Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur – a book pairing of opposites

This would have been just a single review – of Jennifer Saint’s retelling of Ariadne’s story from Greek Myth. But then Marina Sofia recently posted a review of Russian author Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra, and I remembered I had Pelevin’s retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur from the Canongate Myths series on my shelves, and I rushed off to read it pronto. The two versions are so different – a real pairing of opposites in style and approach…

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Strange, although loving a Greek myth, I’d never realised there was more to Ariadne’s story beyond helping Theseus outwit the labyrinth to kill the minotaur. I mean, I’d heard of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but had never associated it as being that Ariadne, which of course it is. If I’d known that the Titian painting to your right was called Bacchus and Ariadne, (as used on the cover of 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet by the Crash Test Dummies), it would also have been clearer. So I was delighted to discover that Ariadne’s story goes beyond the labyrinth.

Saint’s debut novel is a feminist retelling with Ariadne narrating her own story. It begins with her explaining why her father MInos, King of Crete, has a feud with Athens after his son was killed there.

It wasn’t wealth or power that Minos sought from Athens, however It was a tribute – seven Athenian youths and seven Athenian maidens brought every year across the waves to Crete to sate the appetite of the monstrosity that had threatened to shatter my family with shame but instead had elevated us to the statue of legends. The creature whose bellows would make the floors of our palace rumble and shake as the time grew near for his annual feeding despite his burial far below the ground in the centre of a twilight labyrinth so dizzying that no one who entered could ever find their way back to daylight again.

A labyrinth to which only I held the key.

A labyrinth which housed what was at once Minos’ greatest humiliation and greatest asset.

My brother, the Minotaur.

The labyrinth was designed by Daedalus, craftsman and engineer, essentially kept captive by Minos, looked up to by Ariadne. The minotaur imprisoned within is her half-brother – the result of a curse by Poseidon on her mother Pasiphae to fall in lust with a beautiful bull, as revenge to a bargain not kept by Minos. Asterion, grows faster and stronger than a human, and soon has to be confined to the labyrinth, Minos delighting in his ‘Minotaur’, the weapon unwittingly granted him by Poseidon.

When Ariadne is eighteen, the year’s ships from Athens arrive bearing the tribute. Theseus, a prince of Athens, is part of the tribute – offering himself in order to end it, but hoping to slay the minotaur. Also arrived is Cinyras of Cyprus, who is to be wed to Ariadne – a political union, naturally. However, once she sees Theseus, she is smitten.

The cold green of his eyes. Like the shock of the chill waters when the sea floor drops away unexpectedly beneath your feet and you realise that you have swum out far beyond your depth.

The following paragraph summarises the plot in this version of the Ariadne myth – skip if desired: Suffice it to say, that with the key and thread given to her by Daedalus, and Theseus’ weapon brought by her sister Phaedra, Theseus slays the minotaur, rescues the other tributes and spirits Ariadne away on the tide, having told Phaedra the wrong meeting point – his first betrayal. His second comes on the small island of Naxos on the way back to Athens, where he and Ariadne stop off at a cottage to celebrate their union – but when she wakes, he is gone – the second betrayal. In a third betrayal, Theseus tells Minos how Ariadne was killed by a serpent, and becomes affianced to Phaedra who will travel to Athens once she comes of age. She manages to survive on the island for some time, until a ship arrives bearing an Olympian God, Dionysus, who lives in the palace there which masquerades as a cottage. Surprised to see her, he befriends Ariadne, and they fall in love. Ariadne has a bucolic life on Naxos, raising a host of children with Dionysus, but life is not all a bed of roses. Dionysus, although he always returns, likes to travel, to cultivate more followers, including the Maenads whom he brings back to the island. Ariadne doesn’t take part in the Dionysian rites he and the maenads perform up in the hills, but his Olympian appetite for more recognition and followers does cause a rift between them, as the rites get more extreme and bloody (this was known as ‘sparagmos’ – see more here). Their relationship gets even more strained when Ariadne learns he has been economical with the truth about Phaedra’s situation, just saying she was safe away from Crete. The sisters will be reunited, but it’s not a happy meeting. Reconciled with Dionysus who never ages, Ariadne will eventually become collateral damage in his war with Perseus (who bears the head of the Medusa on his shield). End of summary

Saint’s portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters is done really well. Initially, they are big and little sister with Phaedra always wanting to be with her older sibling. Later, they have a troubled relationship after the various levels of betrayal and economies of truth that have fallen their way due to the menfolk in their lives. In Saint’s hands Dionysus is a particularly interesting character. Incidentally, is it Di-o-ny-sus or Dion-y-sus? I’ve never known which? But I digress. Despite being immortal and all that that means, he does genuinely love Ariadne and his children with her, which was somewhat of a surprise. Theseus may have betrayed Ariadne, but arguably, by abandoning her on Naxos, he saved her from marrying the dissolute Cinyras, and life with Dionysus was always going to be interesting, even if she rarely left the island.

