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Girl, implicated: the child in the labyrinth in the fantastic.


Even the odd books--all but the very oddest, the unreal and irrational--converse with other books. They talk with older stories, sing to them, call and response; they argue and allude. What I read as a child has shaped my symbolic language, that pack of archetypes with which I play; later reading has re-echoed and refracted those iconic images, the mythemes of my mother tongue.

Bewildered men, brusque women, blundering girls; witches and unearthly children. Scarecrows. All of my iconic figures have their roots in early reading: most of all the goddesses. I love the Snow Queen's mirror shattering, the shards in heart and eye that turn the soul and body into ice; I love the puzzles that she sets. I love Irene's goddess-great-grandmother in her tower, whose lamp is both a withered apple and the stainless moon. And to Hades with Disney--my Mary Poppins is an avatar of Artemis, the Great Bear Mother--"Is this a nursery or a bear-pit?" (1)--and in P L. Travers's original texts she dances with the sun, moon, and stars.


One pattern that draws me is the solitary girl child in a labyrinth: Irene; Eilonwy; Arha. Most often she is parentless--bereaved or sundered from her kindred. Often, she plays Ariadne to a clueless or imprisoned boy or man. She herself is at home in the labyrinth: imprisonment is her nativity. And somewhere in the maze there lurks no rageful and engorging minotaur but a potent female figure, her genius or her nemesis: a deity, enchantress, priestess.

In George MacDonald's Princess and the Goblin, Irene's great-grandmother sits spinning her thread of spider silk which always leads back to her. (Webs are a leitmotif in these stories.) Her wheel is in a tower perched atop a maze of worm-eaten corridors and stairs, the final volute in a wider labyrinth of stone, the lair of goblins. She is consolation; she is awe. She gives her charge a ring to which her thread is tied, a ring which both Irene and her nurse remember that the child has always owned. To journey, she must leave it behind.

Another child princess, Eilonwy, in Lloyd Alexander's Castle of Llyr, is pupil to the sorceress Achren. Light is her inheritance, a golden bauble which she tosses like a toy: her own daystar.

The darkest of these tales is Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan. Arha--who was once Tenar--has nothing. As the Eaten One, the avatar reborn of a dark goddess, she has no self. Her priestesses--her servants that control her, Thar and Kossil--are her jailers. Ritual consumes her days. The dark alone is her dominion: the labyrinth becomes her only self, her privacy, possession, and the narrowest of liberties. Her inscape. It is there she practices a human life, the exercise of memory and curiosity. There she plays god-games with power. The wizard Ged's presence is a violation and a violent rebirth.

In Sally Potter's 1992 film of Woolf's Orlando, Tilda Swinton rushes in a fury into a hedge maze on the grounds of her debatable estate, itself in a labyrinth of legal issues. Whisking round a corner, she emerges in another century, in another cage of skirt. The scene is an epitome of women's journeys, a constricted flight. Another element is time. The maze can be a rite of passage; or a holding pattern, a chrysalid, a sleep. Her presiding goddess is Quentin Crisp, who in the cross-dressed guise of Gloriana bids her (as a him), "Do not grow old." (2)


If the girl in the labyrinth charts her own way out of it, driven by her curiosity and courage, what then of the boy, the man? Archetypally, for me, he's lost. He wanders in a labyrinth in which there are no walls, only endlessly random falling leaves or fireflies or pages of an ever-uncompleted book. It can't be solved. Like Marvell's Mower, in amid the glow-worms, he's astray "after foolish fires." (3) Waking wood, in the double sense with which I played in Moonwise: the presiding spirit of his place; but also mad, bewildered. "Here am I, and wood within this wood." (4) In my mythos, she and he are wit and wood. She is curious; he wonders. She puzzles things out. He is mazed.


I don't know what bookish antecedents my clueless man has; but my witty girl is an argument. Much as I reverence Le Guin--among the greatest of our fantasists--I've been uneasy with some elements of Earthsea since I read it. (Her thoughts on women's magic have evolved since then, as have mine; but I'm speaking now of sources.) My new book Cloud & Ashes (5) is in small part a response.

On the one hand, her telling of the girl in the labyrinth speaks to my very bones. On the other hand, the gendering dismays me. Back when I first read the trilogy, Le Guin seemed to be telling what she felt were archetypal comingof-age stories: the Boy's tale and the Girl's. On Roke, the wizard's school--all men and boys--is a justly beloved topos, a community of wisdom, scholarship, and balance. Proud and angry as he is, they care for Sparrowhawk. In Atuan, the priestess cult is death-obsessed, life-eating: all cruelty, sterility, and envy. (The wizards too are celibate, but at least in the original series, this is not disdained.) The books are beautifully written: the prose has a flawlessness and inevitability which I loved and distrusted. "Wicked--" or "Weak as woman's magic" (6) in that language seems a universal truth. It's a Ptolemaic world, a lovely crystalline that leaves me outside.

Hearing of a new book in the series, I was eager for Tehanu. What I hoped for Tenar was not adventure but discovery, the solving of an inward laybrinth. Would she be an Ogion but in her own way? A Mistress Patterner? A Taoist witch? What I read was not a turn of the spiral sunward, but a cage wheel on Naxos. No Dionysus here. Having fled being Eaten, Tenar gets nibbled to death by a thankless domesticity. Not that I dishonor women's work. Some of my own strongest characters--Imp Jinny, Mistress Barbary, the goddess Malykorne herself--keep house. No, it's the imposition that troubles me, the lack of choice. That isn't quietude but stifling. I love a book that finds the numinous in commonplace; but this seems bent on muddying its own creation. And it's rigged: Ged gets to retire with honor; Tehanu may take wing; but for Tenar, the labyrinth has no way out. Never jam today.


