Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
THE romantic and mysterious flavour of the words "maze" and "labyrinth" has induced many a writer of fiction to adopt one or the other as the theme of a story, or as the setting of some of the action in a story, or else to use the name as an attractive symbolical title for a work.
We have several times already had occasion to refer to instances of this kind in the course of our survey, but the reader may have sufficient patience to support the enumeration of a few more, not by any means exhaustive, examples.
In most cases where the words are used in book-titles it is perhaps the allegorical rather than the romantic element which is in requisition, though truly the two are never far apart.
The Spanish poet Juan de Mena, in the fifteenth century, was inspired by Dante's "Divina Commedia" to compose a ponderous allegorical poem which he named "El Laberinto." This was published in Seville in 1496 and was a queer mixture of theology, astrology, and universal history. In it the poet is shown as being guided by a beautiful woman, symbolising Divine Providence, through three vast concentric circular regions, representing respectively the past, the present, and the future. These are somehow involved with the seven planets, after which the seven divisions of the poem are named.
No doubt there were at that time many folk to whom such a work made a strong appeal, but it was evidently not the kind of book that we should nowadays choose to take away for a holiday.
A few years after its publication a French bard, Jean Bouchet by name, jealous perhaps for the reputation of his native art, cast upon the astonished world a mythical epic of between four and five thousand verses, entitled "Le Labyrinthe de Fortune." In this case the guide is a female representing Illusion, and her aim seems to have been to impress the poet, and through him the less gifted mortals, with the total instability and evanescence of everything pertaining to humanity.
An "allegorical labyrinth" printed at Lyons in 1769—the period, it will be remembered, at which some of the finest cathedral labyrinths were destroyed—must have been the ancestor of some of the Sunday School pictures of our early youth. It depicted "the spiritual labyrinth ornamented with four channels of grace representing (a) the four rivers of the Earthly Paradise and the happy state of Man before the Fall; (b) by divers convolutions, the various miseries with which human life has since been beset; (c) by the fact of the labyrinth terminating at the same point as that from which it starts, we see how Man, being formed of earth, returns, as to his first principle, by the decay of the body; (d) the health-giving waters of these channels represent the grace of God in which the depraved soul finds its remedy." This pious chart is signed "BELION fecit."
The curious jumble of crude imagery shown in Fig. 140 is reproduced from the heading to a long set of allegorical verses in German, published about 1630. The King referred to in the title is thought to be Frederick I of Bohemia.
When touching upon the question of etymology we made reference to the theological "Treatise against the Four Labyrinths of France," by Walter of St. Victor.
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Fig. 140. Allegorical Labyrinth. (German Print, circ. 1630)
[paragraph continues] We find the word used in this sense of verbal or mental entanglements in theological matters as the title of a book written some five centuries later by Thomas Carwell (alias Thorold). The full title of this work, which was printed in Paris in 1658, is: "Labyrinthus Cantuarensis; or Doctor Lawd's Labyrinth. Beeing an answer to the late Archbishop of Canterburies relation of a conference between himself and Mr. Fisher, etc. Wherein the true grounds of the Roman Catholique religion are asserted, the principal) controuersies betwixt Catholiques and Protestants thoroughly examined, and the Bishops meandrick windings throughout his whole worke layd open to publique view."
"Labyrinthus," according to Hazlitt's Bibliographical Collections, was the name of a Latin comedy performed at Cambridge before King James I. Perhaps this had some connection with that play which Pepys mentions in his Diary on May 2, 1684: "By coach to the King's Playhouse to see 'The Labyrinth' . . . the poorest play, methinks, that ever I saw, there being nothing in it but the odd accidents that fell out, by a lady's being bred up in man's apparel and a man in a woman's."
In some cases the use of the word "labyrinth" in a book-title seems to suggest that the term was regarded as an equivalent for "Thesaurus" or "Compendium of Knowledge" in respect of any particular branch of learning. This is the case in the "Gardener's Labyrinth" of Didymus Mountayne (Thomas Hill), to which we referred in Chapter XIII. The title has no reference to the discourse on mazes which occupies a small section of the book, but simply means the gardener's book of instructions or vade mecum. Much the same meaning is conveyed also by the title of a rather earlier book, the "Labyrinthus Medicorum Errantium" or "Labyrinth of Lost Physicians," which was one of the last works of the great Swiss donor and alchemist Paracelsus, and was published in 1553, twelve years after his death. The
[paragraph continues] Polish educational reformer Komensky, better known as Comenius (1592-1671), likewise published a "Labyrinthus" of this kind. An English translation of it was printed early in the present century under the title of "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart."
The "Labyrinthus" or "Laborintus" ascribed to the monk Eberhard of Bethune, who wrote in A.D. 1212 or thereabouts, is an elaborate and critical treatise on poetry and pedagogics; it is alternatively entitled "De Miseriis Rectorum Scholarum," and its reiterated plaints on the woes of the schoolmaster should find an echo in the heart of many a present-day instructor of youth.
"Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains," sang Pope; but he was only making use of an old and well-worn metaphor, which we mention at the moment because it has so often figured in book-titles. In 1593 Dr. G. Fletcher, uncle of the dramatist, wrote a poem of ingenious form entitled "A Lover's Maze." A similar title, "Love in a Maze," was given by Shirley to one of his plays, a performance of which was witnessed by Pepys on May 22, 1662. "The play hath little in it," says Pepys, "but Lacy's part of a country fellow, which he did to admiration." In 1611 a suite of poems entitled "Le Labyrinthe d’Amour" was published by a French poet, who modestly veiled his identity behind the initials "H. F. S. D. C." A century and a half later another French writer, equally retiring—his initials were "T. M."—wrote an opéra comique of the same name.
