Today I’d like to talk about mazes and the stories that contain them. It doesn’t seem like a maze would make a very interesting plot device; after all, the most complex choice a person has to make in a maze is left or right, and there’s no way for that to be an educated decision. And yet…
Perhaps the best-known maze narrative is that of the Cretan Labyrinth, constructed for King Minos by the architect Daedalus as a place to keep the Minotaur. The Minotaur, by the way, was the offspring of Queen Pasiphae and a bull, a coupling made physically possible through the use a wooden cow suit/apparatus, also built by Daedalus. So Daedalus was sort of the original Steve Jobs, creating both the product and its market.
Into the Labyrinth are thrust seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls, tributes in what turn out to be very literal hunger games – they are meant to be food for the Minotaur. But one of these boys, the crafty Theseus (who has volunteered as tribute to take the place of a younger boy), catches the eye of the King’s daughter, Ariadne, and she gives Theseus a ball of string and advice on how to make his way through the maze. Theseus ties one end of the string to the Labyrinth door and unspools it as he makes his way to the center, where he finds and kills the Minotaur. (In some versions he sneaks a sword into the maze with him, in others he strangles the creature with the string. I prefer the latter.) He then traces the string back out and… well, things do not go so smoothly for Theseus and Ariadne after that, but at least he is out of the maze.
Mazes also show up in Hindu, Native American, and Egyptian mythologies as entrances to the underworld. What these and other maze stories have in common with Daedalus’ Labyrinth is that they all present an obstacle that cannot be overcome physically; a hero must reason his or her way through a maze. Usually there is some trick to the maze, or the hero is bestowed with a seemingly ordinary object that somehow allows him to defeat it. (What are Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs but a starchier version of Theseus’ string?) And those of us who grew up in the 80’s probably still know the correct directional sequence to get Link through the Lost Woods.
About those woods: like mazes, forests often serve as places for heroes to get lost. This usually has more to do with their connection to the dark and otherworldly than it does with the presentation of a solvable puzzle. Forests are spirit realms, or gateways to them; they are where Sir Orfeo finds the Faerie King, Simon meets the Lord of the Flies, and Dante is hunted by his she-wolf before being rescued by Virgil. Dante’s “dark woods” are particularly interesting because they are an early example of the symbolic value that mazes took on as psychological realism crept its way into our storytelling traditions. As our heroes developed inner states, their surroundings increasingly became reflections of those states. Accordingly, Dante’s labyrinth is one of his own making.
I’d like to pause here to consider a specific maze trope, the hedge maze, which is sort of a combination of constructed labyrinth and haunted wood. Although not nearly as popular today as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, hedge mazes have maintained their place as a recognizable element of fiction. A few characteristics unique to hedge mazes: 1) They are designed as social places, meaning unlike their mythological forbears, people rarely enter them alone. 2) There is often an element of pursuit, sometimes by a character previously thought to be an ally – see The Shining, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or Coppola’s take on Dracula. 3) Hedge mazes tend to be attached to mansions and castles, which introduce issues of class.*
Mazes continue to show up in contemporary film quite a bit, usually in science fiction, because it’s difficult to find a way to work a maze into a story that isn’t at least a little speculative. Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth is about a young woman who must find her way through a muppet-filled maze in order to rescue her baby brother from Nancy Grace (as played by David Bowie). And it's perfect. The 1997 film Cube gets a lot of mileage out of a single set and the premise of a three-dimensional maze that rearranges itself even as the people trapped inside try to figure out its rules. My one problem with this film is that it keeps changing those rules while pretending not to. Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s Inception is notable for presenting the building of a maze, rather that the solving, as the heroic act. Inception is also notable for being an incoherent pile of nonsense.
The most ambitious (and I would argue most successful) modern maze narrative has to be Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which traps its characters inside a suburban home with a continually expanding interior. Rooms and hallways and staircases appear at random (as do references to Minotaurs) and as the characters become more and more separated from each other, more hopelessly lost inside the maze of their own home, the text itself becomes a labyrinth:
What keeps this from being a gimmick, though, is that as the layout begins to tangle, the story becomes a meditation on constructing stories, and book itself turns into a critique of narrative structure and the place of the novel in modern literature. It brings to mind the introduction of Lost in the Funhouse, where John Barth instructs the reader to cut out and tape together a Mobius strip as a way to understand the act of storytelling. Danielewski gives us a different metaphorical task; he drops us the Labyrinth without so much as a ball of string.
And to me, this makes perfect sense. Because anyone who has ever tried to write a story will tell you, you spend most of your time trying to find the way out.
*From Vlad Tepes to Elizabeth Bathory to the Marquis de Sade, we love stories about rich people taking sexual pleasure in torturing the poor, especially if it happens in a castle. America has its own such story, complete with a maze, in Dr. H. H. Holmes, who built a “murder castle” in Chicago in 1893, which featured “over 100 windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions” for the purpose of trapping, torturing, and murdering women. Holmes is the subject of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City.