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The Labyrinth

trees on a dark forest

The three stories I’ve written so far vary widely in scope, but all have one characteristic in common: human behaviour. If they have any merit at all, if they are even readable, it is because we can relate to them in some way. Usually this will be because of some predicament and their human (or human-like if they are animals or extra-terrestrials) response to it. I would argue that the more fantastic or out-of-this-world a story is, the more we need to see ourselves within it. More on this later. 

How did stories begin? Brian Boyn (On the Origin of Stories, 2009) makes the case that all art derives ultimately from the mammalian instinct for play. I would suggest that stories, along with theatre, derived more directly from religious ritual, and the urge here was to have some sense of control over an unpredictable world. Whatever, there is no doubt that storytelling developed away from drama a long time ago. It produced such epics as the Iliad and Gilgamesh, tales of gods and heroes; and it produced the folk tale and the fairy tale. According to Tolkein, the main component of fairy (or faerie) is magic, which must be taken seriously, whatever else is not.

Here is my take on this genre, and I do not pretend it is in the same league as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Apart from its merits as a story, there are important differences which I will cover in a future post.

The Labyrinth

There was once a king who married a beautiful princess from a neighbouring country, and he loved her dearly. Out of this union came a daughter even more lovely than her mother, and there was never a man so happy as that king. Until, that is, a plague swept through the land and took away his wife. He ordered the entire kingdom to shut its doors and go into mourning for seven days, after which he decreed a protective wall be built around that part of the palace which housed his daughter. She would not be permitted to leave her quarter, and only himself and a few trusted servants would be permitted to enter. So this was done, and the years passed.

“You must get married again,” the king was told. “Your daughter will marry one day, and leave. We need an heir to the throne.”

So eventually the king agreed.

There was a woman, new to the country, who had come from a long line of witches. She had skills to attract men that few others possessed, and she put them to good use. The king was soon infatuated with her, and the wedding took place. The new queen had a huge influence, and many changes were made. Only one thing troubled her: the king remained fiercely protective of his daughter, and if anything doted on her even more than he had in the past, as she grew more and more to resemble her mother. So the queen took to visiting her step daughter and having long conversations with her, which indeed the daughter welcomed. She had been given little to do, apart from lessons from her appointed tutor, and she was sick of her surroundings, sick of courtly protocol, sick of the same old faces around her every day. Thus the queen made her plans.

“I am so sick of this place. I want to see the world,” said the princess.

“My dear, that can easily be arranged,” said the queen. “I shall see to it myself.”

Close to where the princess was confined was an overgrown, neglected garden, consisting chiefly of a hedge maze and various ponds, and it was here that the queen got to work. She brought in gardeners to extend the maze, and used all her magical powers to make the hedges turn into trees, and grow tall and thick. The garden became gloomy, and even in the middle of the hottest days it was dark and cold. Soon it was frequented by wolves and many other savage wild creatures that the queen introduced. Then she confused the girl’s senses, so she would experience this labyrinth as a light, happy, charming place. The wolves will eat her, thought the queen. 

“You’d better not go into that forest,” she said. “Walk around, but stay in the open fields, because there is still plague in the city.”

“Oh, but I must,” said the daughter to her two maids. “Come on, follow me!”

The attendants shivered a little, because it seemed to them that a dark, murky cloud hovered over the labyrinth, but they followed her in. The princess’s joy at being liberated radiated such a charm that the garden changed into the happy place she imagined. A wolf approached, not threatening, but curious. She petted it, and it responded by following her, and becoming her guardian. The three woman discovered guide marks on the trees, and by following them they came to a sunny dell, with a sparkling pool, and a tapestry of flowers, and vines laden with fruit.

The queen was not pleased to see the princess and her two maids returning that evening with their faces glowing with happiness.

“Oh your majesty, that is such a wonderful place,” said the princess. “I must go there every day to see the birds and the animals. I really must.”

“You must wait, my dear, while I prepare it for you, and then you will find it even more wonderful,” said the queen. And she went through the forest, poisoning the fruit that hung from the trees and casting her spells on everything.

But once again, the princess’s charm and enthusiasm transformed the labyrinth, and the trio returned in the evening even happier than before.

Therefore on the third day the queen crept along behind the trio and removed the guide marks from the trees, replacing them with another set which led to a darker, more remote place. Here she set up a table laden with poisoned food and drink. The princess and her maids spent a long time in the forest, running through the tracks and picking the flowers and fruit. They were all very tired, and feeling indeed a little grumpy when they made their way, as they thought, back to the palace.

“I’m getting bored with this pretty place,” grumbled the princess. “It’s much too tame, too like the palace.”

The princess and her maids were following the queen’s false trail. They did not return, and the labyrinth became indeed the place the queen intended. The king sent out a search party which went out day after day but there was never a sign of the princess or her maids.

It so happened that a prince from a neighbouring country was visiting the palace. The king begged him to join the search, and he willingly did so, seeking not the easy, well-trodden paths that the others had mostly followed, but the darker and more difficult places. Thus it was he came eventually to a hollow where the light was dim indeed, but right in the centre three trees, braided together, glowed with their own light. At their base, coiled around them, a large snake raised its head and hissed at him as he walked towards it. The prince drew his sword. The snake tried to strike him, but he was too quick, severing its head with one swift stroke. Immediately the three trees separated into three shimmering columns of light. As he watched, astounded, the columns turned into three beautiful women: the princess and her attendants. The princess, the most beautiful, stepped forward and he caught her in his arms. “Oh, I’ve been having the most terrible dreams,” she said.

Back at the palace the king and queen were waiting anxiously for news, when the queen gave a sudden cry and fell to the floor. Her attendants rushed to her side, and the court physician was called. When he examined her he sadly shook his head. “She has gone, sire,” he said. He pulled back the stiff collar of her dress, and all could see the vivid red line running all the way round her neck.

The king’s sadness was modified by the return of his daughter. “Sir,” he said to the prince, “ask me anything you would like.” 

“Just one thing, your majesty. I would very much like to marry your daughter.”

The king turned pale, but regained his composure when he saw how much the two loved each other. “Indeed, you have my blessing,” he said.

At the funeral, he talked a good deal about the virtues of his late wife. He did not mention the circumstances of her demise, or the way her eyes in death had come to look very much like the eyes of a reptile. The wedding took place not long after, and after going through the pain of giving up his daughter the king felt a curious sense of lightness.

“It’s almost as if I’ve been set free from something,” he said to his favourite adviser. “I can’t imagine what.”

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