Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tales From the Slippery Slope X: Theseus and the Minotaur

I Return to Alicubi after a Long Absence
It had been so long since I had gone out to Alicubi that the other day Canon Sidney Smith Hawker finally called to find out what I was up to. Since he is less comfortable using the ‘phone than I am, I was immediately worried that there was some dreadful news.
What’s wrong? I said
“You are, you goop. I know you had church gigs every weekend in the summer, and some other trivial projects to attend to, and I am the first to admit that one thing leads to another, but it’s almost November, and ….”
“Sidney,” I objected, “it's early October.”
“At the rate you’re going it’ll be Martinmas before we see you. And as surprising as it might seem, we would like to see you.”
“I can’t come this weekend, and Tuesday’s the election ...” I began
"Tuesday is perfect, then," insisted the Canon. “Come up after you’ve voted and we can all watch the results at the Slope.
So after I voted I called Keith to make sure he had a room for me. This was too sudden a visit to land on a friend’s doorstep. Keith gave me the news from Alucubi. There was none, except that in August he had shut the pub for a month before the autumn tourist season.

It was midafternoon when I got to Alicubi. After I checked in with Keith, I went for a walk down over the bridge and up to the Appalling Belvedere, to look at the autumn colours along the river. I found Mike and David from the pub and Tom Chillingworth from the bookstore sitting and chatting on the stone benches. I joined them.
“No business at the bookstore, Tom?” I said
“It’s Election Day, Will.”
“Do you close for election day?”
“Everyone does: Election Day is a village holiday in Alicubi. Didn’t you know that?”
“No. Alicubi must be the only place in the country where it is,” I said. “It’s a good idea, though. Voting day should be more special. I always find voting is such an anti-climax. Maybe a brass band at every polling station would help.”
I asked whether they had all voted. They all said yes
“Mike made me,” said David. He’s nagged me for days about it. But I don’t understand it: everybody talks about choosing Harper or Dion or whoever: none of them were on the ballot; it didn’t even ask me to say which party I wanted for the government. How can they claim the country gives them a mandate?”
Tom replied, “David, what most people don’t get clear is that we aren't electing a government, or at least not directly. We're simply electing members to the House of Commons. That indirectly chooses the government because the leader of the party which has majority of the seats in the Commons is appointed Prime Minister. In this last election, the Conservatives didn’t win a majority of the seats, but did win more than any other party, so they formed the govenrment. If they get even a minority again they will continue as the government -- as long as they can get enough support from the other members.”
David thought about this for a while, and said, “That's not what they say in the campaigns or on the news. I just haven’t got a clue how this works.”
Just then Mike looked at his watch. “Gad, I’ve got to get back and start dinner. Come on, David!”
“What are we having?” I asked.
“Stuffed pork loin, with rice and sautéed mushrooms and greens beans in a lemon-butter sauce, and a salad. Just something simple so that Dad can claim I had some sort of holiday today.” Mike said and went off laughing; David followed, trying to figure out Canadian elections,.

Tom and I walked back over the bridge to the pub at a pace more fitting our age and dignity. We ignored the large “Closed” sign on the door and went in.
The Slippery Slope was dark and cozy. We joined Canon Hawker and John Strype at the bar, where Keith poured pints of Best Bitter – the perfect drink for an autumn evening. Since the polls were still open for a few hours, there was nothing to say about the election except for the same old speculation. So we talked idly for a while.
David ambled out from the kitchen; Keith poured him a pint. “It’s a holiday, David, and there’s only friends to serve dinner to, so sit down and talk!”
“Thanks, Keith. Mike asked me to tell you that he has everything under control. and expects dinner to be ready at seven.”
Tom said, “Since we have a little while before dinner, and more till the election results, I have a bit of a story. Just before we came back from the Appalling Belvedere David said something that reminded me of an old myth.
Just then Susan the owner of Vanity of Vanities, came in and said “Happy Voting Day!” After she had got a drink and settled into a seat, Tom explained that he was about to tell a story he was reminded of by something David had said.
“What did I say?” asked David.
“I’ll tell the story, and see if you or Will can guess,” said Tom. “Everybody should know it, but there is an interesting detail. It’s the story of Theseus and the Minotaur..”
We all said we knew it; I realized what David had said, and smiled. Tom began his tale

Theseus and the Minotaur
“Long ago, as a result of a war with Crete, the people of Athens were forced to pay a tribute each year: seven youths and seven maidens were sent to to be eaten by the Minotaur, a terrible monster who lived in Crete atthe heary of a maze called the Labyrinth. Minos had had the Labyrinth designed by the cunning inventor Daedalus to hold the monster, who was half bull and half man, the offspring of Minos’ wife Pasiphae and a white bull that Poseidon had sent to Minos. (The Labyrinth, by the way, was so intricate a maze that Daedalus himself could not escape it. Like many later tyrants, Minos wanted to keep his official inventor a prisoner. It was for this reason that Daedalus devised wings to carry him and his son out of the trap, with the sad consequence of the loss of Icarus.)

“When Theseus came to Athens to find his father, King Aegeus, it was the third year of the tribute. When he heard the wailing of the Athenians over the fourteen young people who were to go to Crete, he resolved to go himself and, somehow, free his people from this bondage to death. Despite his father’s tears, Theseus took the place of one of the youths and set sail for Crete on the vessel with black sails that took the sad cargo from Athens. Theseus promised Aegeus that if he succeeded in destroying the monster, he would return with white sails.

“The ship came to Crete, passing unharmed the brazen giant Talus who guarded its shores. Minos himself came to inspect the youths and maidens of the tribute. With him was his daughter Ariadne. When he came ashore, Theseus claimed the right to be the first to face the Minotaur; Minos assented. The victims were led away to prison.

“That night Ariadne, moved by Theseus’ beauty, brought him two gifts: a ball of thread and a sword. She told him to tie one end of the thread to the entrance of the Labyrinth and keep the other in his hand. By unwinding the ball as he went in, he would be sure to find the way out. Theseus promised to take the princess with him if he succeeded in his task.

“In early morning, Theseus, secretly carrying the sword and ball of twine. was brought to the entrance of the Labyrinth and left. Tying the thread to the door post, he went in. Not far into the maze he found the monster, and after a terrible fight, killed it. Retracing his steps he came out of the Labyrinth. There he found Ariadne waiting for him, and with her he rescued the other victims and returned to the ship. They escaped he brazen monster and set sail for the north.

“The story of how Theseus left Ariadne on the Island of Naxos must wait for another time, as will the story of how the Aegean sea got its name; for we have already heard why what David said reminded me of this myth. But I’ve left out one vital clue.”

No one spoke for a moment. Then David said, “OK; You gave it away at the end. I know what it was I said, but I don’t see what this story has to do with it. I said, ‘I haven’t got a clue.’”

“That’s right, David,” I said, “What Tom left out of the story was the word “clue.” The original meaning of “Clue” or “clew” was a ball, and more specifically a ball of thread or twine. So in Dryden’s version of the story, he says that Ariadne gave Theseus “a clue of thread”. Because of this and some other myths “clew” developed the special meaning of “a ball of thread used to ‘thread your way’ through a labyrinth or maze,” and then anything that leads or guides through some perplexity, and then just an indication, a hint, or a key – in fact , a “clue”.

Just then, Keith turned the TV on — something that almost never happens at the Slippery Slope, and the sound of Peter Mansbridge filled the room, drowning out whatever else there was to say about clues. Nothing much was said after that that wasn’t said everywhere in the country that night, so we’ll say no more, except that it was good to be back at the Slope.

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