Exploring the art of prose


Classics in the Maze: Michael Ende’s THE MIRROR IN THE MIRROR: A LABYRINTH


utque ope virginea nullis iterata priorum
ianua difficilis filo est inuenta relecto
—Ovid, Metamorphoses

Das stammt alles aus anderen Zeiten.
—Michael Ende, Der Spiegel im Spiegel. Ein Labyrinth


Essay by Tamara Beneyto •

Writer Michael Ende is mainly associated with young adult and children’s literature, but his literary output includes titles exclusively addressed to an adult readership. Such is the case of The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth (Der Spiegel im Spiegel. Ein Labyrinth, 1984), one of his least known literary works, judging by the current dearth of reprints and new editions.

In this book, Michael Ende combined thirty short stories of his own with eighteen surrealist-style illustrations by his father, artist Edgar Ende. The texts elaborate on some of the components and motifs of the artworks and echo the type of oneiric imagery inherent to surrealism. Image and word thus form a unit in which the selected artworks act as stimuli to the son’s writing.

Some of the images included in the book display elements that evoke Biblical as well as Graeco-Roman motifs, and several short stories elaborate on such elements to varying degrees of explicitness. It must be noted, however, that the volume is not a collection of ekphrases proper, for the interrelation between the texts and the illustrations is not a close, univocal one. This essay is not concerned with the exact nature and details of such interrelation. Here the focus is instead on the role played by Graeco-Roman myths in the interpretation of the collection of short stories.

The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth is populated by abstruse characters and vignettes. The settings depicted are pleasant in some cases but unsettling in most, with occasional concessions to subtle forms of comicality. A young student on the verge of eviction from a rented loft listens carefully to the philosophical digressions of a former servant of his landlord. Amidst announcements of train departures and platform numbers, the loudspeakers of a railway station blast a physico–mathematical formula on space and time—precisely the same one that the aforementioned young student had been revising in his rented loft. A sailor comes across a tightrope walker who confesses to be pursuing balance. An astronaut claims to have sought paradise… These are a few representative instances of the average tone of the pieces. The ensemble is not a shambolic juxtaposition of disconnected stories.

Though disjointed, the sequence is cohered by several devices, a conspicuous one being the reoccurrence of certain elements. For instance, an umbrella features in a number of illustrations and stories; the fabric of a garment mentioned in one of the texts resurfaces in the following one in the guise of a stage curtain; and the physico–mathematical formula on space and time resurfaces throughout the pages. It goes without saying that the stories are far from being realistic ones with unequivocal senses.

One contentious matter in The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth is meaning itself. Common to a number of Ende’s titles is the device of allegory as a way to obliquely dissert on nonfiction matters, perhaps most conspicuously so in The Night of Wishes. This title assumes an allegorical quality, and so terms such as umbrella and tightrope walker—to name two instances—render themselves to semantic scrutiny well beyond their plain denotation.

From a semiotic standpoint, two main interpretive clues are to be found in the very title: mirror and labyrinth. These two elements provide internal coherence to the series of short stories, while also enabling and framing a reconstruction of meaning(s). In what follows, I will focus on the motif of the labyrinth—the mirror being another story that shall be told another time, perhaps in a separate essay.

The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth opens with an illustration of a character evocative of the ancient Minotaur, followed by a text in the fashion of a brief preface, whose narrative voice—arguably the Minotaur itself—formulates an obscure programmatic introduction to the rest of the book.

After this opening comes the first short story of the collection, accompanied by an illustration of two wings hovering above a desolate landscape. This first story contains elements strikingly similar to those found in the legend of Daedalus, designer of the Cretan maze, and his son Icarus. The principal character is secluded in a so–called labyrinth–city and attempts several escapes. There is reference to the manufacturing of two wings that “the son had dreamt under the expert supervision of his father and master. In Ende’s reworking of this myth, Icarus burdens a fishnet with all sorts of items, the excessive weight ultimately hindering any possibility of escape. The writer thereby confronts the reader with the task of untangling the fishnet and its implicit allegorical sensibilities.

