Friday, September 11, 2009
Mazes and labyrinths
Watching Pan’s Labyrinth made me realize that I hadn’t written anything about these fascinating constructions.
One reason could be that although mazes are inherently fantastic, I haven’t seen much of them outside horror and role-playing games. They suit the latter very well, of course. In an RPG, you can draw a map, spend time deciding whether to go left or right, retrace your steps and so on. When reading a fantasy, you’d probably just want the character to get to the center of the maze already.
The horror comes from what’s possibly the best-known maze in fiction, the Labyrinth of Minos. Built as a prison for the bull-headed Minotaur, it was also a place of human sacrifice, since youths and maidens had to be regularly sent inside to be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus slew the Minotaur and found his way back out with a string given to him by Minos’s daughter, Ariadne.
Stephen King’s Rose Madder uses this myth when the heroine, Rosie, enters the world of a strange painting she has bought and is given a task (that’s another classical theme). She has to enter a maze called the Temple of the Bull and rescue an infant at its center, but the maze is guarded by the titular bull. She doesn’t have a string; instead, she uses seeds placed at the correct pathways, like Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs, to find her way out.
In fantasy, one of my favorite mazes is the one in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2). This is probably the most realistic, unnerving maze I’ve ever read about. It doesn’t need magic to be frightening, not when it has the claustrophobia of rock walls closing about you, the darkness, the knowledge that if you forget the way and take one wrong turn, you’ll be lost, the hunger and thirst of empty walls and bare floors and rooms filled with nothing but bones and chains…
There is a map of the maze at the start of this book, and I’ve spent time tracing the ways with a fingertip. I’ve read that there’s also a maze in Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, but I haven’t read any of those yet, so I can’t comment on it.
The House of the Undying, in George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2), is a brilliant example of a magical labyrinth. The heroine is told to always choose the door on the right (and without magic she would simply go around in circles). I love the moment when she realizes that the first door on the right is the last door on the left.
Mazes symbolize both choices and secrets, such as whatever’s hidden at the heart of the labyrinth. I have a maze in one of my manuscripts, but it’s a construct of magic rather than something real, so it guides the heroine through its twists and turns by producing white arrows chalked on the walls to show her which way to go. Until she turns a corner and sees the words “The End” smeared on a dead-end wall.
That was fun to write.