June 10, 2014

To Hellir and Back: Some Musings on Myths and Mazes - a guest post by Caitlin Sweet, author of "The Door in the Mountain"

Caitlin Sweet’s first fantasy novel, A Telling of Stars, was published by Penguin Canada in 2003. Her second, The Silences of Home, was published in 2005. Her one and only short story, “To Play the Game of Men,” was included in Daw’s Ages of Wonder anthology in 2009. Her novel The Pattern Scars, came out from CZP in 2011, and was nominated for Sunburst and Aurora awards, and reviewed to much acclaim in the Huffington Post.

 To Hellir and Back: Some Musings on Myths and Mazes
by Caitlin Sweet

Underground spaces and I go way back.

There were the catacombs in Rome, visited as part of a high school classics trip—though I remember very little about these, as I was concentrating on being within ogling distance of the guy for whom I was pining. I remember the cramped, steep steps, though; the dampness of the air and stone; a sense of dreadful, claustrophobic beauty. Back in the more mundane context of Toronto, I studied Plato’s take on the subterranean: the cave as a representation of humankind’s misbegotten grasp of reality—a place where shadows dance, mimicking physical existence.

In university I read, in Spanish, Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. My mind was utterly blown. Magic and myth, time that folded and spiraled, leading men to death and meaning, or maybe just death: his stories were often about labyrinths, and were, themselves, structural mazes.

I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars… A labyrinth of symbols... An invisible labyrinth of time.
  • "The Garden of Forking Paths" in The Garden of Forking Paths (1942)

By the time I went to live in southern Mexico, right after graduation, I was primed for mystery and mazes—and I was writing about these things myself, in what would become A Telling of Stars. A fortress where time folded and spiraled…Yup: I owed a debt of gratitude to Borges, and to Mexico itself. Mixtec tombs, Zapotec pyramids: dank, narrow corridors carved with images whose power was palpable, even though I didn’t understand them. Gods and men, maybe; creatures born in darkness and flame, who’d lead humans through the portal of death to whatever underworld lay beyond.

There are deep, dark places in almost every mythology. The Mayans had Xibalba; the Egyptians, Duat. The Greeks had Hades. (Archaeologists continue to claim they’ve discovered THE cave that the ancient Greeks thought of as the entrance to Hades. One is Pluto’s Gate, in the ancient city of Hierapolis in southern Turkey; another’s Alepotrypa, in southern Greece. Who knows how many more there are, waiting to be anointed.) The Scandinavians had “Hellir,” which in Norse means “cliff cave,” and is the word from which our “hell” is derived. All of these mythological caves and labyrinths are places of death and possibly resurrection. All are crossing-over places between worlds.

Which is why they’re perfect for fantasy fiction.

I’ve already mentioned my first novel and its labyrinth, which takes the form of a desert fortress in which young Jaele loses herself, both in time (that won't move forward, as it's supposed to) and in grief:

She saw Keeper, twice, three times, though always from a distance. She followed him every time, and every time she lost him in the turnings of the corridors or in the mazes of the rooms. She walked and waited and slept too lightly for dreams.

My second book, The Silences of Home, featured a network of underground water tunnels that act as a safe gathering place for rebellious subjects plotting to overthrow their tyrannical queen:

And when the passages were dug and the water channelled, the Third sent artisans beneath the city, and they fused glass and clear stones into the rock walls, in the shapes of spouts and waves, fish and other wetland beasts...

It is a secret place. It has been forgotten. Our cause depends on this.

In my third novel, The Pattern Scars, there’s a warren of passageways beneath a hill, which lead to the tomb of a revered hero of antiquity. This tomb ends up being a place of hidden violence, murder and rebirth. The protagonist describes her first impression:

I put my hands back on the wall. Traced bumps and zigzags and spirals: the frenzied, inscrutable shapes of the Pattern. So many shapes; I could feel nothing but confusion, beneath my fingertips. I took several paces and my hands slipped from the raised carvings into the hollows among them...They ran around the carvings and off into the black, and as I traced one and then another, the space around me shifted. Perhaps it lightened, too; I blinked and saw the wriggling, wobbling images that usually appeared after I had Otherseen.
The Otherworld, I thought, wondering and certain; it's here.

The Door in the Mountain is my latest novel. In it I dispense with sort-of labyrinths and take on The Labyrinth—the one King Minos ordered Daedalus to build for the monstrous Minotaur that was also the king's stepson, Asterion.

Silver images were stitching themselves into an impossible night sky: images of corridors and staircases; pillars and friezes and urns; bridges over empty spaces of deeper darkness—and, finally, above and beneath everything else, an enormous altar stone engraved with writhing, lashing lines: snakes, carved and living.

Corridors, tunnels, passageways: I’d think I was plagiarizing myself, if it weren’t for the fact that deep, dark, seemingly impenetrable places are central to most actual mythologies, not just my created ones. And so many other modern fantasy authors have been there before me—among them Tolkien, with his Mines of Moria; Mervyn Peake, with his Gormenghast; Ursula K. LeGuin, with her underground Tombs of Atuan…All of these are, to some extent, places of refuge, subversion, death and resurrection. Places where characters get lost, and either stay lost for good, or haul themselves back out, transformed.

I’m now finishing up the second and final (as-yet-unnamed) book of my Minotaur story. After the setup and hints of the first book, my characters are, at last, all the way in. Time for some subversion, death and, perhaps, a particular kind of resurrection.

After this, though? I might want to look into the mythic properties of tropical beaches.



Lost in time, shrouded in dark myths of blood and magic, The Door in the Mountain leads to the world of ancient Crete: a place where a beautiful, bitter young princess named Ariadne schemes to imprison her godmarked half-brother deep in the heart of a mountain maze, where a boy named Icarus tries, and fails, to fly—and where a slave girl changes the paths of all their lives forever.

LOOK FOR IT AT: CHIZINE PUBLICATIONSKOBO / AMAZON / and elsewhere books are sold.

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