Mar 2 2011 3:36pm

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 7—Labyrinths

Pan’s Labyrinth

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

Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
No love for The Lucas-Art/Jim Henson masterpiece, "Labyrinth", in which David Bowie showed off his immense... talent?... to an adolescent Jennifer Connely?
Gabriele Campbell
2. G-Campbell
In case of LOTR, Moria has a more labyrinthine feel to me than the Dead Marshes. It even has its monster, the balrog. :)
Story Cottage
3. Story Cottage
I would highly recommend reading several of Jorge Luis Borges short stories as well that work with the concept of labyrinths.
Sim Tambem
4. Daedos
I'd say the Tombs of Atuan definitely count.
Gabriele Campbell
5. G-Campbell
Yeah, forgot Borges; he likes to explore labyrinths.

One of his admirers, the Swedish author Lars Gustafsson, has written a novel about labyrinths, too: Bernard Foy's Third Castling. It also has a visit to Hades (of sorts), a bee oracle and other allusions to antiquity. The novel is from 1986 and the English translation may be out of print, but it's worth hunting down.
james loyd
6. gaijin
I'll second the cry for Henson's inclusion. If Bowie in that costume isn't a monster at the center of the labyrinth I don't know what is.

Also, don't forget the hedge maze in The Shining. Didn't make it from the book to the Nicholson film I think but it was reinstated for the miniseries.
Story Cottage
7. coron78
The labrynth in the Death Gate Cycle is a particularly memorable one as well.
Nathan Martin
8. lerris
The Pattern, in Roger Zelazny's Amber series seems rather labyrinthine to me - or at least resembles the path through a labyrinth.
9. AlecAustin
Ditto coron78 re: the Death Gate Cycle and Lerris re: The Pattern and the Logrus in the Amber books.

There are also notable labyrinths of various kinds in the works of authors as varied as Farmer (The Dungeon), Anthony (The Apprentice Adept books), Chalker (The Quintara Marathon), Wolfe (The House Absolute in the Book of the New Sun), and Vance (The Palace of Love). So you'll forgive me if I'm a little skeptical about the claim that "Labyrinths don’t crop up all that often in fantasy and science fiction". Even if you use a very restrictive definition of 'Labyrinth', a lot of these examples still qualify.

If you include tie-in novels, of course, the number of labyrinths and mazes skyrockets even further - while there are D&D novels without mazes and catacombs for characters to get lost in, it's not generally the way to bet.
Story Cottage
10. jmd
There is also the Troy Game quartet by Sara Douglass. It does include both labyrinths and some Aegean type mythology and then adds Celtic and other influences and has the whole "London was built on mystical pathways" as part of it.
David Betz
11. RDBetz
+1 for The Tombs of Atuan. That came to mind immediately.
Liz Bourke
12. hawkwing-lb
re: Labyrinth: I'd love to love it, but I haven't ever actually seen more than five minutes of it. One day I'll be in a position where I can afford to rent all the classic films I haven't seen, and get properly caught up - until then, I shouldn't really talk about what I know not wot of.

@lambson - The Tombs of Atuan - how did I manage to forget?

The same goes for Zelazny: I should have remembered the Pattern.

@AlecAustin: Chalker, Vance, and Anthony - and Farmer - were writing their labyrinths when I was much too young to take note of them (in Vance's case, when my mother was at the golden age of science fiction). The same goes for Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, though it, at least, has stayed in print a little better than the others you mention on my side of the North Atlantic Rift. I hope I can plead youth as some excuse for my ignorance? I'm not as well-read in-genre as I'd like to be, especially of things published before I turned eight or nine years old.

I hope I'm reasonably on top of things published in the last fifteen years, though. Faint hope, that.

(I have no excuse for missing Sarah Douglass. Well, apart from the fact I couldn't stand the first book of her "Crucible" trilogy, to such as degree that it may have bounced off a wall on its way out the door.)

As for D&D, I admit I consider it as a separate-but-related category from (what I think of as) regular SFF things, a bit like I consider graphic novels. Which, I suppose, reveals my biases.
Liz Bourke
13. hawkwing-lb
I meant Mid-Atlantic Ridge, not North Atlantic Rift. (Or Drift.) Teach me to type anything a full hour after midnight.
Story Cottage
14. Narmitaj
The alien artifact on the Moon in Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon is a kind of labyrinth that keeps killing simulacra of people as they try and work their way through it.

Inception is about a labyrinth of some sort, explicitly when Cobb gets Ariadne to draw him a maze as a kind of interview test; of course, Ariadne is the name of the woman who gave Theseus the thread to get out of his labyrinth.

I don't suppose the environment of Dan Galouye's Dark Universe counts as a proper labyrinth as it is an accidental result of atomic war rather than an intelligently made deliberate maze, but still people are wandering about in the pitch black; not only do they not know the way to the exit, most of the time they don't even know there is an outside to exit to.
Bob Gallo
15. StormbringerGrey
Hmmm … 14 comments and no one has mentioned the Cube series of movies
Story Cottage
16. David DeLaney
Let's also mention the Neverending Story ... and, to balance with SF (though a rather fantasy-feeling SF), the Scrambled City from Sucharitkul's Inquestor series.

--Dave "and how many video games have mazes as an inherent part?" DeLaney
Story Cottage
17. Gerry__Quinn
An interesting example of how different media select their own preferred tropes: can anyone think of a computer RPG that does *not* include a labyrinth?
james loyd
18. gaijin
I somehow completely forgot Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Not a traditional labyrinth, but an ever-changing landscape controlled by a sadistic AI.
Melita Kennedy
19. melita
There's an interesting maze in Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief.
Story Cottage
20. Eleri
Silverberg's Majipoor books have a labyrinth as a major part of the world- that's where the real government is. Then you can get into the Labyrinth vs Maze argument- technically the Henson version, despite the movie title, is a maze ;)

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