Unravelling Ariadne’s ball of red thread

Charlotte Higgins takes us on a fascinating meander through the art and literature of the last 2,500 years

Higgins shows us how the study of the classics is a red thread that can lead us through the labyrinth of the modern world.

Higgins shows us how the study of the classics is a red thread that can lead us through the labyrinth of the modern world.

Sat, Aug 25, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths


Charlotte Higgins

Jonathan Cape

Guideline Price:

The story of Daedalus, Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur in his Labyrinth runs through western literature and art like a red thread.

From Homer and Ovid to Borges, from the famous Vatican Ariadne to Titian and Picasso, the tale of the labyrinth has exerted a peculiar power over our imagination. Freud himself, a man who confessed to having read more archaeology than psychology, would say of psychoanalysis that “it supplies the thread that leads a man out of the labyrinth of his own unconscious”.

In this beautifully produced and richly illustrated book, Charlotte Higgins sets out to unravel Ariadne’s ball of red thread, and takes us on a fascinating meander through the art and literature of the last 2,500 years. But her book is also a labyrinth in itself, and in labyrinths you never take the obvious route.

She herself in turn is guided, as Dante is guided through his labyrinthine hell by the ghost of Virgil, by a Cretan schoolteacher Sophia Grammatika, who we suspect may well be a fictional character (her name means ‘wisdom of a teacher’).

Higgins traces the history of labyrinths from the original and mythological labyrinth in Knossos, and relates the extraordinary story of the archaeologist Arthur Evans, excavator of the labyrinth at Knossos and ‘discoverer of Minoan civilization’.

Like Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Troy, he is is part archaeologist, part story-teller, part showman, and part labyrinth-maker. Even the term ‘Minoan’ was a wilful invention of his, showing how each era creates a past in its own image.

She discusses historical labyrinths, like the one in Chartres Cathedral, which seems to argue that the universe is subject to design, or which may simply reflect the complex meanings of the cathedral itself. Then there is the bizarre case of the mysterious medieval turf mazes found in England, often called ‘Troytown’, a reference perhaps to the labyrinthine structure of the fabled city.

The story of Ariadne, who gives the warrior Theseus a sword and a ball of red thread as he sets to kill her half-brother, the Minotaur, in the labyrinth constructed by the great maker Daedalus, has down through the centuries inspired countless paintings, opera, and works of literature, even in modern writers like Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges.

But it is in classical literature that it is obsessively mulled over, in the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid and Catullus – and here is another revelatory aspect of the book: what might be called the Classical Education of Charlotte Higgins. Autobiographical elements occur throughout, starting with her description of how her interest in labyrinths began when she visited Knossos with her parents as a child – an experience she would later talk about in her interview for a place at Balliol College, Oxford, where she would study Classics.

Classical languages

She describes how as a 14-year-old schoolgirl she started to read the Aeneid and got into a fierce argument with her teacher about the character of Aeneas, which made her realise, as she finely puts it, that to study the classics is to engage in a conversation over 2,500 years. She makes no overt plea for the study of the classics, but the whole book is a testament to its value, and quietly demonstrates how a knowledge of the classics is indispensable to understanding our culture.

The study of classical languages is still declining in Irish schools, partly, and unbelievably, because it is claimed they are too hard, and marked too hard in exams. Michael Longley has quoted his teacher, the great Trinity Classicist W.B. Stanford as saying chalepa ta kala – ‘the beautiful things are difficult’. You may not get an A in your Leaving Cert, but Higgins demonstrates how the study of the classics is a red thread that can lead us through the labyrinth of the modern world.

Higgins is very entertaining on the labyrinth in modern culture, with digressions on London and the Underground, and Kubrick’s classic film The Shining. With Jack as a latter-day Minotaur, she points out the remarkable visual similarity of the Overlook Hotel to Knossos as reimagined by Arthur Evans.

After reading this book you will see labyrinths everywhere – I just noticed one on a hoarding around Christchurch in Dublin. Above all, the labyrinth is closely related to the idea of the web, and the world wide web may well be the greatest labyrinth ever constructed – certainly, as we are all too aware, there are Minotaurs lurking at its centre.

At the end of the book, the question still remains: what does the labyrinth mean? What does it tell us about our being in the world?

The answer may well come from Borges, the great creator of literary labyrinths. Writing of Kafka and Henry James, Borges stated: “I think they both thought of the world as being at the same time complex and meaningless.”

To which Higgins adds: “Is it not possible to live in the complex and meaningless world? The labyrinth is something that you cannot help entering.”

Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent publication is “Poems 1980-2015” (New Island)