Two Kings and two Labyrinths is a very short story, written by J.L. Borges. It barely manages to fill the space of a single page; and yet there is enough in it to allow for an interesting dissertation.
The actual story is about a rivalry between two kings: The King of Babylon had once invited the King of Arabia to his capital, and there got him to enter a labyrinth made of intricate passages, surrounded by tall walls. The King of Arabia only managed to find his way out after imploring his God for help. The experience terrified him, and he swore that in the future he would repay the Babylonian in kind, by introducing him to another labyrinth; one particular to his native and desolate Arabian realm...
After his victory in war, the King of Arabia takes the King of Babylon hostage. He brings him to the desert, where, at the end of a three-day journey, he is abandoned. The desert is another kind of labyrinth. It has neither passages nor walls, but still finding one's way out of it is virtually impossible.
A Labyrinth is More Than Just a Prison Cell
A labyrinth isn’t just a structure which confines; it is one which serves the purpose of getting one disoriented. While a prison cell – regardless if it is nameless and obscure or one as famous as the stone vault in Sophocles’ play, Antigone, which was used to imprison the heroine and slowly drain her of the will to live – is just a simple room, enough to enclose, limit, and cause desperation, an actual labyrinth functions by allowing the person inside to still hope there is a chance of finding a way out... The labyrinth is different from a group of interconnecting cells, in that somewhere in it one may still discover a passage which will lead to liberation...
The possibility of finding the exit may be so small that, in practice, one wouldn't ever succeed in this quest... It's not important, though, because the very form of the labyrinth forces its prisoner to accept that there are always new routes to explore, or another idea to test; the progression from each part of the labyrinth to the next one may be quite monotonous, and almost reveal no change, but the prisoner inside is actually moving, is still progressing – and this allows for hope.
The Babylonian Labyrinth
The first of the labyrinths presented in the story is the one the reader would readily identify as a typical labyrinth. A maze, filled with corridors and forking paths, and with the line of sight in every one of its locations being crucially obstructed by tall and sturdy masonry. In such an edifice one can attempt to examine every minute difference between the numerous interconnecting rooms, aspiring to devise some manner of identifying and then memorizing which paths have already been taken, and come up with a plan that would allow for the exploration of as many areas as possible, all the while hoping that through a combination of methodology and luck it may happen that the exit will be discovered!
Every room has specific forms, and every step can be – and moreover may have to be – retraced, to allow for a progressively more thorough and valid impression in regards to the overall shape of the labyrinth.
The Arabian Labyrinth
The labyrinth in Arabia is, of course, the desert itself. It stretches for endless miles. Here there are no rooms, nor walls, nor any other element which changes as one carries on walking. It is, indeed, a labyrinth which consists of a singular vast space; and, unlike the Babylonian type, this labyrinth will reveal its exit if you simply walk far enough so that the first signs of something other than the desert becomes visible on the horizon... Unlike with the built maze, the desert doesn’t allow for retracing of steps; you have to choose a direction, and carry on moving. It may, in fact, easily be the case that your very first step and your very first choice has already either saved or doomed you! Only at a far later point in time will you find out which of the two was true.
While in the built maze you need to form a sense of the overall pattern, keep track of the various routes you had taken and construct a plan so as to allow for a new, original route to be set in every subsequent attempt, in the desert maze you have an infinite number of routes which only differ in essence in regards to their direction: if (for example) this desert's end can only be reached – before your stamina and supplies are depleted – if you keep moving eastwards, you won’t ever succeed if you moved to the west.
The Crucial Difference Between The Two
Both versions of the labyrinth exist so as to achieve the same: prevent the one inside to escape without conscious effort. Or, to put it in a more poignant manner: not allow one to leave unless they had gained a particular knowledge about the labyrinth; the knowledge of a way out. After all, no labyrinth can remain imposing once you have located its exit.
But the two versions differ in a very crucial way: While the labyrinth of corridors will keep you hoping until the very last second of your life – for the exit may always be found in the next room and therefore still be accessible even if you are about to collapse, starving and reduced to crawling on the floor – the labyrinth of nothingness, the cruel and level plane of the desert, will have informed you long before you fall to the sand, never to rise back again, that you already have lost and are to die inside it...
And yet it must be noted that this difference brings about also a complementary and antithetic element; an elegant juxtaposition: In the labyrinth of corridors you will retain hope until you draw your last breath, yes, but you will also keep being fooled into thinking your moves up to that point haven’t failed you. In the labyrinth of open space you will be informed that you failed, and that you will die, long before it happens – since there won’t be any settlement visible on the horizon, and your body has already shown the tell-tale signs of giving up.
by Kyriakos Chalkopoulos
I want to ask which of the two types of labyrinth you would rather be in. Certainly one can imagine life as a journey inside (external as well as internal) labyrinths.