Friday, January 14, 2011

Mazes and Crossroads: Two More Literary Archetypes

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Anyone who has ever deplaned and made the long walk from jetway to immigration checkpoint has experienced a maze. Airlines and governments need time in which to unload all luggage and let the dogs have a sniff before passengers arrive so escalators carry passengers up and down; few signs point the way and those are only one-way--toward Immigration. The hallways feature 90° turns left and right, back and forth. When I look back to review my progress, I find my line of sight stopped by a wall. I never really know how far I’ve come. Disoriented, I trudge onward until I arrive to collect my bags, stand in line, and cough up my passport.

Many of my fellow passengers reveal a slice of their real characters while traversing the airport maze. Some become annoyed by the time and energy required. They arrive at Immigration with an attitude, and the result is often embarrassing to see or overhear. Others become frightened. Already strangers in a strange land, they fret about their safety and futures, usually submitting to the rites of passage at Immigration like sheep to shearing. Again, the scene is angst-ridden. The remainder, usually experienced international travelers, march on, understanding that this trial is the price of admission. They arrive at the end point like soldiers, heads up, shoulders back, prepared to do their duty.

Writers put characters on maze-like quests for similar reasons. The journey is a labor that proves the merits or defects of the character. Is she humble enough to accept the vicissitudes of life and luck, or is he too proud, in need of a reckoning in order to become whole?

The mazes that writers use are often not literal mazes consisting of a single entry point to a series of twists and turns with only one exit. Writers take advantage of many settings and psychological states in order to plop characters onto confusing terrain.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (an oft referenced novel in this blog) transports the Price family from Bethlehem, Georgia to the Congo where, years later, the village of Kilanga seems utterly lost, subsumed by the vines and heat and mosquitoes. Its very existence becomes suspect after each member of the family chooses a path into and out of the village. Orleanna, still tied to Africa by the daughter she buried there, remains tangled in its dense growth even when she returns to the U. S. Leah and Rachel continue to live in Africa, loving it for very different reasons, thriving because of the personal strengths acquired in its maze. Adah, transformed by danger and love, each equally powerful in Africa, finds her way to a whole, productive, shared existence. Nathan never finds his exit from the maze. Trapped, he dies, a martyr to his own cause, one that no one else ever joined.

Inman, the protagonist of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, like Odysseus, climbs from battle-scarred grounds to the homeland. His only guides are the cardinal ones, north and west. Often deterred, blown off course, soaked by heavy rains, and threatened by enemies, he makes steady, if slow, progress to return to Ada whom he believes will make him whole again, a sinner redeemed, capable of love and charity once more.

Stephen King’s heroine in Big Driver, the second novella in his latest collection entitled Full Dark, No Stars, becomes Vengeance herself after being pushed onto uncertain ground that twists, turns, stunts, and empowers. Her maze is her quest to justice. Indeed, the mazes of literature are often the terrain that must be crossed on a quest, one that frequently includes a crossroads.

At a place where two roads intersect, forming the shape of a cross, a frame that bears the weight of sin and remorse or hope and mercy--depending upon the path chosen--characters decide. These decision points are crisis points, climactic moments, outcomes. Occasionally, the crossroads is literal as it is for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He kneels where two roads intersect just before he decides to make his first, true, heartfelt confession. More often, the crossroads is figurative.

Orleanna, the matriarch in The Poisonwood Bible, has several crosses to bear because she detoured away from her crossroads. She climbs into her bed to avoid choosing between the paths of children or husband. She leaves the care and safety of her children to her older daughters and to the Kilangans. Her sin is neglect and its consequence is regret. She cannot forgive herself.

When Orleanna finally rises and walks again, she does so only after losing her youngest daughter to the jungle’s venom. Along her exit path, she surrenders Rachael into the arms of Axelrod, an opportunist with no moral compass. Leah is left behind in the arms of Anatole, a man with a strong moral compass, the man who promises to care for Leah through the delirium of malaria and to love her for the rest of her life. Orleanna takes only Adah with her, deformed, needy Adah, and in doing so, Orleanna gives the gifts of hope and mercy for it is through the assurance of her mother’s love that Adah becomes whole and powerful. Kingsolver suggests that mothers must sometimes make awful choices and live with their awful consequences.

Inman, standing upon the road that will carry him to safety, chooses to preserve life at that crossroads. He does not fire upon the boy because he wishes to believe he has finally found peace on Cold Mountain. Having left war far below and washed away some of his sin in the arms of Ada, Inman spares the boy’s life, only to lose his own. Frazier seems to suggest that a soul as damaged as Inman’s cannot endure in a world divided by hate.

Tess, the vengeful heroine of Big Driver, has many crossroads: to succumb to the brutal attack or stumble through the dark maze and endure; to rely upon law enforcement or become an avenger; to confess or live with her choices. The narrator seems to sympathize with Tess and clears a path for her success.

Crossroads and mazes are archetypal, and they are simply another way of accessing the quest archetype. As you read, think about the twists, turns, and uncertainty on the journey. Consider the diverging paths and what the character proves about himself when he chooses one and not the other.

Reading Challenge

Read the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins, The Stand by Stephen King, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson, or Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Identify the mazes that the author creates and the crossroads the characters face.

Writing Challenge:

Modernize the Greek labyrinth myth featuring King Minos, the minotaur, Daedalus, and Icarus. Rename the characters and recreate a labyrinth with a metaphorical or literal nemesis confined.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM): Unusual singular and plural forms

In my haste to make a point, I sometimes abuse the language, sliding into the more commonly used plural form of the word instead of the correct singular. My students make similar mistakes; in particular, they often confuse the correct singular form for women and men so let’s review.

Criterion/Criteria. In Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character seems uncomfortable while competing in the swimsuit category, one criterion of four criteria used to determine the pageant winner.
Phenomenon/Phenomena. Phenomenon, starring John Travolta, suggests that most men and women fear great intelligence and insight. Our fears are bizarre phenomena present in the human species.
Datum/Data. Scientists discovered that the temperature datum was compromised by a faulty thermometer and thus, all data were suspect.
Cow/Cows or Cattle. Manny’s cow earned a blue ribbon at the State Fair, enhancing the value of Manny’s entire herd of cattle (cows).
Crow/Crows/Murder of Crows. The scarecrow in the field had no effect upon a single crow. In fact, many crows seemed to mock the farmer by flying in and out of the corn rows. Soon the farmer saw a black cloud hover over his field as a murder (flock) of crows gathered to dine.
Woman/Women and Man/Men. Most cultures are patriarchal or paternalistic, giving every man an advantage in access, power, and prestige. Each man competes with other men. A woman, on the other hand, competes for access, power, and prestige with both men and other women.
Deer/Deer. This season, I brought home only one deer, but over the course of my hunting career, I have bagged many deer.
Index/Indices, Appendix/Appendices, Thesis/Thesis, and Crisis/Crises. See the pattern? The plural form for nouns ending in -x or -s becomes -es although users like indexes and appendixes as well. Similarly:
Witch/Witches, Bus/Buses, Box/Boxes, like those above ending in -x or -s, need an -es for the correct plural form.
Fungus/Fungi. Even though fungus ends in -s, its correct plural form does not end in -s. Like alumnus, fungus retains its Latinate ending -i after dropping the -us.