BOOK REVIEW: On Mazes & Labyrinths by Charlotte Higgins

The Blurb:

The tale of how the hero Theseus killed the Minotaur, finding his way out of the labyrinth using Ariadne’s ball of red thread, is one of the most intriguing, suggestive and persistent of all myths, and the labyrinth – the beautiful, confounding and terrifying building created for the half-man, half-bull monster – is one of the foundational symbols of human ingenuity and artistry.

Charlotte Higgins, author of the Baillie Gifford-shortlisted Under Another Sky, tracks the origins of the story of the labyrinth in the poems of Homer, Catullus, Virgil and Ovid, and with them builds an ingenious edifice of her own. She follows the idea of the labyrinth through the Cretan excavations of Sir Arthur Evans, the mysterious turf labyrinths of northern Europe, the church labyrinths of medieval French cathedrals and the hedge mazes of Renaissance gardens. Along the way, she traces the labyrinthine ideas of writers from Dante and Borges to George Eliot and Conan Doyle, and of artists from Titian and Velázquez to Picasso and Eva Hesse.

Her intricately constructed narrative asks what it is to be lost, what it is to find one’s way, and what it is to travel the confusing and circuitous path of a lived life. Red Thread is, above all, a winding and unpredictable route through the byways of the author’s imagination – one that leads the reader on a strange and intriguing journey, full of unexpected connections and surprising pleasures

My Thoughts:

I’ve been dipping in and out of this fascinating book on mazes and labyrinths for quite a while now, sometimes reading pages and pages, sometimes only a few lines. That is because this book does not have standard-sized chapters and a strong taut narrative thread, but is instead a winding convoluted exploration of the history and meaning of labyrinths through history, myth, art, psychology and literature.


It begins with her own visit to the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete as a child, a place that I have just been. According to the myth, King Minos ordered the construction of a labyrinth at Knossos to house his wife’s monstrous illegitimate child, the Minotaur. Born with a man’s body and a bull’s head, he feeds in the darkness on the blood of sacrificed youths and maidens. One day, a prince named Theseus comes to Knossos. The Minotaur’s half-sister, Ariadne, gives him a sword and a spool of red thread so that Theseus can kill the monster and escape the labyrinth. It’s a myth with a great many layers of meaning and interpretation, and one that I am now working on myself in a novel-in-progress called The Crimson Thread.


Like Charlotte Higgins, I have always been fascinated by mazes and labyrinths, and by the Minotaur story. I loved this book, which ranges from Dante to Freud to Picasso, and it sparked many new ideas for me. A truly intriguing and informative book.


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Kate Forsyth
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