Labyrinths and mazes

The words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘maze’ have often been treated as near-synonyms, but they denote two different classes of object. A labyrinth is a convoluted, twisted path from a starting point to a finishing point. It may be very long but it doesn’t bifurcate. It has no nodes, no branches, no alternative paths. A maze, in contrast, does have branches. At each node there are two, three or more alternative paths, only one of which (normally) leads to the finishing point while the others are dead ends. In a mathematical sense, a labyrinth is a maze with zero nodes and branches.

Mazes have a deep history. The oldest ones known to us were made in Egypt and were designed to protect the tombs of the wealthy and powerful from grave-robbers. Ancient writers described the maze beside the tomb of Pharaoh Amenemhet III in Faiyum as a great wonder, containing more than 3000 chambers (dead-end branches, presumably), but it is long vanished. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder extolled the baffling intricacy of the Faiyum maze’s laborious windings. The Minotaur’s maze on Crete was supposedly based on it, though the Cretan maze was misleadingly dubbed a ‘labyrinth’.

Turf mazes – usually, in fact, labyrinths – appeared in mediaeval Europe. They were supposedly of pagan origin but were quickly recruited by the Church as devices for symbolic pilgrimage. Pilgrims and penitents could follow the winding path for up to a mile before reaching the end and being admitted to the church building. By the 16th century, mazes (as opposed to labyrinths) had achieved a secular role; they were becoming valued as ornaments in large gardens, entertainments for the house-guests of the nobility, and their popularity persisted into the eighteenth century. (The Hampton Court maze in London was constructed during the reign of William III.)

Now, here’s the question that motivated this excursion into history and semantics: should the meandering arguments of our politicians be deemed labyrinths or mazes? A case can be made for each alternative. A Boris Johnson speech, for example, is driven by almost explosive energy, but for all its length and apparent complexity and convolutions, there proves to be only a short and simple distance between start and finish. A Boris Johnson argument (when it can be unravelled at all) is properly described as ‘labyrinthine’. In contrast, consider Tony Blair’s attempt to defend himself publicly yesterday (6th July) against the scathing critique presented by the long-awaited Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His performance illustrates how the unsporting visitor to a maze can escape the trap when completely stuck. Finding himself caught in the plethora of dead ends comprised in Chilcot’s maze of accusations, with no node offering hope of legitimate escape, Mr Blair deployed the shears of selective amnesia and the chainsaw of self-justification to battle his way to freedom from the maze. It was a spectacular performance, though not an uplifting one, and it hasn’t prevented today’s newspapers from baying for his blood.

More generally, almost all our political leaders seem to have become lost in mazes of their own making since the EU Referendum result darkened our lives. Mr Corbyn, overwhelmingly popular among the rank and file of the Labour Party, has faced a vote of No Confidence supported by more than 170 of his own MPs. Either he faces a dead end and must retrace his steps, or his MPs do, or several million Party members do. Meanwhile, Mr Cameron has indicated his intention to resign as Prime Minister, leaving his Conservative Party to elect a new leader, a process that will foster deep divisions within the party of government, already laid bare by the bitter disputes of the Referendum campaign. A Babel of voices purports to guide members of the party, and the public at large, in either this direction or that direction, because it’s beyond question that this direction – or perhaps that direction, or (just possibly) the other direction  – is the way we must go to reach the goal of stability and prosperity. And there can be no doubt that most if not all of these alternative paths through the maze will prove to be dead ends.

Which is, I suppose, just a labyrinthine way of saying that no one in the Westminster government has much idea where they’re going or where they’re leading the rest of us.


  • John Parker 07.07.2016 - 23:30pm

    Given the Minotaur ugliness of our politicians of all stripes, we seem to be in a political labyrinth – or several labyrinths. The lack of gravitas in these pols, their supporters/backers and their SPADS should be a matter of despair for the rest of us.

    • Mark Henderson

      It is, John! What especially troubles me in the UK is the apparent severance between party members and their MPs, which seems likely to afflict the Conservatives as well as Labour. What a prospect, parties being taken over by their members…

  • aMAZing!
    Love the bit on Tony Blair. Many Americans believed then, and still do, that politicians at the highest levels (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld to name a few) were complicit in hood-winking the American public and our Congress into supporting that atrocious war in Iraq. And now Trump has the gall to assert that Hillary Clinton “created ISIS” while Secretary of State. I’m just sick of it.

    Meanwhile, our Smithsonian has obtained 16,000 pages of “top-secret” telegrams that were sent from Washington DC to the front lines during our Civil War in the 1860s. Volunteers (including me) are transcribing them, now that they’ve been opened.

    Will it take that long for documents that prove the guilt of the Bush administration (and Mr. Blair) to emerge?

    • Mark Henderson

      I don’t think any more proof is needed, Mary. We knew in 2003 that this was all dust-in-the-eyes-of-the-public and we knew what the real motivation was. I’m still proud of having joined the crowds of anti-war protesters in Manchester carrying a banner reading “How did our oil get under their sand?” But the Chilcot report, although it doesn’t contain any significant surprises for most of us, is truly damning – albeit in an understated, British way.

      Hillary Clinton created ISIS? That must have surprised a lot of our Muslim friends in the Middle East!

  • Hi Mark,
    Stunning piece of writing / comment. You should copy it onto Facebook etc. Shame you don’t have direct access to newspapers. You’d could always try Private Eye though. Just email it. I’m sure they would add amusing illustrations.

    On a personal level, I’m so glad I used the right word in the subtitle of my novel . . . “a goddamn labyrinth”. I even spelt it correctly.

  • People generally seem to have short memories these days… they barely remember scandals that happened last month, let alone 13 years ago. And, thus, they place the blame on whoever is in the spotlight now — instead of where it belongs. On the one hand, I’m not big on the blame-game; better to put the past behind you and endeavor on… but in the sense of learning from the mistakes of the past, one does need to understand what went wrong. I don’t know that I’d have gone the labyrinth & maze angle though; I’d have gone straight to septic tank…

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