Author Carol Matthews uses the language of the labyrinth to reflect on the mysteries of life and to think about what might have been in Questions for Ariadne: The Labyrinth and the End of Times.
This remarkable book is a mix of fiction, non-fiction, myth and memoir as well as a poignant and moving testament to the power of friendship.
AHB reached the author at her home on Protection Island, B.C.
Ruth Dempsey: Your book reminded me of Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End. Why did you decide to write it?
Carol Matthews: I’m delighted that my book reminded you of Athill’s memoir, as I do very much admire her writing. The memoir is a very popular genre these days. Perhaps because we are an aging population, a great many of us are looking back on our pasts.
I think my book was motivated by grief at the loss of a very dear friend who died of cancer and was the inspiration for my fictional character, Rose. I was inspired by the way my friend handled her illness and her approaching death – she was clear-eyed, courageous and full of vitality and humour.
But I found it difficult to write about her until I changed her age and circumstances. I had to fictionalize her in order to describe her, if that makes any sense. Hilary Mantel in a recent memoir (Giving up the Ghost) asked, "What is to be done about the lost, the dead, but write them into being?" For me, there was great satisfaction in writing my friend into another life.
RD: Can you describe the labyrinth for me?
CM: Well, there have been many definitions of the labyrinth. Many people use the word "labyrinth" and "maze" interchangeably. In fact, I think the dictionary still gives "maze" as a synonym for "labyrinth" and vise versa. They both refer to an intricate structure in which it’s easy to get lost.
Recently, it’s been suggested that the labyrinth, unlike the maze, has only one branchless path that leads inevitably toward the goal. The maze, on the other hand, has blind alleys and dead ends, and it is designed to confuse the walker.
Both are often very beautiful, but I am particularly fascinated with the labyrinth. I like the winding path that leads you into the centre and then back out again. And I am fascinated with the Greek myth of Ariadne and her golden thread at the labyrinth of Knossos.
RD: Who is Ariadne?
CM: There are many different stories about Ariadne in Greek myth. The most famous one is also a story about the great hero Theseus.
The story is that Poseidon wanted to punish Ariadne’s father, King Minos, so he caused Ariadne’s mother, Passiphae, to lust after a white bull. Passiphae persuaded Daedalus to build her a wooden cow so that she could climb inside so as to receive the attentions of the bull. As a result of this coupling, Passiphae gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature who was half-human and half-bull.
King Minos ordered Daedalus to build a structure to contain the Minotaur. As well, he ordered that, every so many years, seven youths and seven maidens were to be sent from Athens to enter the labyrinth and meet a grisly death when they encountered the Minotaur.
Ariadne, the mistress of the labyrinth, gave Theseus a ball of twine that he could take into the labyrinth and use to find his way out. Theseus defeated the Minotaur, rescued the youths and maidens and eloped with Ariadne. At least, that is how one version of the story goes.
RD: You must have walked close to a dozen labyrinths for your book. Were there surprises?
CM: For me, there are always surprises in the labyrinth. I usually enter with an open-ended question. What do I need to know, or what can I learn about such and such? I try to let myself be open to new ideas and new information that may come to me as I meander around the turns and twists of the labyrinth. When I was writing my book, I walked a number of labyrinths while asking different questions of my mythical guide, Ariadne. I found that led me to some new places.
RD: One of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is the way you write about your dying friend. You struggle with how best to support her. What did you learn?
CM: I learned a lot by writing about the death of my fictional friend, Rose, but much more from my actual friend on whom this character is based. From her, I learned that one could face death clear-eyed, conscious, and courageous. She was able to stay very much herself through to the end, never losing the sense of beauty and the sense of humour that characterized her way of being in the world.
I don’t know what I did to support her, except by my presence, and she indicated that it was all she needed. Sometimes, just being there is all one can do. We can see each other out; that’s all there is.
RD: Your husband Mike is a witty and inspiring presence . . .
CM: You’re right. My husband serves me well in all my books. He is a kind of foil for what I am thinking and, yes, he does inspire me. He has a grounded, practical approach to life and he is very funny. His way of seeing the world helps me to step back and look again, so I don’t take myself too seriously. He’s a great support to me in my writing, and he gives me some very good lines.
RD: Questions for Ariadne is finally a hopeful depiction of life as an older person. Clearly, you take pleasure in the world . . .
CM: I’m glad you saw it that way. I do take pleasure in the world, and I think that this penultimate stage – literally "almost the end" – gives us the opportunity to experience life more keenly, deeply and appreciatively than we may have done in the past.
For some of us, it can be a second chance.
Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of the original article that appeared in AHB May/June 2011.