This is a straight-forward retelling pulling various strands of the myths surrounding Ariadne into one coherent narrative, told from the female perspective. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the author’s next book – another myth retold. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy. Wildfire, April 2021, hardback, 388 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

It appears that Pelevin is one of Russia’s most intriguing authors, cloaking his satire with the trappings of science fiction, and I’m extremely keen to read more by him after my first encounter (I have Omon Ra and The Clay Machine Gun on my shelves). Although I have been a hardcore SF reader over the years, I do like a SF settings for other stories (just as Red Dwarf was a traditional sitcom set on a spaceship). In The Helmet of Horror he does this to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur in his retelling as part of the Canongate Myths series, published in 2006 in English.

Pelevin’s novel is more of a playscript – being told entirely in dialogue. In fact, it is set in a computer chatroom – but a mysterious one, where eight characters find themselves in identical rooms with a computer, and each opening through a bronze door onto their version of the labyrinth. What’s more, each of the participants in this chat has been assigned a mostly subverted name by whoever is running the chat. So we have Monstradamus, IsoldA, Nutscracker, Organizm (-: , Sartrik, UGLI 666, Romeo-y-Cohiba (Cohiba being a brand of Cuban cigar penis presumably in slang) and last but not least Ariadne.

The ‘thread’ of the chat begins:

Started by ARIADNE at xxx p.m. xxx xxx BC GMT
I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with anyone who tries to find me – who said this and about what?

A few of the participants start saying hello, wondering who/where Ariadne is, seeing as she started the thread and has then gone off… Organizm (-:, Romeo-y-Cohiba and Nutscracker talk amongst themselves, soon joined by Monstradamus, Ariadne when she wakes up, IsoldA and UGLI 666 who often has a devout turn of phrase. Sartrik doesn’t turn up until a bit later.

Ariadne starts to tell them about her dream in which two dwarves tell her about Asterisk, who wears a bronze helmet. They sort of listen to Ariadne’s dream, they bicker between themselves, and around a 100 pages later, they turn to wonder what’s underneath the helmet – which they characterise as the ‘helmet of horror’, when Organizm brings Darth Vader into the equation:

Organizm (-:
At the end of the third episode Darth Vader dies, and that’s the end of all the Star Wars. There can’t be any more, because he’s the Minotaur of that world, and that black heap of junk on his head is the helmet of horror. He thinks every one of them: Luke Skywalker, the robots, Chewbacca and all the rest of it. So after he’s killed there can’t be any continuation.

But Darth Vader takes his helmet off before he dies. And underneath he has a normal head, only covered in scars.

Organizm (-:
Yes, but it’s just a fantasy, after all.

That bit made me laugh, and view Darth Vader anew! Anyway, it goes on to get more complicated, more confusing, more Matrix-like as we realise that the labyrinth is also a metaphor for their own brains and that they are the tribute for the minotaur. The basic myth carries on vaguely underneath the chat as they wonder where Theseus is when you need him. This play-novel reminded me of the Strugatsky brothers whom I encountered for the first time earlier this year in Monday Starts on Saturday from 1964 (also translated by Bromfield), but updated with a 21st century zeitgeist.

An analysis of this novel on Wikipedia suggests that Pelevin has given the story a Buddhist focus, outweighing some of the characters’ more Christian outlooks, but I’m not qualified to comment on that.

I did enjoy picking out the threads of the original myth, laughing at the jokes and banter (remember it dates from before bants turned nasty) and the Twin Peaks-like quality of Ariadne’s dreams. At times it felt incoherent, but that’s the nature of chats where several people may be talking over each other at once, so maybe it’s just clever! Translator Bromfield must have had fun, capturing the eight different personalities, and extra fun replacing dirty words, identifying info and more with a liberal sprinkling of ‘xxx’ to leave you to insert the words of your choice. This was such fun! (8.5/10)

Source: Own copy from the TBR. Canongate, 2006, 274 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

18 thoughts on “Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur – a book pairing of opposites

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    What an innovative way to tell the Ariadne story – I was SO furious on Ariadne’s behalf back in the days when I first read this Greek myth. Greek myths are full of men behaving abominably and yet being feted as heroes…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Admittedly, Pelevin’s chaps are all blokes, and are very blokeish with the girls but they’re not trying to be the heroes at least. He’s such an interesting writer based on this though – thanks for highlighting him to me.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Your two reviews, interesting as they were, also brought two other works to mind that I’ve enjoyed. The first is Mary Renault’s The King Must Die which I read in my teens but wish I had my own copy to reread because in my mind it felt so immediate. Meanwhile your second review reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a film riffing on the Cretan labyrinth meme mingling with the folds of the brain — there’s even a character called Ariadne, and the monster in the maze appears, to be the feeling of guilt held by Leonardo diCaprio’s character.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Ah – I read the Renault as a teen – but can’t remember anything about it specifically – i read all the Renaults then and they’ve all blended together in my brain. I now need to rewatch Inception with a new understanding, I might get it more this time!.

  3. Karen says:

    I really enjoyed Ariadne! I thought it was very well done. I had to go and look up how to pronounce Dionysus and from what I read, there is more than one way to say it. Go figure! LOL

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      As Hermione says ‘Wingardiam Levi-o-sah’! :D. The press release said Saint is working on a new myth for her next book – can’t wait.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s a fairly straight-forward retelling, so no need to know anything before, but the bit in the actual labryinth is short – as told from Ariadne’s perspective.

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