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Daedalus Lives!

The Maze Maker

by Michael Ayrton
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 320 pp., $6.95

A novel” says the dust-jacket. And in a way it is, the autobiography of the archetypal craftsman Daedalus, who constructed the labyrinth which housed the Minotaur, the wings with which he and his son Icarus flew westward from Crete, a golden honeycomb, and many other wondrous contrivances. In the primitive classification system through which children are introduced to libraries, Michael Ayrton’s The Maze Maker has to be catalogued under Fiction. It tells a story, rich with incident and description and dialogue; it portrays characters who can be described and judged; it is poetic and exciting, imaginative and sometimes didactic. English critics have already praised it highly as a novel, rightly so. A historical novel.

Yet it is patently not a historical novel like those, say, of Mary Renault, with which one might be tempted to draw comparisons. It is even less the work of a fabulist. In a strict sense The Maze Maker is a long myth, the original creation of a myth-maker who employs the raw material of old myths to fashion a new one, as Daedalus fashioned his great works out of already available raw materials. Like all myths, it takes the form of a concrete tale about something that happened once upon a time and it can be read as such, as a story. But if a tale is a proper myth it also performs one or more basic social functions. For the ancient Greeks, arguably the greatest of all myth-making people, myth served to reduce the chaos of the past to intelligibility, by selecting a few incidents (believed to be true) which explained religious rituals or sanctioned royal dynasties or justified aristocratic status and power or held fundamental ethical implications.

The chief actors were gods and heroes, and even the gods were in a way heroes. Now comes Mr. Ayrton and out of the same incidents from the Greek mythical past he creates the myth of the antihero (and of the anti-godhero). He has done this coolly and deliberately, scattering signposts along the way, including a consciously anti-Homeric tone. Early on, the young Daedalus is living with his cousin Pallas, lord of Sunium in southeastern Attica. Pallas, a secondary hero on the Homeric soale, seeks to enhance his prestige and power by heavy indulgence in the ceremontal gift-exchange which is such a major theme in the Iliad and Odyssey. He showers gifts on Daedalus, once with a longish speech beginning, “Take this bowl of silver…brought by Jason himself from beyond Colchis, the metal from the fleece itself,” which is an echo of, for example, Menelaus’s offer to Telemachus in the fourth book of the Odyssey: “Of the gifts, such as are treasures lying in my house, I will give you the one which is finest and most valuable…. The hero Phaedimus, king of the Sidonians, gave it to me.” Daedalus of course accepts, but to himself he mocks:

I would take the thing and thank him with an even longer speech. I would take it to my workshop wondering what to do with yet another tolerable example of Phoenician workmanship which some hero had cut some throat to own and…had given it to Pallas on some honorable occasion. The bloodstain tarnish was real enough.

That is merely unheroic. What raises the whole performance from mockery to the far higher level of the anti-heroic is the primary fact that Daedalus, a bronzesmith, is permitted to join in the game at all. In a truly heroic society, gift-exchange of treasure is an aristocratic monopoly into which no Daedalus could force an entrance despite his royal lineage, rather, the circle would have been closed even tighter against him because, by becoming a professional craftsman, he betrayed his class and its values.

Throughout the book there is this play between the unheroic, anti-Homeric tone which Daedalus adopts in his language, and the full-bodied anti-hero which he is in his actions and in the situations in which he finds himself. Near the end, Mr. Ayrton pauses to sum up the qualities, as it were, in a splendid three-page serio-comic evaluation of Theseus. “Theseus was a relative of mine,” Daedalus begins. “He has become very celebrated for his treachery to Ariadne,” for his “accidental—if it was accidental—destruction of his own father by negligence in the matter of the color of the sail, and other heroic acts.” He was “a murderous hero, which is the common kind…. This must be accepted, for killing, like so many destructive activities, is unavoidable to the uncreative. It is their principal demonstration of power.” (Earlier the mildly rebellious Lycus had pointed out that to the gods creation is “more painful and more hated than murder” for they are “pledged to violence, to rape and to destruction.”) Theseus didn’t kill Ariadne, to be sure, he merely abandoned her. But Ariadne “deserved to be treated with gentleness and generosity. Theseus, being a hero, had no notion of either quality and used not only her body but her life for quick convenience…. I shall say no more of Theseus.”

THIS IS NO childish debunking, of which there has been enough, from the ancient Cynic philosophers to Samuel Butler. What Michael Ayrton set out to achieve—and has achieved—is to turn the “Homeric” value system upside down. The anti-hero is creative instead of murderous and destructive; humane and generous, never cruel, never indifferent to his fellows’ needs and feelings in an unrelenting pursuit of victory and glory; capable of love and healthy sexuality; deliberative and ratiocinative—“in my experience, there is no way to defeat fear, unless one is a hero, except to think it through to the other side”; a seeker after order in life; a man whose hands perform great deeds with tools, not with arms, who delights in combat with things, not with other men. He takes pride in his creative and constructive skills, but his pride falls short of arrogance because of his gentle melancholy, his awareness of his own powerlessness in a power-world. The career of Daedalus is dominated by men of power: they always have the final decision about him, whether he may stay or must resume wandering, whether he shall build a temple or a labyrinth or a fortress. He survives through his intelligence and his craft (unlike his son Icarus, whose hands are useless and who caught the hero-fever), but it is always the triumph of escape, not of domination.

The transvaluation of values is complete:

I accept that poets celebrate important things such as honor and beauty and birth and valor and man’s relations with the gods but, when you come down to it, what they most celebrate are heroes, which is not surprising. Poets have much in common with heroes. They are neither of them aware of the world, of its true appearance nor its real consequence, its structure and its marvelous imperfection…. I prefer cognition to revelation,…but then I make things which take time…. What I make exists.

It was fundamental to the Greek heroic and aristocratic ethos that the poet was inspired by the gods, whereas the sculptor or potter was only a craftsman and therefore of a lower order of being, a “banausic” man. The pejorative “only” is a focal point of Michael Ayrton’s attack. In a brief Testament of Daedalus published five years ago, he had Daedalus play with the meaning of his name (a common Greek adjective):

If it means “bright” I accept that. If it means “cunningly wrought” that would be just, but if it means “maker of beautiful things” I should not have given it to myself since I am impatient of aesthetic pretensions.

This rejection of the romantic idea of the artist is a familiar core of Ayrton’s self-image. Only a sculptor and painter who knows his materials as a metallurgist or a biologist might, to the tiniest bubble impairing the cast bronze or the intricacies of a honeycomb or a nautilus, could have written this book, which has a third level in addition to those of novel and myth, a level of great erudition. Daedalus can never resist displaying his knowledge and his sharp perceptions, for example in his subtle evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of Cretan art; in the exact account of how he constructed the frame in which Pasiphae, wife of King Minos, was able to have intercourse with the white bull who engendered the Minotaur on her; in such incidental lines as “chestnut wood makes fine charcoal, if not as fine as the pistachio.” And one accepts this as absolutely right, as the vocabulary with which the anti-hero must “boast.” It is an essential of the poetry—I trust Mr. Ayrton will forgive the word—of this myth-making.

At various times Daedalus lived and worked in his native Attica, in Crete, at Cumae in the Bay of Naples, and in Sicily. In each of these places a cluster of myths arose around his activities; Mr. Ayrton knows them all and he skillfully introduces them all into the autobiography. The Maze Maker can therefore be read straight, as a beautifully evocative, much extended, re-telling of some of the finest of the old Greek myths. But what a pity that would be. The mythical past still has an important role, and this new myth is as “true” in our time as the old versions were in theirs.

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