Wendy B. Feris, "Labyrinth" in Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs (1988).
The word "labyrinth" designates both a general configuration and a specific design. In the most general terms, a labyrinth is a complicated structure in which one becomes lost. More specifically, the particular labyrinth design, which is thought to have originated in the classical world, consists of a regularly patterned path that frequently forms concentric circles or squares about a central point, or enclosure, and is often divided in half or in four by lines that shift direction along one or two axes. The meanders of the design impede progress toward the central enclosure. While in visual representations it is possible to distinguish between multicursal and unicursal labyrinths (between paths that present choices at forks and those that do not), this distinction largely disappears in the literary symbol. The more general sense of a formalized design within which a wanderer can lose his way remains as a constant. The labyrinth may thus be classified as a motif of quest. It is used primarily as a metaphor in literary texts, though a few works explore the structure at greater length. It has appeared consistently since classical times and has been especially popular in titles from the Renaissance onward, presumably because it serves as a kind of emblem. Though emphasis shifts in different periods, the labyrinth persistently encapsulates visions of the world, the mind, or art.
The earliest known man-made labyrinth was located in Egypt; Herodotus claimed to have been more impressed by it than by the pyramids. This structure seems to have been the model for the Grecian labyrinth. Pliny maintains that Daedalus took from this Egyptian labyrinth the pattern of the one he made in Crete, "although he only copied the hundredth part of it, since it contained winding ways and bewildering twists and turns . . . with many entrances designed to produce misleading goings and comings." Perhaps the most significant record of the Cretan labyrinth is Ovid's description of its construction in his epic poem Metamorphoses (c. A.D. 2-17). King Minos of Crete has not sacrificed the divine white bull to Neptune as he should have, and thus the god has taken his revenge by making his queen Pasiphaë desire the bull and conceive a child by it, thanks to an ingenious mating device designed by Daedalus. When the hybrid child, the minotaur, is born, Minos has Daedalus build a "labyrinthine enclosure with blind passages" to house it. Ovid adds a significant twist to the labyrinth symbol when he says that Daedalus himself was scarcely able to find his way back out of this labyrinth. The labyrinth here represents an ingenious--an almost too ingenious--work of art, as well as a place where an explorer may become lost. The most complete early narration of the explorer in the labyrinth is Plutarch's Theseus (Life of Theseus of Athens, 2nd century); Theseus entered the labyrinth, guided by the princess Ariadne's ball of string, killed the minotaur, and returned. To triumph over the labyrinth requires not brute force but astuteness and often outside aid.
Psychological interpretations of this myth, particularly those of C. G. Jung and his followers, stress the labyrinth as a structure of initiation, where a young man enters the domain of the terrible earth mother, triumphs over her forces, represented by the minotaur, and exits a mature man. In this task he is aided by the anima, or sister side of woman, represented by Ariadne. The ancient writers themselves, however, concentrated on the physical properties of the structure rather than its symbolic resonances
Medieval and Renaissance Examples
Medieval adaptations of the classical image of the labyrinth developed a number of symbolic resonances that expressed Christian doctrine. Many of these Christian interpretations explicitly elaborated the difference between the Thesean explorer and the Daedalian architect as an analogy for the different positions of man and God with reference to the universe. In these versions the labyrinth represents the entangling layers of worldly sin surrounding man; God perceives order in the design and may endow man with the Ariadne's thread of grace he needs to reach the divine center of the pattern. In medieval manuscripts the visual and the verbal often come together. Labyrinth designs, some of them with captions, accompany religious texts, particularly those that speak of man's wanderings and temptations. A German translation of Boethius (c. 1085) contains a design of a labyrinth with a center containing the figures of the world and of the devil, with an inscription that points out the minotaur who will devour everyone who enters the labyrinth; this center represents not heaven but hell, but the implication is still that man needs God's help to find his way out. Slightly later on, the notion of complications that the labyrinth suggested made it a metaphor for elaborate doctrine or rhetoric. Evarardus Alemannus, for example, in the thirteenth century, entitled his book of rhetoric Laborintus. This idea may have been based on the false etymology of labor intus, but it seems to have persisted, because in 1538 the Swiss scientist Paracelsus criticized medieval scholasticism and warned against attempts at supernatural cures in a work called Labyrinthus medicorum errantium.
Chaucer and Boccaccio use the labyrinth symbol in essentially the same way, though in different sorts of books. Chaucer compares it to his own intricate House of Fame (poem, c. 1379), emphasizing the presumptuous cleverness of Daedalus the designer of so elaborate a house, in the end a tawdry and dangerous place to tarry. A similar feeling, though in a lighter vein, is implied by Boccaccio's use of the symbol in the title for his complicated love story, Il Corbaccio or Laberinto d'amore (The Corbaccio, 1354- 1355). The labyrinth here becomes symbolic not only of the world or of society in general, but more specifically, of the relationships between men and women.
