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…

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