, and Borges too. Aleph is on my TBR shelf. You are giving me a good reason to read Titus Groan, which makes two good reasons to weigh against the 50 pages of Peake I read several years ago and didn’t care for. It would probably help if I got a better copy…

    1. I didn’t mention films, Jean, because that’s a bottomless category where mazes and meta-mazes are concerned: Bowie in ‘Labyrinth’, the Spanish ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, fantasies like ‘Inception’ (there’s a character called Ariadne in that too), ‘Time Bandits’ — there’s no end of them once you start!

      The Bone Clocks is a title I’ve come across but with no memory of what it’s about, I’ll have a look at your review in a mo. The Gormenghast books I too tried many years ago and, like you, couldn’t get into it, but now I’m looking forward to starting the second volume before 2018’s out — and I’ve the next two volumes already waiting! Wish I could afford the de luxe version with Peake’s own illustrations, though. I think you might think better of him now (and do have a look at the link to my annotated posts on Titus Groan for inspiration, though I regret I didn’t get round to the review at the time).

  7. Article in yesterday’s Guardian named two new cultural histories of mazes : Red Thread by Charlotte Higgins, and Follow this Thread by Henry Eliot. Also had a photo of a wonderful cherry laurel maze in Glendurgan Garden in Cornwell.

    1. Yes, it was a recent article by Charlotte Higgins in a Saturday Guardian Review that sent me back to revisiting some notes on literary mazes, resulting in this post. Chuffed you spotted the inspiration, Gert!

  8. I have a feeling you’d be a lot of fun to sit down with over a cup of coffee and build a maze together. David Bowie’s Goblin King would have to be involved, of course, as well as the Bog of Eternal Stench… 🙂

    1. Ha! Yes, Bowie: it’s been years and years since I saw Labyrinth and have only vague memories of key scenes from it. Something else to add to my to-do list (which is not only out the front door but probably in some Related World by now)… 😁

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