Plot Geography: Labyrinths and Libraries

This post was meant to follow directly on from this one but I forgot to finish it.

I can only think of one library that is literally also a maze and that is the library at the unnamed monastery central to the mystery in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (see here for some of Eco’s sketches ). Eco’s novel which mixes musing on Medieval thought, the nature of inquiry, and Sherlock Holmes pastiche remains a delight. However, despite filling the criteria of having author generated maps in it and crossing genre boundaries, it is not a fantasy novel.

Eco’s library also knowingly echoes the more overtly fantastical work of Jorge Luis Borges whose short story The Library of Babel examines questions of infinity and knowledge that mirrors his story of an infinite labyrinth The Garden of Forking Paths. Borges himself was a librarian, famously so when Argentine dictator Juan Peron attempted to ‘promote’ him from his position to that of poultry inspector as part of a purge of critics of his regime.

Libraries and mazes and labyrinths share physical and metaphorical features. To enter each of them is to set yourself on a search for hidden knowledge. Arguably, a genuine library is not actively trying to thwart your search and actively hide secrets but practically both mazes and libraries require understanding the hidden principles to navigate them.

Physically, all three kinds of structures are dense spaces. Their exterior size is misleading compared to the distance you have to travel on the inside. Both use convoluted paths to pack more into a finite space than is usual. This convoluted packing of linear routes into an enclosed 2D space creates a wonderful visual metaphor with the convolutions on the outside of a human brain.

Mazes can be unintentional. Any building with twisting corridors and oddly joined rooms and frustrating dead ends can serve as a maze. So castles and stately homes, shopping centres and natural cave formations can act as maze-like structures. This transformation of all settings into potential mazes is most obvious in video-game settings but also in table-top role playing games, where characters must navigate through maze like structures that mirror plot elements.

The Lord of the Rings, (one of the works I try to reference in these plot geography posts) does not feature a library or an overt maze. True, Gandalf describes searching for hidden accounts of rings of power in Gondor but we don’t ever get to see the library of Minas Tirith. However, the Mines of Moria work as a more metaphorical maze and also contain hidden written knowledge throughout. To gain entry requires a play on words and once inside, the Fellowship must navigate the passages until they find two key pieces of writing. One are the words on a tomb (oh, and how delightful it was as a child to discover that the runes could be transliterated in the illustration) and the other is a book — an account of the lost dwarven colony of Moria. I don’t doubt that Tolkien was echoing the classic Minoan labyrinth by placing at the heart of Moria a monstrous and murderous beast of quasi-divine origin. The balrog may be more fierce than the minotaur but they share a role of the horror at the centre of the maze.

In the Avatar cartoons (both Ang’s and Korra’s) the spirit library of Wan Shi Tong serves as a physical (in a cross-dimensional way) library and an effective maze. Vast in size and maintained by knowledge hungry foxes, the palatial library is maintained by a spirit in the form of a huge barn owl. It is literally a place that some people never escape from and shares the dual purpose of collecting knowledge and hiding it.

The notion of being lost, whether it is in a library, in your quest for knowledge, in a maze you must find and/or escape from, as a lost soul looking for enlightenment in church labyrinth or just simply as a reader lost in a book, is central to the common ideas. The garden of forking paths is a metaphor that mirrors mathematical tree structures that might describe a literal maze or a categorical system like the Dewey Decimal‘s nested hierarchies. Where libraries and mazes differ from other places characters can get lost, is there is method to place.

In church labyrinths, the method is to simply keep going. The way is twisted and uncertain but all you have to do is follow the path. The trick is not a cognitive one (there is only one path) but a test of patience and character and a metaphor for the narrow path to salvation. What is hidden is that twisted path is actually simple: an unbranching straight line folded in two-dimensions. It’s not unlike the plot of a story, in that the twists and turns suggest complexity but the story is constrained to one path that must be followed.

In the Tombs of Atuan, provides may ultimate favourite maze map. The twisted cave-like tunnels hide many wonders but at their heart is a treasure room which contain the fragment of a great talisman. The map le Guin provides is a wonderful distraction. I remember tracing out the routes in the maze long before I read the story (it was an older sibling’s copy) and it was an offer of mystery but also a gift of privilege. By providing the map, Le Guin implies that the reader themselves can see the route through the maze. However, the story reveals that the solution is not a physical one but an emotional and interpersonal one. Ged the wizard, despite his youth, his powers and his research cannot navigate the maze and cannot escape it because of the nameless powers that rest in the titular tombs of Atuan. It is only by winning the trust and genuine friendship of Tenar/Arha that Ged can find the heart of the maze, retrieve the treasure and escape. Fittingly, the treasure is the missing half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe and it is only by bringing the two halves together that the world can re-learn a missing rune i.e. word. There are no books in the Labyrinth of the Tombs of Atuan but there are words to be found.