The Spaniard Juan de Mena and the Frenchman Jean Bouchet both wrote works entitled Labyrinth[s] of Fortune. In Juan de Mena's poem (Laberinto de fortuna, completed in 1444) the narrator is guided by Providence through Fortune's house. From there he can look down on the world--the mundana machina. At one point he says that Fortune's certain order is disorder. The willful creation of disorder is Fortune's great power--and a continuing fascination of the labyrinth symbol. Jean Bouchet's work (Le labirynth de Fortune, 1524) is a dream vision where the labyrinth appears as a backdrop for a moral dialogue between Human Discipline, Happiness, Unhappiness, and True Doctrine. Like Chaucer's and Boccaccio's, this labyrinth of fortune is a worldly city, richly decorated and well protected, but dangerous. Similarly, near the end of the sixteenth century, the labyrinth is associated with Spenser's wandering wood, the den of Errour (The Faerie Queen, epic poem, 1590- 1596). It is the worldly space, in contrast to the divine temple, which may, in fact, as we have noted earlier, exist at its very center. Thus the labyrinth here, as before and after, holds out alternate possibilities for man's interaction with it: wandering or rest; damnation or salvation; human error or heroic act.
Originally incorporated into church architecture in early Christian times as mosaic pavements on floors, the labyrinth became increasingly secularized and was extremely popular as a design for gardens, a kind of formalized game. This is the version of the labyrinth that appears in the stories of the "Bower of Rosamond," which tell of King Henry II and his lover Rosamond. The Complaint of Rosamond (poem, 1592), by Samuel Daniel, recounts how the king woos Rosamond, and after she falls to him, builds a palace--really a garden--with intricate passages, where she becomes "the minotaure of shame."
Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries
The concentration on the world as confusing labyrinth continues into the seventeenth century. John Norden the Elder's Labyrinth of Man's Life (poem, 1614) pictures the labyrinth of the world as a "fatall Desert of changes, and miseries," its hidden minotaurs being vice or envy. Virtue is here the divine Ariadne who gives prudent men the line of right reason to help them find their way through life. Calderón de la Barca play, La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream, 1635) puts greater emphasis on divine love or grace as the Ariadne's string that will lead man out of the fearful and dark labyrinthine political and social world. The Czech writer John Comenius continues in this same tradition in his Labyrint sveta a ráj srdce (The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, 1631); in doing so he develops another resonance of the labyrinth as it symbolizes the world: the labyrinthine city. Comenius' traveller first sees a town "seeming fine and beautiful," but then perceives that it was "crowded with people as if with insects." As he looks down from above, he notes that the streets are broken through in many places, suggesting confusion and even decay. Children howl as they are about to be born. The traditional center of the labyrinth, the restful uncomplicated holy space, cannot be reached by traversing the labyrinthine city; Comenius locates his Paradise of the Heart in a separate coda at the end of the text. A similar labyrinthine city appears in Baltasar Gracián allegorical novel El Criticón ( 1651- 1657). The same overtones of vain human endeavor and decadence dominate this view of the capital of a declining power. It is a perfect labyrinth, with false entryways and numerous towers. Like the youth in Comenius' tale, who must remove his glasses at last to exit from the labyrinth of the world to the paradise of the heart, we are told that we must look at the things of this world upside down in order to see them truly. These quests for a restful sacred center apart from the labyrinthine city of the world recall many myths of paradise.
In addition to these religious treatments, the secular labyrinths of love continue as well, particularly in the drama. Characters pass through complications to the happy space of love at the end of a comedy or a romance. They contrast with Comenius' dreamer in that the disentanglement may be achieved in the world. But the connotations of trouble, danger, and frustration remain. Cervantes echoes Boccaccio in giving the title El laberinto de amor (The Labyrinth of Love) to one of his comedies ( 1615). Lope de Vega and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (in Mexico) both base love comedies on the Cretan story (El laberinto de Creta [The Cretan Labyrinth, 1621] and Amor es más laberinto [Love Is the Greatest Labyrinth, in collaboration with Juan de Guevara, 1693]). Similarly, Daedalus the wise temporarily combines what are often inharmonious elements in the labyrinthine dances of Ben Jonson's masque Pleasure Reconcil'd to Vertue (1618). With his help the Princes of Virtue and the Ladies of Pleasure "may securely prove then, any laborinth, though it be of love." The ancient notion of an initiation pattern persists in this highly formalized genre.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the popularity of the labyrinth as a symbolic title seems to decline; perhaps because of a greater degree of realism in fiction, labyrinthine structures appear as forests or cellars with particular names. Horace Walpole novel Castle of Otranto (1764) is a well-known example of the latter, where strange encounters take place in dark passageways. It, like many of the nineteenth century examples that follow it, emphasizes the dark, hidden aspects of the design, causing it to suggest not political or social life so much as the hidden emotional, even unconscious, life of individuals. From the labyrinth of the world we move to the labyrinth of the mind, with an emphasis on its unconscious rather than its artistic functions. In his Tanglewood Tales ( 1853), Hawthorne, in describing the labyrinth of Crete, maintains that it is not nearly so intricate as the brain of a man like Daedalus, who built it, or the heart of any ordinary man, "which last, to be sure, is ten times as great a mystery as the labyrinth of Crete." More concretely, the narrator of Poe "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) goes through many dark and intricate passages on his way to the studio of Roderick Usher. Injun Joe's frightening cave in Twain novel Tom Sawyer (1876) is called a labyrinth. In Victor Hugo novel Les misérables (1862), the sewers of Paris are described as a dark labyrinthine double to the city's labyrinth above the ground. In his treatment of the labyrinth in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, Gaston Bachelard situates the pattern in the domain of the unconscious rather than the conscious mind, in his La terre et les rêveries du repos (1948).
