SFF and the Classical Past

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 7—Labyrinths

Labyrinths—physical ones, at least—don’t crop up all that often in fantasy and science fiction. When they do, I find them fascinating. There’s something about mazes: their nature as a physical riddle; their existence as a place which operates, metaphorically and occasionally literally, outside the normal rules of space; the monster that every labyrinth holds inside.

The classical story of the labyrinth is so well known it hardly bears repeating. Constructed by Daedalos for the Cretan king Minos, to house his wife Pasiphae’s monstrous son, the Minotaur (half-human, half-bull, all cannibal), no one who entered its twisty passages succeeded in escaping until the Athenian hero Theseus arrived. When, in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the confusing jumble of archaeology that comprises the complex Bronze Age structures at Knossos,* there was a flurry of speculation that this could be the actual labyrinth of Minos.

*A disappointing place to visit, let me tell you. There’s nothing quite so tacky as theme-park archaeology surrounded by vendors selling bad ice cream and overpriced alcohol. Then again, I’m hardly an unbiased observer.

Of course, there’s no way to prove that a historical Minos ever existed, much less one who is recognisably the figure of the myth. The ever-growing body of literature on so-called “Minoan” Bronze Age Crete has many explanations for the blind corners and internal corridors of the palace complexes that most emphatically do not include “prison for half-bovine man-eating prince.” But one interesting etymological fact remains the Greek word labyrinthos might be connected with laura, a word for a path, and merinthos, a word for string. On the other hand, it could be connected with the Lydian word for double axe, labrus. And the double-axe is a symbol found all over Bronze Age Crete.

But I’m letting myself get sidetracked into the Bronze Age Aegean. Which, while it’s a fascinating area in its own right, is not what I’m here to talk about.

Let’s start with Pan’s Labyrinth. El laberinto del fauno, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film, has a labyrinth at its heart as well as in its title (two, if one considers the metaphorical labyrinth of personal relationships in Franquist Spain), into which Ofelia, the young main character, stumbles. This fey world is peopled with strange and potentially inimical beings, including a mysterious faun who gives Ofelia certain tasks to complete. Nothing is precisely as it seems, nor exactly safe, in the faun’s labyrinth—although quite possibly the worst monster in the entire film is Ofelia’s all-human stepfather.

Another recent example of labyrinths in visual media occurs in the first season of the BBC’s Merlin. In episode eleven, “The Labyrinth of Gedref,” the titular labyrinth acts as a sort of trial by ordeal, which Arthur, having caused Camelot to fall under a curse by killing a unicorn, must undergo. And to continue with youthful protagonists, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has a rather iconic scene in a labyrinth—well, a maze, if you’re going to be picky, but any garden hedgerow-maze where you encounter a Dark Lord at the centre may as well be a labyrinth. Particularly if you can’t get back out again.

There are several more labyrinths in literature, not all of them metaphorical. Sarah Monette’s tetrology, The Doctrine of Labyrinths (Mélusine, The Virtu, The Mirador, Corambis) combines complex (even—dare I say it!—labyrinthine) interpersonal interactions and politics with a number of literal labyrinths: in Monette’s world, labyrinths are places which attract mikkary, a word that appears to imply a haunting combination of dread and ill fortune.

Steven Brust’s Dragaeran Empire also sports a labyrinth. The Paths of the Dead, via which Dragaeran citizens of the Empire go to their afterlives. For each of the Dragaeran Houses a separate path and a separate set of trials exist, at the end of which the Lords of Judgement await. (In Taltos, Brust’s hero, Vlad Taltos, has the dubious distinction of visiting and leaving whilst still alive.)

And what’s in a name? There are numerous locales in fantasy which I will forever think of as labyrinths, despite the fact they may well have little or nothing to do with any built maze. The Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings, for one. The claustrophobic tunnels of the Deep Roads in the videogame Dragon Age: Origins. The complex ghost-landscape of the Grey in Kat Richardson’s Greywalker urban fantasy novels, and the nightmare alt-hist Seattle of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.

Whether or not it has anything to do with minotaurs or Greek legend to me the paradigm of the labyrinth combines the potential for the montrous with a sense of bewildering enclosure or entrapment. That to me is the heart of the myth of the Cretan labyrinth, strange as it may seem.

Finally, before I sign off: I’d like to apologise for my lack of presence in the comments to date. Unfortunately, there’s only a limited amount of time in the day.

[Read the other posts in the SFF and the Classical Past series.]


Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com.

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