13 thoughts on “Plot Geography: Labyrinths and Libraries

  1. Terry Pratchett’s L-space is, well, labyrinthine in practice (and somewhat Lovecraftian as well)… Other memorable libraries that sprang to my mind included the one hidden inside a jewel in The Elven, and Scott Hawkins’s compendious Library at Mount Char. Lord Sepulchrave’s library in Titus Groan is, I suppose, a relatively conventional library inside the labyrinthine structure of Gormenghast…. I wonder what to make of the Building in Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, which is a repository of information – of sorts – which is also very, very hard to navigate.

    Borges’s eponymous collection is, of course, full of labyrinths literal, conceptual and metaphorical… the only other one that came to mind was Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth, which contains no words, particularly, but does have self-knowledge as a sort of reward for those who navigate it.

    (And I really should get some of my own stuff out there, self-publishing perhaps… one story features a library which was never intended as a labyrinth, but it sort of got out of hand as time went on.)


  2. The premise that the protagonist have to retreive a valuable artifact from deep inside a dangerous, guarded and labyrinthine structure is surely one of the most common plots in fantasy. That the artifact is valuable because of the information it contains – rather than it being solid gold, or have magical properties, or something like that – is a large subset of that. And when the story is about retrieveing information, the information is often stored alongside other pieces of information.

    So there will be a lot of overlap between the literal library-as-labyrinth and various related plots. There’s Pratchett’s library, where the problem is not just that the library is a maze but the books themselves are dangerous. Scott Lynch uses a similar premise in the novelette “In The Stacks”. (The audio version at is very good.) In Rogue One the main obstacle is the armed guards. The Restricted Section of the library at Hogwarths is perhaps not dangerous in itself, but is strictly out of bounds for students. And so on.

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    1. The premise that the protagonist have to retreive a valuable artifact from deep inside a dangerous, guarded and labyrinthine structure is surely one of the most common plots in fantasy.

      And not just fantasy: in addition to Rogue One, that’s also the plot of Alastair Reynolds’ excellent, suspenseful SF novella Diamond Dogs, which also offers a novel riff on the notion of getting lost in a labyrinth.

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      1. Not sure I would call the tower they’re investigating a “labyrinth”, it’s much more of a Puzzle Palace, to my mind.

        Nonetheless, interesting, and mind-catching (possibly in more ways than one).


      2. @Ingvar: I would class a Puzzle Palace as a variant of “labyrinth”, but potato/tomato.

        Also, I can’t believe I didn’t mention Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze as another SF example.

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  3. Kuala Lumpur. It’s not fiction but I get lost here with alarming frequency, particularly in malls even if I’m familiar with the mall. If I ever need to write a maze into a work of fiction I’ll absolutely draw on my experiences of KL malls.

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      1. The other day I literally could not find the way through a food court in an underground tunnel that connects the Aquaria/KLCC convention centre and KLCC Suria Mall. I had to backtrack and take the long way around outside in the blazing sun to get there. I go there all the time for Kinokuniya whenever I’m here too – it’s an excellent bookshop if you speak one or more of English, Chinese, Japanese or Malay. I especially love that they have an “Asian Literature” section separated by country, even if their categorisation is a little wacky sometimes.

        I find it almost impossible to find my way around 1Utama at the best of times, and last time I went there they were re-flooring huge sections which made it even more of a maze to find my way to the one set of lifts that takes you directly up to the climbing gym there.

        Another time I was wandering around the bottom floor of Pavilion for ages looking for an exit, until I realised that I was actually below the ground floor with the exits on (the shops are the same though!)

        I don’t know what it is about KL. I don’t struggle this much with directions anywhere else, including in places you’d think would be harder for a mostly monolingual English speaker (though granted I can read hangeul and I knew enough Korean when I was living there that I could find my way around and order food, and I’ve been learning Japanese on-and-off for years now)


      2. //I had to backtrack and take the long way around outside in the blazing sun to get there. I go there all the time for Kinokuniya whenever I’m here too – it’s an excellent bookshop if you speak one or more of English, Chinese, Japanese or Malay.//

        I loved the Kinokuniya in Bangkok and the one in Sydney is a delight also.


  4. Best is the description of the Hampton Court Maze in Three Men in A Boat. It made the maze much more fun when I visited it some 40 years ago.


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