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.

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I've always felt that life is more like "A Solar Labyrinth".

A nice story!

If I may intrude on the solar labyrinth a bit, in my view the mental world may indeed have aspects of a solar labyrinth, only that at set times (triggered by difficult to calculate events) what had been only a game of shadow and light now takes the form of the most concrete wall.

I do love your remark about the solar labyrinth not forcing the guest to even accept it as a labyrinth. Yet I think that at some point (potentially) any mental scheme which seems fleeting and easy to bypass can indeed become stable and even frighteningly immediate & demanding a solution if one is to be allowed to leave.

This is pretty interesting question with potential for self-insight. To my mind, most people living in difficult conditions treat it as a Babylonian labyrinth, as if salvation could be at the next door any moment; this is also why many people are susceptible to "get rich quick" schemes and astrological "remedies" and such - they've always known they could be next door to riches and fame and all that, and now they finally were. By contrast, those who view it as an Arabian labyrinth either succumb to learned helplessness via depressive realism, or a select few learn to enjoy the desert itself, knowing things to be out of their control.

In case it isn't obvious from the above paragraph, my choice would be for the desert labyrinth, if I had to choose. It's my belief that decision anxiety is one of the greatest sources of pain in our life; so here the choice is between having to choose every day, or once at the beginning - and crucially, the further choices in the Babylonian labyrinth are made with no additional information, so only have the cost of decision anxiety with no benefit of improving the probability of your escape. (Lest this comment get too long, I'll also mention that the desert labyrinth also brings to mind religion and people's tendency to believe in Fate or destiny.)

I generally agree, and I am happy you found the discussion interesting :)

In my view, indeed the Babylonian type of labyrinth does promote continuous struggle, or at least multiple points of hope and focus on achieving a breakthrough, while ultimately a majority of the time they won't lead to anything - and couldn't have lead to anything in the first place. The Arabian type at least promotes a stable progression, towards an end - although that end may already be a bad one.

Most of the time we simply move in our labyrinth anyway. And with more theoretical goals it can be said that even a breakthrough is more of a fantasy borne out of the endless movement inside the maze.