‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ is one of the shortest stories by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), one of the most original and striking writers of the twentieth century. In reality, the story is not a ‘short story’ in the traditional sense, and although it doesn’t contain any obvious supernatural element, I’m interested in it as a kind of ‘fantasy’ tale because, to some extent, all of Borges’ fiction is one giant fantasy, or perhaps phantasmagoria.
The plot of ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ can be summarised easily enough. As the title suggests, it concerns two kings: a king of Arabia and a king of Babylonia. When the king of Arabia arrives as the guest of the king of Babylonia, the Babylonian king shows the king of Arabia the vast labyrinth of brass which he has had constructed.
The king of Arabia gets lost in the labyrinth and it is only when he prays to God to help him that he is shown the door and is able to escape, humiliated and confused. He is humble and stoic about his experience, but when he leaves Babylonia he tells the king that perhaps one day he will be able to show the king of Babylonia his labyrinth.
And so it comes to pass: the king of Arabia ends up waging war on Babylonia and razes its castles to the ground. When he takes the king of Babylonia prisoner, he takes him out into the desert, with his hands tied, before untying his bonds and setting him free. He tells the king of Babylonia that this is his labyrinth: the desert. He then leaves him there, where the king of Babylonia dies of hunger and thirst, unable to escape nature’s ultimate labyrinth.
‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ has a number of features which are central to Borges’ art: the motif of the labyrinth and the fabular quality, to name but two. The story suggests the Arabian Nights, as if it’s a brief tale told by Scheherazade, perhaps as one of the tales-within-a-tale contains in that collection.
Indeed, Borges (mischievously) suggested in his 1952 postscript to The Aleph that the story was indeed part of the ‘apocrypha’ of the Arabian Nights, when it was in fact his won work. And the tale ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ is actually meant to be a sermon which is alluded to (but not related in detail) in another of Borges’ fictions, ‘Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth’, the work which precedes ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’ in Borges’ The Aleph.
If this brief tale is a sermon, or perhaps a fable, what is its moral? That whatever man can construct, nature has already equalled – or, indeed, outdone. The desert may look like the antithesis of a labyrinth, which contains passageways, dead ends, doorways, and the rest of it, but these physical descriptions of the ‘labyrinthine’ miss the most important metaphysical quality a labyrinth possesses: the ability to keep a man within it so that he cannot escape.
The king of Arabia, of course, knows his ‘labyrinth’ and can negotiate its invisible passageways and doors, finding his way back home. But someone who has never lived among that wild and unforbidding terrain will be unable to find the way out.
Of course, nature’s labyrinth, the desert, is a triumph of simplistic ‘design’. It looks empty, its part of it the same as every other part. But to call it ‘nature’s labyrinth’ also misses an important element of ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’, which is that, to the narrator of the fable, the desert was a labyrinth designed by God (Allah) rather than a mere natural phenomenon. This is apparent in the final words of the story, ‘Glory to Him who does not die’, where the capitalised ‘Him’ makes it clear that Allah, rather than his Arabic follower who survived the brass Babylonian labyrinth and lived to defeat the Babylonians in battle, is the one being praised.
In other words, God is the ultimate labyrinth-builder, outdoing Daedalus and the architects behind the Babylonian king’s brass maze. But what makes his labyrinth so clever and awe-inspiring is that it remains mysterious, ineffable, and even (in a sense) invisible, much as God’s purpose remains only partly visible to mortals. So, religion is another important theme of this little fable.