By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The House of Asterion’ is one of the shortest stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Even by his usual standards – many of his best-known stories stretch to only a few pages – it is a shorter tale among his oeuvre, running to just three pages in most editions. Published in 1947, the story is a kind of riddle where the narrator, Asterion, is revealed to be the Minotaur from the famous Greek myth. Borges reportedly wrote the story in just two days.
You can read ‘The House of Asterion’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Borges’ story below.
‘The House of Asterion’: plot summary
The story is narrated by someone who calls himself Asterion. He lives in his house and never leaves it. Some people think him a prisoner, therefore, but he insists that all of the doors in his house (he claims there is an infinite number of doors) are open at all times, so people can come in and out whenever they wish.
He did leave the house one afternoon, but the frightened faces of the people he saw in the street convinced him to stay within his house from then on. He insists he is modest, though he tells us his mother is a queen, and he knows he is different from the rest of the populace. Indeed, as he declares, he is ‘unique’.
The narrator tells us he has plenty of ways of keeping himself entertained in his house: he runs through the stone galleries until he falls down dizzy; he pretends he is being followed and hides in the shadows. He also likes to pretend he has an alter ego, an other self also called Asterion, who (he pretends) visits him.
Towards the end of the story, Asterion tells us that every nine years, nine men arrive in his house and he delivers them ‘from evil’ by killing them. On one such occasion, one of the men told Asterion that, one day, his own redeemer would come. Asterion tells us that he longs for the arrival of his redeemer. He wonders if this redeemer will be like him – a man with the face of a bull – or whether he will be different.
Asterion’s narrative then breaks off, and the story ends with a second narrator telling us that Theseus has slain Asterion – who is now revealed to have been the Minotaur of Greek myth – and Theseus telling Ariadne that the Minotaur ‘scarcely defended himself’ against Theseus’ attack.
‘The House of Asterion’: analysis
‘The House of Asterion’ functions, like several other Borges stories (see ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’ for perhaps the most explicit example), as a sort of riddle. The story’s epigraph, from the classical writer Apollodorus, mentions a queen giving birth to a child named Asterion, but what this quotation doesn’t reveal is that Asterion is the alternative name for the Minotaur of Greek legend.
The Minotaur lived in the vast Labyrinth on the island of Crete, where King Minos reigned. He was indeed ‘unique’: a man with the head and tail of a bull. Every nine years, Minos demanded that a number of Athenians be given to the Minotaur as sacrifices (yes, this is also the inspiration for Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games).
The Minotaur was indeed the child of a queen: he was the product of a rather twisted coupling between Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, and a ferocious bull. Poseidon, angered by Minos’ failure to sacrifice the bull, made the bull so savage that it was a menace to Minos. He also made Pasiphaë, Minos’ wife, desire the bull. She ‘slept’ with the bull and the Minotaur was the resultant offspring. The Labyrinth – the first maze to be given that name – was built on Crete to keep the Minotaur contained from the rest of the populace.
Theseus offered himself as one of the ‘tributes’ to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, but he slew the beast instead, with Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, helping him to find his way back out of the corridors of the Labyrinth with the aid of a ball of thread, whose clues or strands he left behind him so he could follow them and find his way out of the maze again. To this day, we talk about following ‘clues’ when trying to solve a mystery. We discuss the myth of the Minotaur in more detail in a separate post.
In every classical telling of this myth, Theseus is the hero and the Minotaur – the fearsome monster – is the villain whose murderous episodes are brought to an end by Theseus’ courage and Ariadne’s cunning. ‘The House of Asterion’ is part of a noble tradition of narratives which turn this hero-villain relationship on its head, instead providing the monster with a voice and making the ‘villain’ the central protagonist. John Gardner’s novel Grendel does a similar thing with the Beowulf legend, and may well have been inspired by Borges’ story.
In making Asterion/the Minotaur the narrator of his own story, Borges offers, in ‘The House of Asterion’, a psychological study of the monster. The Minotaur is not a prisoner in his ‘house’, the Labyrinth, yet he acknowledges that he is shunned by the rest of society, who fear him because of his reputation and his unusual appearance (a bull’s head will tend to produce that reaction).
He sees the tributes who come to him as people willingly offering themselves to him so that they might be redeemed, when they are, in fact, human sacrifices who have been forced to give up their lives to the Minotaur.
But if he believes these human victims are willing sacrifices, he also believes that he will be ‘redeemed’ by one who will come and release him from his prison. Although he denies that he is a prisoner in his ‘house’, he also seems keen to be freed from his house arrest, even through death.
This explains why, at the end of ‘The House of Asterion’, the Minotaur appears readily to accept his own death without offering any defence. There are also signs that he has succumbed to what we would call ‘cabin fever’: he is so cut off from other human beings (if he can be called ‘human’ himself), ostracised for being different, that he has to make up imaginary friends (the other Asterion) or play children’s games by himself. Indeed, there is something childlike about him and his beliefs: he is naïve, almost pathetic.
Is he mad, too? Perhaps. He tells us there are fourteen doors to his ‘house’, but a footnote informs us that, when Asterion uses the word ‘fourteen’, he means ‘infinite’ (infinity is a recurring theme of Borges’ fiction). He even wonders idly if he created the sun and stars above him: surely a god complex is a clear sign of mental instability.
In the last analysis, is ‘The House of Asterion’ nothing more than a literary puzzle, a riff on the famous myth from antiquity? We might think about how Borges encourages us to respond to the Minotaur differently: he is no longer just an antagonist in someone else’s story but the narrator of his own life.
Indeed, he is revealed to be a victim of sorts himself: the offspring of a lustful queen and a ferocious bull, he is then locked up (in what is a de facto imprisonment since he cannot abide going out among the general population) and kept separate from everyone else because of his otherness, with death being his only hope of redemption.
And although it might be going too far to claim that Borges was thinking of a particular ostracised group, ‘The House of Asterion’ is symbolic of society’s tendency to ‘other’ those who are different and keep them in inhumane conditions for the ‘greater good’ of society.
The Minotaur kills the tributes who come to him, not because he is a fierce animal but because he believes that is what they want from him: because that is what he desires from his redeemer, who arrives in the form of Theseus.