The motif of the Minoan labyrinth resurfaces at the end of the volume, where the final short story of the collection leads to the entrance of the mythical construction. Its dweller is not named, but described instead as “a bull’s head, a monster,” and “a creature that demands human sacrifices”—an implied Minotaur.

The two main characters are not named either, but their descriptions suggest that they are Ariadne and Theseus. The woman is described as “the young daughter of the old man”—an allusion to King Minos—and she asserts to be over three thousand years of age—in reference to the antiquity of the myth.

Ende accorded his very own reworking of the Classical myth of Ariadne and Theseus to a postmodern context in which heroism is counted as one profession among many others. This can be inferred from dialogue coloured by sarcastic undertones, in which—with far more sardonic intent than naivety—a witty Ariadne asks a proud and undoubtedly naïve Theseus whether he is a professional hero.

Unlike the one in the Classical myth, Ende’s Ariadne does not provide Theseus with a ball of yarn, neither does she plan on awaiting him. Instead, she matter-of-factly informs our (professional) hero that nobody is able to defeat the creature that dwells inside the labyrinth and return.

It is precisely this last story that provides the reader with an interpretive key to all the preceding ones. In The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth, Ende deploys the Cretan maze—swirling, winding, intricate, difficult to map out—as a poignant, graphic metaphor of the human existence. The writer unpicks and coils this metaphor alongside one preface and twenty-nine short stories, some of which figuratively address those facets of existence that are individually experienced (the passing of time, religiousness, the quest for life’s meaning or its questioning).

Other stories convey symbolic dissertations on those aspects of existence that are collectively endured as well as contentious, such as the coveting and abuse of power, despotism, totalitarianism, warfare. Encrypted in symbolic code, these topics are the scopes of the digressions of an author who witnessed a significant part of the twentieth century. In all, the overarching, underlying motif of the Cnossos maze and the full extent of its symbolism holds together The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth.

In relation to the allegorical nature of the book as a digression on human existence, it is worth noting that some of its characters display autobiographical hints. On grounds of Ende’s biography, a detailed scrutiny of the text suggests that the young student lodging in a loft, the middle–aged man in the twenty–second story, and the child in the twenty–sixth, can be justifiably interpreted as reflections of the writer himself at different stages of his life.

A similar claim can be made about the reworking of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus in the first short story. These classical archetypes of two kindred individuals both committed to creative endeavours render themselves particularly testimonial in a book the writer dedicates to his own painter father. The ancient characters are reworked here as a most adequate authorial self–reference.

Engagement with ancient myths is likewise noticeable in Ende’s word choice. He weaves the term transformations (Verwandlungen in the original German version) into the twenty–sixth and thirtieth texts of the volume. Far from displaying sheer denotation, the term recalls the transformations of Ovid’s versified narration of Graeco-Roman myths, Metamorphoses. Even though other ancient sources had likewise dealt with the Minoan labyrinth, in Ende’s text the term transformations strongly recalls Ovid.

Allusions to diverse authors can be tracked throughout the pages of this book. The “blind night of the library of Buenos Aires” is a reference to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, some of whose creations provide a direct, fundamental hypotext to these short stories (a topic otherwise beyond the scope of this essay).

The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth can be largely deciphered by taking into consideration some of the reading Ende accomplished in the course of his life. By means of tracking down the thread left behind by those other books, one can map out the labyrinthian design of this one. Any disparagement of Ende’s literary output is a byproduct of the type of shallow prejudice that often results from not having actually read the production of a given author.

In The Mirror in the Mirror: A Labyrinth, Ende reworks the Minoan legend precisely in the realm where it belongs, namely that of storytelling and symbolism. In so doing, the writer safeguards this Classical myth from the risk of becoming landfill material bound for bleak pages of inconsequential scholarly books on mythography and comparative mythology perpetrated by equally bleak pundits. Thankfully, with his reworking, Michael Ende formidably restores the Minoan labyrinth—despite its great age—to literature and readers.


TAMARA BENEYTO completed degrees in Classics and in Applied Linguistics. Occasionally she writes review essays on books that she finds of particular interest. Some of her previous texts have appeared in the literary magazines The Wellington Street Review and Ós the Journal.