One would almost think that there was something shameful or dangerous in allowing one's identity to be revealed in connection with works bearing such titles, for we find the same desire for anonymity in the writer of some poems entitled "The Maze" which appeared in 1815, headed by a quotation from Cowper:
That the maze or labyrinth has not lost its favour as either a descriptive or a metaphorical book-title is testified by the numerous modern examples of its use, amongst which we may mention Mrs. Henry Wood's "Within the Maze," "The Maze of Scilly," by E. J. Tiddy, "The Maze," by A. L. Stewart, "The Labyrinth," by R. Murray Gilchrist (perhaps in this case the reference is to the rambling old House with Eleven Staircases which features largely in the book), and finally, as an instance of undeniable descriptiveness, "The Physiology of the Human Labyrinth," by S. Scott. We have already made mention of O. W. F. Lodge's play, "The Labyrinth," when speaking of Fair Rosamond (Chap. XIX). The same title has recently been bestowed on one of a series of fanciful prose sketches by Mr. Martin Armstrong published collectively as "The Puppet Show."
The Italian aviator-poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose inconvenient conception of patriotism has proved such a source of embarrassment to his country since the war, has adopted as a most attractive and appropriate cover-design for his novel "Forse che si, forse che no" ("Perhaps yes, perhaps no") a conventional square unicursal labyrinth, the path of which is occupied by several repetitions, in block capitals, of the title of the book. The title on the wrapper of a recent novel by Miss Isabel Ostrander is accompanied by an effective design in which a female figure is seen against a background consisting of a plan of the Hampton Court maze.
Mr. Rudyard Kipling, in that curious collection of inconsequential whimsicalities which he calls the "Just so Stories," shows a queer sort of labyrinthine contrivance in his illustration to the story of "The Crab that Played," referring to it in the text as "the Big Miz-Maze."
Lest any reader who happens to be unacquainted with Sir A. T. Quiller-Couch's novel "Troy Town" should be misled by the title into antiquarian expectations, we
may as well remark that it has no more connection with "turf mazes" than had the famous racehorse of the same name that came to a sad end in 1920—even less, in a manner of speaking. It has reference to the same Cornish seaport as his "Mayor of Troy," that Mayor who was so popular with the townsfolk that in the next year they made him an Ex-Mayor.
The vogue of allegory and extravagant symbolism which flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was evidenced by the appearance of numbers of little books of "emblems," mainly based upon those of Andrea Alciati (1492-1550), and, as might well be expected, the labyrinth furnished many an inspiration to the compilers of these works. The emblem books of the Dutchman Jacob Cats, for example, and of our own poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644), were, like those of Alciati himself, enormously popular and ran through very many editions, not only in the native tongues of their authors but in most of the languages of Europe.
We have already, in Chapter XII, drawn attention to a labyrinth-emblem in the collection of the French writer Claude Paradin. A labyrinth of a different type appears in the "Emblems" of Quarles (e.g., in the 1635 edition, bk. iv, no. 2). In this case we are shown a woman walking away from the centre of what looks like a tall hedge maze, which has its path on the top of the hedge! With one hand she holds a staff and in the other a cord, the distant end of which is held by an angel located at the summit of a round tower some way off. A winding path proceeds from this tower to the gateway of the labyrinth. Here and there one sees unfortunate beings who are slipping from the wall into the deep crevasses below. A quotation from the Psalms, in Latin and in English, accompanies this figure: "Oh that my Wayes were directed to keep Thy Statutes." The labyrinth shown in most of the other emblem-books, where one occurs at all, is a very poor affair and looks rather like a low, flat fortress or an
inverted cake-tin. A more realistic arrangement, however, appears in the collection of Jacob Cats.
The Hampton Court maze has more than once figured in literature. One appearance we have already noticed at the end of the preceding chapter; another, of a totally different character, we cull from the British Magazine for 1747. Few people, one would imagine, look upon a visit to this popular resort as an occasion for melancholy meditations, or for chanting moral dirges, but a foreigner might well be excused for reading the following lines as a justification of the reproach that Englishmen take their pleasures sadly.
Reflections on Walking in the Maze at Hampton Court.
This genial gem should be engraved on brass and stuck up at the entrance to ensure that visitors, especially
those of tender age, may enter the maze in the right spirit!
Scarcely more cheerful is the view regarding mazes taken by "The Poet" in Alfred Austin's "The Garden that I Love," where he speaks of
"tragic gardens, with dark avenues of intertwisted ilexes immeasurably old, where there might be lurking the emissary of an ambitious d’Este; gloomy labyrinths of mediaeval yew concealing the panther-spring of a vindictive Sforza or the self-handled stiletto of a fratricidal Borgia. . . ."
If space permitted, or if any useful purpose were served, a good deal more might be written concerning the Labyrinth in relation to Literature. Similarly, the Labyrinth in Art might form the subject of a fairly bulky volume. A considerable amount of space could be taken up with the speculations that have been made as to the probable relationship of the Knossian design to the Cross, the Swastika—with its variants, the Triskelion and the Tetraskelion—the Circle, the Spiral, and so forth; but the reader who thirsts for discussions of this nature must be referred to more specialised archaeological literature. The main points of interest with regard to the use of the labyrinth figure in Art have already been presented, and most of the lines along which the labyrinth idea has been elaborated have been indicated, either in the text or in the illustrations. Before finally taking leave of our theme, however, there are yet a few miscellaneous aspects of it at which we may take a glance.