Tehanu, of course, is not my book. If I disagree with Le Guin's vision, I am honor bound to imagine my own. So if labyrinths are what I want, I'll have to write them myself. It happened that I read Tehanu just as I was starting to envision a second book. If not the substantial genesis of Cloud & Ashes, Earthsea was at least a catalyst: the irk in the oyster shell. The rest is a dissolution of moonlight.

And a Babel of nightingales, of voices in the trees: a charm of everything I've heard from Shakespeare to Anon. My collegial Pleiades--the Nine--are in part an answer to Roke as well as an affectionate nod at P. L. Travers. There's an echo of Eilonwy and her golden bauble in Perseis, the youngest of the Nine--herself a maze-unraveller; and there's a glance at Alexander's toad- turning tangle of Norns--Orgoch, Orwen, Orddu--in Mally's chaotic housekeeping.

Labyrinths have been a constant in my work. In Moonwise, "Ariane" evokes a complex of ideas: Ariadne, with her labyrinth and clew; Arachne, the weaver turned to a spider; and Arianrhod of the Silver Wheel, the Spiral Castle where the dead go, in among the mazy stars; as well as "arain," which is Yorkshire dialect for "spider." All are names having to do with webs and weaving, clews and riddles, mazes and journeys. Clueless Ariane charts no one journey; but she and her disheveled Theseus, the tinker, do entangle.

They are earthbound. In this later book, I map the mythos to the heavens, and the heavens to the earth and underworld. There are journeys in all three, and on the ocean, which is pathless. As my Cloudish scholar, Master Grevil, writes: "That the Heavens are indwelt in Woods, springs, standing Groves was credo to Antiquitie, who raised them Monuments in upright stones: which carols are the starres' Epitome; the standing houses of the Moone her progresse; Stations of the Sunne." The notion of a bright celestial maze may come from Robert Graves's White Goddess, that magpie's nest of mad ideas--ooh, shiny! He says that Spiral Castle is a constellation, the Corona Borealis; that its glyph is cut in standing stones. (7) Images as well as words can pun.

Over many years, the girl in the labyrinth became my goddess Ashes, Ariadne interwoven with the figure of Persephone, inverted. Ashes is chthonic, ever striving toward the light. Her mother Annis is the goddess of the underworld, called Law: the place the stars go when they set, the heavens' antimaze. Like Arha, Ashes is the Eaten One, created only to renew a deathless power. She was gotten in her mother's glass. Every spring, she rises from her mother's dark, and where she walks spring flowers; every autumn she is taken, dragged away to bear her child, to be eaten and reborn. She is Cloud's winter's tale. In my heavens, she is Sagittarius, which in the Cloudish northlands barely rises from the earth. The river of the dead, the Milky Way, runs through her, and the Sun--her lover and her son--lies in her lap at midwinter.

There are two Ariadnes in "A Crowd of Bone," their stories interwoven. The elder, Thea, is her goddess mother's other self, created as a vessel for the deity's rebirth, kept only as the object of her narcissistic desire. But Thea, being left hand to her mother's right--her mirror image--chooses to flee. She takes with her her mother's prisoner and intended sacrifice, a foolish fiddler kenneled in the dark. Kit--one of my bewildered fellows--truly loves her; but she takes him as a lover only as a means of passage. The riddle isn't solved, but short-cut. For his part, her lover steals a clew of her, a braided strand of her hair. It all ends tragically.

Thea's ghost, who tells their story to the daughter that she bore, regrets: "I would not have thee ride another's soul away. Walk barefoot, bloodfoot, if needs must: not use another creature, no, not Morag's dog, as I did Kit."And Margaret does not. She in turn is buried away in the underworld, the next chosen vessel, despised for her mortal blood. Never having seen the sky, she maps it to her labyrinth; she charts a planetary path to daybreak. "A Crowd of Bone" ends hopefully: "Margaret ran on."

And that (of course) is not an end but a beginning. In the third of my winter's tales, Unleaving, Margaret emerges in a wider labyrinth: the world, with all its dizzying chances. One of which is scholarship and science: she discovers in herself a passion for astronomy. In that, she is a reconciliation and a paradox: Atuan and Roke, intuitive and rational, the dark and light of one moon. She braids of both the sister goddesses, her kindred. As her great-aunt Mally says, "Thou's daughter to my sister's daughter that's herself, that's one wi me. So thou's me." You might say Margaret is metaphysically androgynous: herself the daughter of a constellation, she is working toward a new cosmology of Cloud. However beautiful a labyrinth of stars may be, a crystal cabinet of light, it still encloses. Margaret's journey lies beyond the maze, beyond the covers of her book, in time and endless space. Her flight there will be unconstricted. Part of Cloud's creation myth, its winter's tale eternally retold, she will bring about its quiet Ragnarok. "Later, in the time to come, she would outrun the world of her begetting, scatter it behind like leaves: her glass would crack my lady's heavens, would unstring the stars."


(1) P L. Travers, Mary Poppins in the Park (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952) 36.

(2) Orlando, dir. Sally Potter, Adventure Pictures, 1992.

(3) Andrew Marvell, "The Mower to the Glowworms," 12.

(4) William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2.1, 192.

(5) Forthcoming from Small Beer Press in May 2009.

(6) Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (London: Gollancz, 1978) 17.

(7) Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (New York: Farrar, 1966)103.
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Author:Gilman, Greer
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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