Chapter 4: Lit Labyrinths

The most subtle writers of our time, Kafka, Joyce, Roussel, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Eco, have all found in the maze an effective image to represent our world, and have each proposed his own version, which he presents as a castle, a court, the city of Dublin, an immense library, a secret garden, or even a strategy. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that with the arrival of the scientific revolution, language itself has become a kind of maze . . .

—Patrick Conty, The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth

Literary labyrinths, overflowing with symbolic meanings, provide an endless mine for critics, theorists, literati and students, and analytical studies of Borges, Kafka and others yield plenty of angles and discoveries for the likes of Harold Bloom and Penelope Reed Doob. While the unicursal Cretan- and Chartres-type labyrinths are the focus of those interested in spiritual and healing aspects of labyrinths—Lauren Artress’s Walking a Sacred Path being a pioneering touchstone text of that movement—the best fictive explorations tend to draw from the multicursal model (as well as from the energy of the Cretan myth). That’s where the literary good stuff resides, in the many figurative meanings and associations of labyrinths and mazes that Doob articulated in her 1990 study: wovenness (the double-woven path); “the thousand ways;” error; peril; labor; salaciousness (Pasiphae and the bull); fame and infamy; destructive love; sin; death. The labyrinth is a symbol of difficulty, complexity, confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty, danger, a place where survival and escape depend on intelligence, memory, or help (a guide). It is characterized by fits and starts, turning back, individual responsibility and choice. It is analogous to crossroads, forest, desert, ocean, and caves. It can evoke the chivalric quest, as well as birth and rebirth, and the path to enlightenment. It can mean text, dialogue, or argument, and interpretation. It is a metaphor for learning and education. The act of writing “extends Ariadne’s thread.” No wonder so many authors go there, like they go to the library.

            Even though I’m walking in the same paths, I see no reason to duplicate the work of previous writers who have analyzed labyrinth literature, so what follows is a look at a few select texts that might be “outer circuits,” or lesser known and perhaps not yet over-considered examples, of the literary labyrinth. Plus brief takes on Kafka and Borges.

I. Elijah’s Violin

In this “once upon a time” folktale, a princess looking for her prince gets lost in a forest, falls asleep under a tree, and then awakens. “Then the princess arose at once, and plucked one of the leaves from the tree. And when she looked at it, she read it like a map. She saw where she stood in the forest, and the way she must take to emerge from that labyrinth . . .” It’s unclear and probably unknowable whether the word labyrinth was used in the original versions of this story, sourced to Egypt and the oral tradition. But its use fits the lostness and confusion of the princess, and evokes labyrinth-theme connections to other details in the story. The magical leaf/map, which chirping doves had pointed out to the princess just before she fell asleep, becomes an Ariadne’s thread for her, and invites association with another key element of the story, the “hairs” from the bow of Elijah’s violin. After her father had asked his three daughters what gift he should bring them as he went off to war, only the youngest daughter wished for his safe return and hesitated to request a material gift. An old woman told her to ask for Elijah’s violin. This prompts the king to embark on “a long quest,” finally finding “an old man who lived in a cave” who gives him “three long hairs”: “These three strands are from the bow of Elijah’s violin.” Folk story short, the old man in the cave is named Elijah, his daughter is a princess imprisoned in stone, and the key to this daughter’s release is burning the strands from the bow. The cave king/Elijah prophesies cryptically that the questing king’s daughter one day “will set free the imprisoned melodies.” The questing king sets free Elijah’s imprisoned daughter by burning the bow hairs, and discovers that she had been the victim of a sinister “mirror image” that had emerged from a mirror and forced her to take its place. As a reward, Elijah gives the king his violin and the king returns home. All is good until suspicious older sisters snoop around and discover that the daughter who had requested Elijah’s violin has been secretly seeing a prince in her room. This prince had appeared (entered through the window!) when the princess played her gift violin. “The music of the violin brought me,” he explains. He is a magical melody, in human form, of the enchanted violin. Love, and royal marriage are in the works. But one of the sisters seizes the violin and plays a “dark” melody, throws a ring and breaks the window, and the prince is wounded when he tries to enter again. Now only burning three strands from the bow will save the prince. And that’s how the princess eventually ends up in the forest labyrinth searching for her prince. Before she saves him, she has to disguise herself as a doctor.

            The story displays many elements of traditional tales: disguise, enchantment, spells, symbolism (cave; mirror; the number three—three strands of the bow, three daughters, three gifts), sibling dynamics and rivalries, a quest or two. Add labyrinth themes and it’s a rich one.

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