Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths by Charlotte Higgins – review

An erudite study of mazes and labyrinths takes the author on a personal twisting path of her own

As Professor Dumbledore prepares his students to enter a magical hedge maze – the concluding task in the film of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – he gives them a warning. “People change in the maze,” he explains. “Be very wary. You could just lose yourselves along the way.” There is an interesting difference between the novel and the film version: in the book, the maze is filled with obstacles and monsters, like the mythical maze created by Daedalus at Knossos, where Theseus killed the Minotaur. In the movie, the maze itself is the monster: shifting, unpredictable, potentially lethal.

Charlotte Higgins, chief culture writer for the Guardian, has been obsessed by labyrinths and mazes since a childhood trip to Knossos. The difference between the two kinds of puzzle is not concrete: “Some authorities say that the labyrinth has a single winding, convoluted route that often seems to turn away from the centre, whereas the maze has forking paths and choices and contains the possibility of getting lost. In fact, this strict distinction, though useful in its way, is a relatively modern one, apt to break down.” It is, perhaps, the maze that is more troubling to us: “What frightens me more than the wrong turns I have taken during my life are the right turns, the ones I so nearly didn’t take. What if I hadn’t gone to that place, on that day, and met that person, that person who now brings me happiness? Tug at a thread and everything could unravel.”

As this suggests, Red Thread is no ordinary piece of cultural criticism. It is certainly a learned journey through the role and history of mazes in art and reality. But it is also a deeply personal exploration of the role of the labyrinth in Higgins’s own life, from the postcards she acquired as a girl at Knossos to a recurring adulthood dream, “in which a door would spontaneously appear in an apparently familiar building, usually my flat in London, or my childhood home. In these dreams, which I still have, I push open the door and wander through room after room of ancient stacked-up furniture and cobwebbed bric-a-brac, exploring spaces that confound the known geometries of the building.”

The book itself is structured like a maze: some chapters leading the reader forwards through the story, others just a sentence or two before they peter out, as though we have taken a wrong turn. One whole chapter, entitled Cretan Lies, reads: “The Greek verb kretizo, used by authors such as Plutarch, means ‘to speak like a Cretan’, that is ‘to lie’.” And Higgins is Ariadne to the reader’s Theseus: she offers us a ball of red thread to guide us through. Indeed, the hardback is stitched in red, so that the reader turns the occasional page to find the metaphor (as is befitting for a labyrinth) hiding in plain sight.

Almost immediately after the sentence on Cretan Lies, for example, there is a long chapter on Arthur Evans, the controversial excavator of Knossos. ‘There are those who say that he took great liberties both with what he wrote about Crete and in the way that he reconstructed the artefacts and remains of Knossos. But for me there is something beautiful about this: he shows us that the act of excavation and the act of creation are not so different.” Higgins’s quiet wit sneaks in when she describes the meeting of Evans and his wife Margaret. “Arthur and Margaret’s betrothal treat in London was to visit a display of finds made in Troy by Heinrich Schliemann.”

But Red Thread is not merely a tour around the labyrinths of history (any more than the Samuel Johnson prize-nominated Under Another Sky was a mere tour around the remains of Roman Britain). Higgins is first and foremost a journalist, and she does not miss the opportunity to interview Adrian Fisher, a builder of contemporary mazes, which “occupy an intriguing territory somewhere between puzzle, end-of-the-pier show and landscape art; his own role something between ringmaster, geometrician and impresario”. Fisher offers a different perspective on the maze, viewing it as a game between maker and walker, but a game in which he has to play all his moves in advance. And it is the type of creative game that children play, rather than a competitive one with winners and losers: Fisher doesn’t want people defeated by his maze. He wants to “bewilder them just enough to create pleasure”.

No discussion of labyrinths would be complete without reference to Jorge Luis Borges, who published a collection of short stories, Labyrinths, in 1962. One of the most brilliant stories included is The Garden of Forking Paths. It is typical of Higgins’s book that not only is there a cerebral discussion of this miniature masterpiece, but that it is preceded by the chapter Borges in Stoke, in which Higgins discovers that Borges’s grandmother, Frances Haslam, was from Stoke-on-Trent, as Higgins is herself. Even though she has long since moved away, Stoke is part of her (the centre of her maze, perhaps) at the same time as it is a corner of Borges. And Stoke itself is not immune to underground labyrinths, its mining history leaving it prone to small earthquakes. “‘Quake Rocks Stoke’ ran the headline on one occasion. Beneath the banner, in smaller letters, ‘My parrot fell off its perch.’ My father won £5 from Private Eye when he sent in the cutting.”

Higgins is especially good on the visual arts, from the ancient Laocoon sculpture (now in the Belvedere of the Vatican Museum) with its twisting snakes “a kind of living labyrinth: a trapping, coiling, deadly device”, to her analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with its terrifying hotel: “The Overlook is a place of mirrors and disturbing reflections, a very Borgesian labyrinth.” And, finally, to Picasso, whose fascination with the Minotaur led him to create multiple artworks that feature it, and eventually to be photographed – cigarette in hand – wearing a wicker bull’s head: a minotaur himself. Following Red Thread, in other words, leads us all the way to the monster at the centre of the maze.

• Red Thread by Charlotte Higgins is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Natalie Haynes

The GuardianTramp

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