Beware the Fine Print
Way back in the seventh grade, I made a model of the Cretan labyrinth for a class project. It was well received, even though many of the kids didn’t understand what it was. Some insisted it wasn’t that big a deal because it was relatively easy to navigate through this one to the center, which appeared to be the goal. I had to explain that not only did those going in not get the advantage of our top down view, but that the center of the maze wasn’t the real goal. The center was the lair of the minotaur, a monster trapped in the maze and fed by human sacrifice. In Greek mythology, the hero Theseus didn’t just navigate the maze, he killed the minotaur and got back out again. In some versions he unrolled a ball of string so he could follow it back out; in others the string was magical and unrolled itself to lead him on the correct path. Regardless of what version you prefer, Theseus had a special status among my heroes because he didn’t just slay the monster, he used his brains and solved a puzzle in the process.
“Congratulations on getting eaten the fastest.”
I think about this confusion among my classmates when I consider the algorithm people sometimes say can “solve” any maze: just follow a wall, and eventually it will lead you out! Unfortunately, like many algorithms this one has quite a bit of fine print. First, it only applies if you follow the wall from the moment you enter, and it assumes that the entrance and exit of the maze are both on the perimeter of the same floor. If your goal is to get to a staircase (or to the exact center of the maze to kill the minotaur), you're out of luck. Second, this method will take you through a lot of running around through blind alleys and back up the other side, possibly going through more than half of the maze. While this can be compensated by the fact that you don't have to make decisions and can therefore ‘jog’ through the maze much faster than people who are making decisions, it's definitely not going to be the most direct route.
Maze vs. Labyrinth
Some say that a “maze” is a puzzle, with all its dead ends and loops to confuse you, while a proper “labyrinth” is just a winding path without branches or any other such confusing stuff so that it leads you into the center by twists and turns. I'm not sure how old these definitions are, but we know the mythological “labyrinth” of Theseus and the minotaur was a puzzle because it required the use of a thread to keep track of which way he had come (this is actually the origin of the word “clue,” from a clew of thread or yarn). Even before that, it’s doubtful that Herodotus would have spoken of the Egyptian labyrinth (5th century BC) as having “baffling and intricate passages from room to room” if everything was a single winding path. It appears that the confusion in definitions came later, when a unicursal pattern became a common feature of churches during the Dark Ages. To this day, this labyrinth is counted as a mystical symbol like the cross or the star of David, especially among syncretic religions like theosophy.
“...a maze is the basis of a labyrinth and a labyrinth is an elaborate maze…”
Despite this attempt at a distinction between “mazes” and “labyrinths,” most people still use the terms interchangeably, or as orders of magnitude: a maze is the basis of a labyrinth and a labyrinth is an elaborate maze. With all due respect to any theosophists in the audience, we stick to these layman’s definitions here at Kubiya, as we prefer puzzles over symbols, regardless of the name. Many of our maze puzzles come from a creator who shares our love of mazes: Jean Claude Constantin. This prolific inventor created over half of our maze puzzles, and he appears to share our definitions as well, as indicated by the portmanteau names he chose for the labyschoss lock maze and labylong maze puzzle.
Puzzling Like a Champion
Maze puzzles are intended to hearken back to heroes, but it’s a tall order. You hardly feel like Theseus risking life and limb going after the minotaur, or even Harry Potter risking injury going after the Goblet of Fire when the only challenge is which path to take. This is why so many labyrinth puzzles like the black jack maze puzzle, labyrinth maze puzzle, and PLD puzzle box require you to move a ball or other object through the maze. Like with Theseus, this puts you in the position of having to deal with physical challenges and obstacles on the way to our destination, even when we know exactly where it is that you’re going. If that’s still not enough risk for you, you can always place bets. Labyrinth games are solo, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be social.
Obviously a handheld puzzle is no substitute for being inside a maze; looking in from outside gives us a tremendous advantage over someone navigating from within, like with my classmates pooh-pooing Theseus because the maze didn’t look so hard from above. To help with that, consider the maze box, secret red puzzle box or the centrale puzzle box, where you can’t see where the ball is rolling and have to use sound to navigate the maze. I like to think that this comes the closest to actually being inside a maze, and not being sure exactly where “you” are in relation to the spaces around you. If that’s a little too hardcore for you, the charming circular maze has a clever and simple compromise, where a top-down view is perpetually incomplete. It’s this remarkable feature that makes it especially suitable for adults and school-age children, while being small enough to make a good travel toy.
The Neverending Maze of the Future
It’s hard to find a puzzle with a more ancient pedigree than the labyrinth, and the sheer versatility of the concept promises that there will be many more examples to come. For those who want a sneak peek of what the future may hold, consider the combination maze/puzzle boxes above, or the increased physical challenge posed by Constantin’s double maze and double gear maze, where you have to navigate multiple mazes at once. Combined with the aesthetic appeal of a good maze and the varieties of innovations available, we expect to have a lot of options in this category for decades to come.
Thanks as always for reading. Wherever this maze of life is heading, it’s good to have company along all the twists and turns.
By Matthew Barrett