The Twentieth Century
In the twentieth century, the labyrinth continues to symbolize the world's complications, but in keeping with the increasingly self-reflective nature of modern writing, it is often used to suggest the intricacies of thought and of writing itself. In Joyce autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) Stephen Dedalus' escape from his maternal Dublin, pictured as a labyrinth, leads him toward an identification with his namesake, the Greek Daedalus, and suggests that he, like Joyce, may one day create a labyrinthine text to portray the city and its inhabitants. It is difficult to divide works that use the labyrinth primarily as a symbol for the mind from those that employ the pattern principally as a symbol for art or for writing. This is because, just as the labyrinthine mind resembles the labyrinthine world it inhabits, so the labyrinthine mind creates labyrinthine fictions. Nevertheless, under the rubric of the labyrinth of the mind one can group the following works.
Frank Kafka's unfinished story "Der Bau" ("The Burrow," c. 1924; published 1931) dramatizes the labyrinth's capacity to represent both protection and prison. The narrator, the inhabitant of a burrow, continually tunnels back and forth into a hillside, worrying about being discovered, yet suffering from enclosure, lost "in a maze of technical speculations." André Gide novel Thésée (Theseus, 1946) stands out because it is a retelling of the original myth. There, Daedalus has built a kind of magical chameleon labyrinth, one that entraps different people differently: "each is led on by the complexities in his own mind to lose himself . . . in a labyrinth of his own devising." For this Theseus, the danger is that he will be overcome by sensuous vapors and not return to his thread of duty. For him, Ariadne's love is an additional danger rather than a saving power. Lawrence Durrell centers his novel The Dark Labyrinth (1947) around a tour to a series of caverns in Crete. Since the tourists all experience varying degrees of self-revelation in the caverns, exploration of the physical labyrinth symbolizes psychological exploration. Like Gide and Durrell, Anaïs Nin, in her novel Seduction of the Minotaur (1961) uses the labyrinth as a symbolic landscape, a setting for a voyage to an inner self. A woman travels to a "primitive" labyrinthine jungle, hoping to escape her labyrinthine city life. But in the end she learns that it is this civilized labyrinth that she must inhabit. The minotaur she confronts is "the hidden masked part of herself unknown to her"; she perceives it on exploring "the detours of the labyrinth" of her own mind.
In his essay Le Minotaure ou la halte d'Oran (1950), Albert Camus creates a sense of existential anguish and alienation by presenting the city of Oran as a labyrinth turned in on itself. Nevertheless, he maintains that for an artist this solitary labyrinth can serve as a necessary stage of hermetic concentration before he creates his works. Less voluntary entrapments in the labyrinth of art are more characteristic of contemporary literature. Labyrinths appear with an almost obsessive frequency in the short stories and poems of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (Laberintos [Labyrinths, 1962]). These labyrinths symbolize both the world and the artificial systems--including the art of fiction--that men create in attempting to understand, or at least to order, that world. Borges pictures the idea of a Daedalus figure trapped inside a labyrinth of his own devising in an image that forms the epilogue to El hacedor (Dreamtigers, stories and poems, 1960); a writer who proposes to portray the world through his works discovers just before his death that the labyrinth of lines he has created in those works traces the features of his own face. Julio Cortázar novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963) and José Donoso's El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night, novel, 1970) build from this same idea. Their protagonists construct elaborate labyrinths of words around themselves; these labyrinths are both protection and prison, reflecting the city or the house of their inhabitant.
The novels L'emploi du temps (Passing Time, 1957) by Michel Butor and Dans le labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth, 1959) by Alain Robbe-Grillet, in attempting to construct texts that are labyrinthine in shape, carry this symbolic identification of labyrinth and art one step further. In both novels, we follow the peregrinations of characters in a city at the same time as we participate with a narrator in the construction of a story about those characters. Since we are "in the labyrinths" rather than above them, the stories are incomplete; we experience dead ends, sharp turns, backtracking, and repetitions of scene or event. The three entities the labyrinth has come most frequently to represent, the world, the mind, and art, are thus merged, and the reader's experience of them intensified.
City Hall Redux 2255