Mazes, Threads, and COVID-19

It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale

A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side,  the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.

The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day.  Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.

There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.

“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539

In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?

Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes

One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.

Odysseus’s Labyrinth–Jan Batlik (by permission of the artist)

However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way.  Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.

Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)

All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the  2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread.  This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.

What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes

As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.

Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times.  After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.  

–Anna Mik

Home Time

During the COVID-19 crisis, we’re all at home rather more than usual. Miriam Riverlea writes about how myths and literature are helping her young family think about time at home…

While we’re self-isolating, I’ve been helping Milo, my seven year old son, learn how to tell the time.  He’s got a handle of the basics, but is still struggling with the concept that the numbers on the clock face mean different things whether it is the long or short hand that is pointing to them.  And the arcane term ‘o’clock’ remains a mystery to him. 

Perhaps part of his struggle is that time itself seems to be moving at a different rate as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.  With nowhere to be but at home, the minutes and hours move quite slowly, but the days are passing by at breakneck speed.  What day is it again? we ask each other, and, did that happen yesterday, or was it the day before? 

A treehouse fit for an odyssey!

This is family time, in a way we’ve never really experienced before, freed of the usual routines of work and school and other social outlets.  Amid the anxiety and the uncertainty, I’m trying to keep positive and count our blessings.  There’s much to be thankful for – glorious autumn weather, a big backyard (with a brilliant treehouse), siblings to play with, and unlike so many across the world, job security and good health, at least for the moment. 

Family Time

Books are offering a welcome escape from the grim reality of the daily news.  We’ve been working our way through CS Lewis’ Narnia books in nightly instalments.  We’ve had lots of conversations about the logistics of time travel, the possibility of multiple universes, and the relationship between primary and secondary time.  And I’ve been reflecting on a different kind of time travel as I read aloud from a battered copy of the first three books in the series, which I’ve had since I was eight.  It’s a real treat to share the stories that I loved as a child with my own children.  

And while we are all appreciating its fantasy elements, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe also seems relevant at the moment for its representation of sibling dynamics.  Having adjusted to life at home, my three children are (mostly!) enjoying each other’s company.  But a story that foregrounds the lessons of loyalty, forgiveness, and courage is a valuable reminder of the importance of taking care of each other at this challenging time. 

Leo’s Labyrinth

Alongside books, jigsaw puzzles and board games, we’ve had fun making mazes for each other.  Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (2019) is providing plenty of inspiration. 

Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes

I’ve got an idea for getting the kids to make comic strips featuring mythical characters in unlikely modern settings (the Minotaur goes to the supermarket?), and as the weather gets colder, we might attempt some simple weaving on cardboard looms.  And with no clear sense of when normal life will return, maybe we’ll finally get around to making this model of the Parthenon out of marshmallows and gingerbread.  If so, I promise to share our creation in another post for this blog!

–Miriam Riverlea