The original myth is no less weird and insane than the UK’s current political situation—though a touch more sexually luridby Charlotte Higgins / May 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
The idea of the labyrinth—the myth of the confounding, confusing building built by Daedalus to house the Minotaur—has been on my mind lately. It was the topic of my last book, Red Thread, and the image of this edifice—at once a prison for the monster and a trap from which his victims cannot escape—seems everywhere, particularly when the subject turns to Brexit. Shortly before 29th March, the original B-day, an image of Theresa May seemingly trapped inside a lime-green maze kept popping up on a newspaper website. I’m still mentally scarred, too, by a photograph taken last autumn of a madly grinning Jeremy Hunt snapped at the centre of the hedge maze at Chevening, the foreign secretary’s official country residence, along with his European counterparts. At the time of writing, May and Hunt are still trapped in their labyrinths—and along with them, the entire country.
The question is, what role is May playing in the labyrinth? The original myth is no less weird and insane than the UK’s current political situation, though a touch more sexually lurid. To recap, King Minos of Crete’s wife, Pasiphae, developed an obsession with a bull. In order to satisfy her bestial urges, she commissioned Daedalus—the great inventor-artist of the Greek mythological world—to build for her a hollow, cow-shaped machine, so she could crawl inside it, and make love with the bull. Which she did—and later gave birth to the Minotaur, bull from the neck up, human from the neck down.
Daedalus was called on again to design the creature a suitable home: the labyrinth. The Minotaur fed on young Athenians, who owed Crete blood tribute. But on one occasion, the victims from the mainland included the king’s son, Theseus, who was determined to kill the creature. Happily for him, Minos and Pasiphae’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him, and gave him the tools to ensure his success: a sword, and a ball of thread so he could find his way out.
So who is May in this tale? Theseus? The Minotaur? It’s not clear to me whether she might more aptly be thought of as the monster, or its potential victim/would-be slayer. Perhaps she is both. In this respect she reminds me of Casaubon, in George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch, a book full of metaphors from the labyrinth myth. The desiccated old cleric, who becomes an unsuitable husband for the young and idealistic Dorothea, is said to have a mind resembling dark and winding passages. The Ariadne-like Dorothea is constantly trying to throw him a thread—to form some emotional connection with him, to help him with his impossible scholarly project to produce a “key to all mythologies.” Unlike Theseus, Casaubon refuses her help, and instead offers her only a prison of a marriage that threatens (metaphorically) to consume her.
The truth, I suspect, is that we all have a little bit of a monster inside us, and a little bit of a Theseus, too. Theseus will never get anywhere, though, without the practical intelligence of Ariadne, that secular saint of tangled situations neatly unravelled, of mysteries solved. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s version of the myth, “Legend of Good Women,” he writes of Ariadne’s “clewe”—the Middle English word for a ball of thread. Later, the word evolved into our “clue” and lost its old material significance, retaining only its metaphorical meaning. Right now, a clue is precisely what Theresa May lacks.