In the classic Greek myth, Theseus enters King Minos’ labyrinth at Crete, finds and slays the dangerous Minotaur at its center, and finds his way back out by following a linen thread he laid down to mark his path on his way in.The story is symbolic. Labyrinths, writes Jodi Lorimer in her book Dancing at the Edge of Death: The Origins of the Labyrinth in the Paleolithic represent both order and chaos. It depends on one’s ever-changing point of view.
They also represent the unconscious and an individual’s self. Until one knows himself, part of it is unconscious and filled with fears, demons and the basic energies of primal needs. The Minotaur is an apt symbol for these and slaying it is an apt symbol for facing one’s fears and subsequently becoming more whole and more aware.
The silken thread, a gift of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne in the original myth, represents the hero’s intuition, his present (though possibly faint) connection to his higher self, a self the Greeks personified as one god or another.
The hero’s journey, as described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces has been used as a template for understanding classic myths, exploring the depths of oneself, and creating compelling novels and screen plays.
In fiction, as in myth, the purpose of the story is always the hero’s transformation or his failure to achieve it. He undertakes a dangerous physical or psychological journey and in the process of doing that finds and slays his inner demons. The physical journey, complete with friends, enemies, demons, angels, trials, and tribulations is–in fiction and myth–the catalyst for the hero’s growth.
While the hero’s journey as a template is often the most obvious in epic films such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, it also serves as a structure for stories involving characters we might consider to be “every day people.” These stories always contain conflict, a conflict that typically cannot be successfully resolved until the main character comes to grips with his or her own failings, fears, phobias, blind spots and prejudices. If one can’t personally identify with the journey and the minotaurs in Titanic and Spiderman, then Dirty Dancing and Annie Hall may be easier to vicariously experience.
The twists and turns of the action-packed physical trek, battle or other conflict mirror the main character’s inner journey through the labyrinth of self. At the conclusion of the novel or film, we not only expect to see that the battle has been won or the crime has been solved, but that the protagonist has changed in the process.
Without facing a Minotaur of one kind or another, the hero cannot grow. None of us can. Most heroes don’t set out to consciously change themselves. Harry Potter, for example, didn’t vow to confront his worst fears. Instead, he went to school to learn magic, he ended up fighting the evil Lord Voldemort, encountered his worst fears in the process and triumphed over them, ending up as quite a different person.
Whether he’s overtly conscious of his inner journey or not, no hero in fiction or myth asks for whom the Minotaur waits because he knows it waits for him. Every good story has one and perhaps every good life has one as well.
As a personal note, when I watch Hollywood films, read novels, or consider stories I might want to write, I don’t envision the storyline and ask “Where’s Waldo?” I ask “Where’s the Minotaur?”
Then, at the conclusion of the novel or feature film, I don’t just want to see that the Luke Skywalker has destroyed the death star, that Indiana Jones has gotten the lost ark away from the Nazis, or that Erin Brockovich has defeated a corporation that’s been dumping hazardous materials into the groundwater. I want to see that Luke, Indiana and Erin have personally changed, for that change is they axis on which the ultimate story ultimately turns.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two hero’s journey novels (complete with figurative labyrinths and minotaurs), Garden of Heaven and The Sun Singer.
For the Florida connection in this novel, see my post Tate’s Hell about a wild swamp in the panhandle near where I grew up that made a perfect counterpart in the novel to Glacier’s Garden of Heaven valley.