A review of Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. Separately, this is one of two pieces of content that I have prepared going into the next month where most of my writing activity will be focused on edits and rewrites for Three and Two and Two (Crossroads, Book 1). I’ll try to keep content coming, but either way, I’ll see you on the other side.
Labyrinths was (aside from a scattered few assignments in college) my first experience with Jorge Luis Borges. It was fabulous. Everyone should read it. “I didn’t enjoy it very much,” says the inexplicably boosted review near the top of its Goodreads page, as if your enjoyment has anything to do with evaluating impeccable specimen of magical realism, science fiction, perhaps the only compelling exegesis of Eleatic philosophy that I will ever read. Despite my derision, I understand the sentiment–not everyone fuels themselves on the same homeopathic masochism I do–but even that, I suspect, is an anomaly. I found the prose very approachable. Perhaps the constant barrage of Neoplatonic mathy-ness can grate, so reader beware in that sense, I guess.
Regardless, while I hope you may give Tlön its chance to worm its way into your brain, the meat of this will be about a more particular image. Among the stories of Labyrinths, a number stood out to me, but one, “The Immortal”, stood out for particular, personal reasons.
For synopsis: A handwritten note found in 1929 in the cover of a (set of) book(s) published in 1715 details an expedition undertaken by a Roman soldier in Eritrea to seek out the City of the Immortals across the desert. On the way, his men mutiny, and he escapes into the sands, where his recollection of the next several days goes hazy, distorted by heat and dehydration. He awakes in a graven, stone niche on the slope of a mountain, below which runs the river of immortality (from which he has apparently unconsciously drunk), and across is the city itself. His niche is one of many, and around him, gray-skinned troglodytes who devour serpents and do not speak emerge. He lives among them for a minute, goes to explore the City, finds it a vast labyrinth, built for something other than inhabiting–and accordingly uninhabited–and eventually wanders out. On the way back, he and the troglodyte who followed him there witness a sudden rainstorm, at which point the troglodyte is inspired to speak and reveals himself to be the poet Homer.
It turns out the troglodytes are the Immortals who built the city and not just some hapless animals who drank the water–it’s just that being endless changes your outlook on things and leaves you with very little to talk about. Anyway, the narrator joins them for a time before resolving to go find the river of immortality’s double, the river which gets rid of immortality. He rejoins civilization, finds the river quite by accident, sells the books with the note, and dies shortly thereafter. Also, because of the vagaries of the Immortals’ collective memory in their society, the narrator at the end was actually Homer rather than the Roman soldier.
There’s plenty to dig into, from the novelty of the hyper-ascetic picture of immortality to the incomprehensibility of the Immortals’ works, but what stuck out to me more than all of that were Borges’ physical descriptions of the City of Immortals, beginning with the far shore where the narrator awakens:
“…I found myself lying with my hands tied, in an oblong stone niche no larger than a common grave…shallowly excavated into the sharp slope of the mountain…A hundred or so irregular niches, analogous to mine, furrowed the mountain and the valley.”
And the City itself:
“I emerged into a kind of little square or, rather, a kind of courtyard. It was surrounded by a single building of irregular form an variable height; to the heterogeneous building belonged the different cupolas and columns. Rather than by any other trait of this incredible monument, I was held by the extreme age of its fabrication…
…In the palace I imperfectly explored, the architecture lacked any such finality. It abounded in dead-end corridors, portentous doors which led to a cell or a pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and balustrades hung downwards. Other stairways, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, would die without leading anywhere, after making two or three turns in the lofty darkness of the cupolas.”
You see, with some allowance for Borges’ use of “irregular”, the vista I see here looks something like this:
Top Image: Crumbling Farum Azula from Elden Ring
Bottom Image: Crumbling Farum Azula, entrance to Placidusax’s Arena
Inspiration, perhaps; hammers and nails, I know; but there is a lot tying the two together. Perhaps its best to start with the physical structure of the city. Though Borges qualifies the “labyrinthine” nature of the City, and though Farum Azula is an imperfect facsimile of the sheer idiocy of the Immortals’ monument, the difference perhaps ties them together more than it pushes them apart. Per Edward Teach (on the similarly labyrinthine Inception)
“When Ariadne draws her mazes for Cobb, he rejects the square mazes and is satisfied/stumped only by the circular classical labyrinth.
And anyway, mythological Ariadne didn’t construct the Minotaur’s labyrinth–Daedalus constructed it for her–she merely showed Theseus how to get out of it. But she didn’t need to: a classical labyrinth doesn’t have multiple dead ends; it is a single winding path that lead either in or out.
But Theseus, like the audience, upon being shoved inside wouldn’t have known the form of the labyrinth–dead ends or a single path? Sot to be able to find the Minotaur, he needed to know which way to go, and Daedalus told him: downwards is the only way forwards.”
