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.


Anonymous said...

I've read the Amber novels-- the pattern there doesn't really strike me as a maze so much as a traditional labyrinth, the long, twisting line on the ground that must be followed. The point of the pattern is that anyone who isn't of the Amber royal blood will fall down dead after the first few steps. For the royal line, it's a 'coming of age' thing. It also allows you to 'walk into shadow' once you reach the end, the Zelanzy alternate universe hopping.

Of course, he gets a bit weird with the pattern by the seventh or eighth book in the series.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, that makes me want to read the novel by Le Guin.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

I recommend The Tombs of Atuan, and you don't need to have read the first book in the series - A Wizard of Earthsea - to follow the story. The culture surrounding the Tombs is fascinating.

And there's no map of the labyrinth at all. Even their mistress (a girl who's told she is the priestess of the tombs reborn again and again) has to memorize the way through the weaving, intertwining tunnels and dead ends. If she gets it wrong, she could be trapped down there too.

Marian said...

Hi elizaw,

I'll see if the library has any Amber novels when I go there today, because your description of the labyrinth sounds intriguing. Especially the part about being able to cross over into alternate universes once the end is reached.

A. Shelton said...

There's a labyrinth in the movie Labyrinth with David Bowie. It's populated by creatures that turn and flip over one's marked stones and riddlers who guard doors. The MC, Sarah, enters it in an effort to reclaim her baby brother, who's been kidnapped by the goblins who inhabit the labyrinth.

Randall said...


If you're going to read the Amber books, my advice is to read the first series (five thin books) and skip the second series (five less-thin books). It isn't that the second series is bad, as such, it just feels to me that the plotline sorta falls apart in the middle, and the ending isn't enough of a payoff. YMMV, of course.

The first five Amber books are: Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos.

Sarpedon said...

There's also the literary/horror/metafiction work "House of Leaves" which is (sort of) about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The Minotaur is much discussed in that book.

Anonymous said...

The House of Leaves is interesting also