The fiction of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) often returns to the same prominent symbols, with Borges finding new ways to inflect the mirror, the book, and the labyrinth, among others. But Borges uses these key symbols in different ways in his fiction, so they resonate with new meaning and significance.
Borges was fond of metaphysical paradoxes, and this adds another layer to his symbols and images. How should we analyse the symbolism of the labyrinth in his stories? Or the book? Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important examples of Borgesian symbols.
Along with the mirror and the book (often an encyclopaedia), the labyrinth is a recurring object in Borges’ fiction. Indeed, his most famous collection of tales and essays is titled Labyrinths, because his stories both feature labyrinths and are labyrinths, in a sense, with their complex and maze-like construction.
In ‘The House of Asterion’, Borges reworks the classical myth of the Minotaur, who was kept in a literal labyrinth, the Labyrinth on Crete constructed by Daedalus. It’s only at the end of the story that we learn that ‘Asterion’, the narrator of the story, is really the Minotaur himself, who spends his days wandering around his ‘house’ trying to stave off boredom and meaninglessness.
In ‘The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths’, meanwhile, the desert itself turns out to be a ‘labyrinth’ in which the uninitiated can lose their way and die. Asterion, too, perishes in his labyrinth, at the hands of Theseus. In Borges’ fiction, the labyrinth is a symbol for death.
The mirror symbolises two key ideas in Borges’ fiction: the infinite (because a mirror can replicate one thing and make it appear to be doubled) and illusion (because a mirror suggests such a double exists, when it is merely a reflection of the real object). In ‘The Library of Babel’, an infinite library contains a mirror which, in turn, creates the illusion that the library is infinite (even though it actually is infinite!). The narrator explains the mirror’s presence by interpreting it as a ‘promise’ of the infinite.
The Circle or Wheel.
The circle, and the wheel, are also symbols of infinity, because they represent totality, encompassing everything. In ‘The God’s Script’, the narrator, a Mayan magician, has a vision of a wheel made of fire and of water simultaneously, suggesting yin and yang, we might say, or the two primal elemental opposites which make up all of nature.
In ‘The Circular Ruins’, the titular ruins are arranged in the shape of a physical circle, but the process of travelling from one set of ruins to another is ‘cyclical’ in a more abstract sense, too. The magician has arrived at these ruins, but he needs to send his ‘son’ (the man he will dream into being) to another set of ruins, and so on, ad infinitum.
As we might expect, books symbolise knowledge, although it is often either arcane knowledge or even dangerous knowledge in Borges’ fiction. In ‘The Book of Sand’, a book purporting to be ‘Holy Writ’ contains an infinite number of pages, implying endless knowledge; however, the narrator becomes obsessed by the book and realises it is far from being the marvellous discovery he initially believed it to be.
In ‘The God’s Script’, the writing of the Mayan god is (so the narrator believes) inscribed in the skin of the jaguar with which he shares his prison. The narrator of ‘Blue Tigers’ is a professor of logic who has a lifelong fascination with tigers, and hears about a mysterious blue tiger living in India.
In ‘The Circular Ruins’, the ruins are located at the site of an ancient temple. At the ruins of the temple, there is a stone statue commemorating a mysterious deity; the statue could be either of a horse or a tiger, with the narrator unsure of which it is. The big cat in Borges, then, is often the symbol of some enigmatic knowledge which can only be partially grasped. It is revealing that, when the Mayan priest deciphers the writing of his god within the skin of the jaguar, he chooses not to act upon it.
Fire in Borges’ fiction often symbolises rebirth and regeneration. At the end of the story, the magician in ‘The Circular Ruins’ stoically accepts death and walks into the flames – only to realise that he is unharmed and that he was dreamed up by someone else and is not a real person. He has been ‘reborn’ with new knowledge, in a sense.
In ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’, the mysterious sect – which appears to represent propagation or human proliferation from one generation to the next – is symbolised by the phoenix, that mythical bird which arose from the ashes of its own funeral pyre.