Hypertext as a formal principle has often been described metaphorically in terms of a labyrinth (of possible pathways through the text; e.g., Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar 1993– 2001

Ilana Snyder – Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth

Jay Bolter – Writing Space (First Edition)

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The following section is from Espen J Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature

It seems to me that the cybertexts fit the game-world-labyrinth terminology in a way that exposes its deficiencies when used on narrative texts. But how has the spatiodynamic misrepresentation of narrative originated? And was it always inappropriate? An important clue to this question can be found in the historical idea of the labyrinth. Our present idea of the labyrinth is the Borgesian structure of “forking paths,” the bewildering chaos of passages that lead in many directions but never directly to our desired goal. But there is also another kind, or paradigm, of labyrinths. Penelope Reed Doob, in her excellent discussion of physical and metaphorical labyrinths of classical antiquity and the Middle Ages (1990), distinguishes between two kinds of labyrinthine structure: the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually toward a center; and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of critical choices, or bivia. Umberto Eco (1984, 80) claims that there are three types of labyrinth: the linear, the maze, and the net (or rhizome; cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987). The first two correspond to Doob’s unicursal and multicursal, respectively. To include the net seems inappropriate, since this structure has very different qualities from the other two. Especially as the net’s “every point can be connected with every other point” (Eco 1984, 81); this is exactly the opposite of the fundamental inaccessibility of the other models. Amazingly, Eco also claims that the labyrinth of Crete was linear and that Theseus “had no choices to make: he could not but reach the center, and from the center, the way out …. In this kind of labyrinth the Ariadne thread is useless, since one cannot get lost” (80). It is hard to believe that Eco is speaking of the labyrinth where Theseus, famously, was the first to find the way out, and only because of Ariadne’s thread. This was the same complex labyrinth where even its maker, Daedalus, was lost. Doob (1990, 17-38), on the other hand, citing Pliny, Virgil, Ovid, and others, shows that the literary tradition describes the Domus daedali as a multicursal labyrinth.

As Doob demonstrates, the labyrinth as a sign of complex artistry, inextricability, and difficult process was an important metaphor and motif in classical and medieval literature, philosophy, rhetoric, and visual design. Paradoxically, while the labyrinth depicted in visual art from prehistoric times is always unicursal, the literary maze (with the Cretan myth as the chief example) is usually multicursal. The multicursal motif did not appear in art until the Renaissance, but as Doob shows, the two paradigms coexisted peacefully as the same concept at least since Virgil (70-19 B.c.). In Doob’s view, what to us seem to be contradictory models were subsumed in a single category, signifying a complex design, artistic order and chaos (depending on point of view), inextricability or impenetrability, and the difficult progress from confusion to perception. Both models share these essential qualities of the labyrinth, and apparently there was no great need to distinguish between the two.

In the Renaissance, however, the idea of the labyrinth, both in literature and visual art, was reduced to the multicursal paradigm that we recognize today. Consequently, the old metaphor of the text as labyrinth, which in medieval poetics could signify both a difficult, winding, but potentially rewarding linear process and a spatial, artistically complex, and confusing artifact, was restricted to the latter sense. Therefore, I find it reasonable to assume that the image of the text as a labyrinth has undergone an ideological transformation, from a harmonic duality where the figurative likeness of the narrative text as unicursal coexisted with a tropology of multicursal aspects, such as repetition, interlaced narrative threads, prolepsis, and so forth. When the unicursal paradigm faded, however, the multicursal paradigm came to dominate the figure, devolving the rich ambiguity of the classical and medieval labyrinth into the less ambiguous Renaissance model of pure multicursality. Since we now regard labyrinthine and linear as incompatible terms, and since the labyrinth no longer denotes linear progress and teleology but only their opposites, its status as a model of narrative text has become inapt for most narratives. For a typical example of this misnomer, consider the following, from a discussion of postmodernist writing: “We shall never be able to unravel the plots of John Fowles’s The Magus (1966), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955) or Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), for they are labyrinths without exits” (Lodge 1977, 266; last italics mine). Here, the image of the labyrinth has become severely distorted. A labyrinth without exit is a labyrinth without entrance; in other words1 not a labyrinth at all. Even in highly subversive narratives, such as the novels of Samuel Beckett or Italo Calvina’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler … (1993), the reader is faced, topologically, with a unicursal maze. Yet there are some novels for which the post-Renaissance model is perfectly valid, for instance Julio Cortazar’s Rayuela (1966), in which the topology is multicursal. In yet others, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), it may be described as both unicursal and

For those interested in reading more, it goes on – https://monoskop.or/File:Aarseth_Espen_J_Cybertext_Perspectives_on_Ergodic_Literature.pdf

J. Yellowlees Douglas – The End of Books–Or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives — Page 159

Janet Murray – Hamlet on the Holodeck

The second kind of digital labyrinth, which has arisen from the academic literary community, is the postmodern hypertext narrative described in chapter 2. Full of wordplay and indeterminate events, these labyrinths derive not from Greek rationalism but from poststructuralist literary theory and are unheroic and solutionless. Like a set of index cards that have been scattered on the floor and then connected with multiple segments of tangled twine, they offer no end point and no way out. Their aesthetic vision is often identified with philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s “rhizome,” a tuber root system in which any point may be connected to any other point.1 Deleuze used the rhizome root system as a model of connectivity in systems of ideas; critics have applied this notion to allusive text systems that are not linear like a book but boundaryless and without closure.

Mark Z Danielewski – House of Leaves:

… — — . / — – …. . .-. / – …. .. -. –. …

  • The stone labyrinths walked as a spiritual practice are unicursal

  • Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or his society. The literature machine can perform all the permutations possible on a given material, but the poetic result will be the particular effect of one of these permutations on a man endowed with a consciousness and an unconscious, that is, an empirical and historical man. It will be the shock that occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and his society. – Cybernetics and Ghosts Italo Calvino
The Opening Lexia from Moulthrop’s Victory Garden. The words ‘labyrinth’ and ‘beginning’ are both links
From Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck


Zork-like puzzle dungeons and maze-based combat videogames derive from a heroic narrative of adventure whose roots are in antiquity. It was Daedalus who built King Minos of Crete a labyrinth to contain the deadly Minotaur. The horrible beast required the yearly sacrifice of Athenian youths and maidens, whom it devoured, until the hero Theseus arrived to slay it. In the story, Ariadne, the daughter of the king, fell in love with Theseus and gave him a sword to kill the beast and a thread to find his way out again. Minos’s maze was therefore a frightening place, full of danger and bafflement, but successful navigation of it led to great rewards.

…. ….

Both the overdetermined form of the single-path maze adventure and the underdetermined form of rhizome fiction work against the interactor’s pleasure in navigation. The potential of the labyrinth as a participatory narrative form would seem to lie somewhere between the two, in stories that are goal driven enough to guide navigation but open-ended enough to allow free exploration and that display a satisfying dramatic structure no matter how the interactor chooses to traverse the space. The key to creating an expressive fictional labyrinth is arousing and regulating the anxiety intrinsic to the form by harnessing it to the act of navigation. Suspense, fear of abandonment, fear of lurking attackers, and fear of loss of self in the undifferentiated mass are part of the emotional landscape of the shimmering web.

From ‘Dialogue With a Cruel Partner’


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