It’s worth disclaiming/clarifying: Teach’s distinction (maze versus labyrinth) may be correct, but it is not commonly written about in popular culture, and I think most works are agnostic to the difference. The reason I bring it up is not to nitpick either Borges or Miyazaki but rather to point out that the distinction exists: branching, built to frustrate versus linear and built to obfuscate. To which end, it’s worth looking at the forms of the narratives that use these labyrinths. “The Immortal” is, contrary to the implications of its twists and turns, a linear piece of prose. Though your own eyes and thoughts may be deceived, you can read forward, and your questions will be answered–you’ll exit the labyrinth on the last page of the story. Elden Ring–a point of which a number of my readers would surely love to remind me–is a game, a medium much more on the maze side of the spectrum. There is no one way forward, a player might be stuck in any corner of the Lands Between forever, despite any amount of movement. Except in Farum Azula (among other locales), the form of the maze is subordinated to the immediate obstacle of the dungeon (From Software’s terminology–Farum Azula is a dungeon mechanically though not thematically). There are dead ends in the dungeon, yes, but rewards wait at each of them. Unlike Borges’ narrator, the Tarnished is incentivized to perfectly explore their City, and so their idealized task is no longer to simply make it out of the maze but to construct a path which touches every piece of it. One path–making it a labyrinth. This leaves us with a pleasingly Borgesian symmetry: “The Immortal”, a labyrinth which presents a maze in the form of its City of Immortals, is reflected sixty years later by Elden Ring, a maze whose own City is a labyrinth. Borges did love his mirrors, and with apologies to Mr. Smith, it appears they are real.
This is to say nothing, of course, of the other aesthetic similarities which tie these images together. The crumbling, ancient spirals of Farum Azula, a city in a temporal maelstrom, unreachable to all but the most desperate, built to be listlessly guarded but not really inhabited. And despite its grim aesthetic, there is no death awaiting those that linger there. For Placidusax, the temporal prison sees to that. For everyone else, Maliketh is keeping a tight hold on the Rune of Death.
And of course, Maliketh, Marika’s lupine vassal, is merely the greatest of the beastmen of Farum Azula, the raggedly-clad, gray-skinned troglodytes who (aside from Maliketh) do not speak and whose animate corpses fill the shallow, grave-sized niches that adorn the terraces of the City. I’ll admit there is no evidence they devour serpents–they seem, rather, to worship the dragons who remain there–and there are some other specificities missing, like the impure stream which grants immortality.
To which end, in Elden Ring, Farum Azula is only implicitly a “City of the Immortals”. To find an explicit City, we’ll need to look to a different From Software property:
I’ve written before about Sekiro’s Fountainhead Palace in reference to both Sekiro and Elden Ring’s use of the centipede as a symbol. Much of Sekiro’s symbolism and plot revolves around the idea of worldly immortality as given by the Divine Dragon. Among humans, there exists an “heir” to the Dragon’s blessing who is able to confer that blessing to others, which serves to explain the pseudo-eponymous protagonist’s continued resurrection in the face of
the player’s ineptitude the impossible odds of his mission.
But in-world, this isn’t a secret, and it is well-known that the waters that flow from the Fountainhead Palace, where the Divine Dragon is known to reside, grant a sort of fucked-up immortality of their own. This is because those waters contain the eggs of a species of…spiritually volatile centipede–a morphological reflection of the serpentine dragon–that parasitizes anyone drinking the water. Thus, by devouring a pseudo-serpent, the ashen-skinned monks of the Senpou Temple, the peasants of Mibu Village, and the deformed aristocrats of the Fountainhead Palace all persist in perpetual witness of a City of Immortals upon a mountain, from which flows an impure stream that grants eternal, if cursed, life.
Borges believed (or at least once claimed) that there were only four devices which comprised all fantastic literature: The work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double. Amusingly or predictably, all four are relevant to this analysis, but the last is particularly important. I’ve already referenced it in this essay (see: mirrors), but it of course comes in many forms. Sekiro, like Elden Ring, like most works of fantasy, really, is the story of a warrior, and a necessary element of any plot pitting a warrior against undying foes is the method the warrior uses to subvert their immortality. For “The Immortal” (where the foe was the narrator’s own interminable experience) this means was a reflection, a mirror, the stream which was the antithesis of the polluted river. For Sekiro, this means is a sword, a cutting instrument. It should not be surprising that the two should have something in common.
It was, of course, Borges who wrote, in this same book:
“…copulation and mirrors are abominable, because they increase the number of men.”
Perhaps a blade does not increase the number of men, but just like a mirror, a scissor, or Truth, it increases the number of things. From one, it makes two. That a blade should reflect darkly the infested immortality of the Fountainhead, in reflection of Borges’ reflection; that the pieces of Borges’ immortal City should be separated and made two cities in two worlds, each with the specificities necessary to lead back to the dream which bled into them–well, it’s only appropriate, isn’t it?