Myth and Magical Realism in Borges’ House of Asterion

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Words: 1267 |

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7 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 1267|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Myth and magical realism has been evident in the several fiction readings we have analysed this semester. One of my favorite readings that we read and analyzed in this class this semester was The House of Asterion by Jorge Luis Borges. This literature piece retells the well-known myth of the Cretan Minotaur from another point of view as compared to other variations of this known myth. We have been exposed to different elements through which these authors incorporate into their work such as myth and magical realism as a means for the reader to somewhat relate or can fuse a realistic representation of everyday phenomena and events with magical elements. In this essay I will discuss the use of these elements in The House of Asterion and how they help to accomplish what the author is putting forward to myself and other readers to interpret and how impactful they are in accentuating fiction genres.

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In this piece Borges’ use of of physical and metaphorical themes has allowed me as a reader to interpret his work and view instances where magical realism is used throughout the story as it allows the reader to relate to some of the psychological and human like qualities given to the minotaur. As the title states, this story features Asterion the Minotaur who awaits his “redemption” from the labyrinth whose purpose is usually to trap, confuse and provide a means of isolation. The reader can interpret a spectrum of messages that this piece may invoke while reading. Asterion’s sense of loneliness in this labyrinth led me to interpret that it creates a prison and an isolating solitude for him mentally and physically most of the time. Asterion’s loneliness is visible through himself and the outside population who probably view him as monstrous and his only source of solace tends to be bowing “majestically” to “another Asterion” suggesting his deep isolation and living with and through his own fantasy. Although his only friend tends to be an imaginary carbon copy of himself, the inner pain through self-infliction and destruction and withdrawal from a normal experience outside his mind allows the reader to somewhat sympathize with the Minotaur and the use of magical realism in this story gives the protagonist in this story some human like qualities such as emotions and other notable characteristics such as the setting of this story that we will discuss later on.

He may not be a literal prisoner but Asterion’s isolation creates a prison for his mental self. He scoffs at the idea that he may be a prisoner and reminds us that “the door stands open” and “need I add that there is no lock”. Yet, Asterion lives within his own mind; he does not indulge in reading or venture into other worlds through the escape of literature, nor is he interested in “what a man can publish abroad to other men”. Rather, he focuses internally, mentally distancing himself from the outer world. He prefers to play games within his own mind “crouching in the shadow of a wellhead or at a corner in one of the corridors”. Asterion lives in shadows, often losing himself to nothingness and opening his eyes to find it has become dark.

Asterion’s describes his interactions with the surroundings and gives the reader the impression that he does not exist outside his own mind, or he may perhaps be struggling to feel existence. While he elaborately describes his labyrinth, detailing the “drinking troughs, courtyards and wellheads” it is not until the final statement he makes does he describe his own appearance, pondering whether his so-called redeemer will “be man or bull? Could he possibly be a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me”. Regrettably, the terror he sees in the faces of those outside the labyrinth as “people prayed, fled, fell prostrate before [him]” further reinforces his isolation. Asterion observes his environment and interacts with the world through his thoughts and fantasies; he is not blind to the outside world, he is enlightened of how the outside world perceives him and is forced by their fear to retreat inside and exist only within his consciousness. Asterion is trapped through a constant cycle of self-internalization. Furthermore, through self-infliction of pain, Asterion challenges his own existence, attempting to feel and experience something exterior of himself. Physical pain weirdly temporarily remedies Asterion briefly out of his confined mind. He charges “through the halls of stone until tumbles dizzily to the ground” finding pleasure in hurling himself “off rooftops until bloody”, a desperate manifestation of his cyclical loneliness.

Despite his extreme self-mutilation, Asterion never “bloodies his hands” with the blood of others. He lives and interacts fully within himself. Yet, since the prediction of his redeemer, Asterion no longer feels “pain for [himself] in solitude”. We may not know but maybe death will be an end to his pain, an end of the isolation he has suffered in enduring the expected eternity of his predicament. In knowing there is an end, Asterion finds some form of peace. Asterion’s destruction frees him from the prison of his mind almost like a child being distracted by a toy.

Upon reading this and doing some research on Borges I learned that his work is known for containing the style of magical realism and he is one of the focal points for the literature community for this specific genre. A possible counterargument for my aforementioned points may be that even though my point may be that the labyrinth may all be in the Minotaur’s mind, I do think there are places in the story that suggest a physical, material reality outside his head, e.g. the men who visit ever nine years, their footsteps and voices echoing in the “galleries of stone.” and some other instances that may indicate such. Although the Minotaur may be physically confined to a labyrinth, Borges’ retelling of the story makes it clear that the real confinement is his isolation in his own mind.

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Magical realism is a subgenre of fantasy to an extent. However, what differentiates it from the likes of a full-on fantasy and other more realistic extensions of fantasy is the normalization of the ‘strange’. Most fantasy novels I have read as a child takes time to explain the workings of their world. Magical realism does not and describes something like a man or creature living in the depths of a place for days on end or being isolated to a labyrinth in this case for his whole life as normal. Nobody in the world questions it, not even the writer. If someone were to survive at the bottom of a pit or get trapped in a labyrinth for their whole life or for weeks on end, it would certainly require some sort of 'magic' in our world. But magical realism chooses to ignore that and present it as true which is what offers the unique style from other genres in writing and makes it an underrated and beautiful element that can be implemented in different genres of writing, especially in fiction.

Works Cited

  • Usongo, Kenneth. “The Significance of Magical Realism in the Novels of Elechi Amadi.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 54, no. 2, 2017, pp. 160–173., doi:10.1177/0021989416684183.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1986.
  • MasterClass. “What Is Magical Realism? Definition and Examples of Magical Realism in Literature, Plus 7 Magical Realism Novels You Should Read - 2019.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 15 Aug. 2019,
  • Tilney, Martin. “Waiting for Redemption in The House of Asterion: A Stylistic Analysis.” Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, vol. 02, no. 02, 2012, pp. 51–56., doi:10.4236/ojml.2012.22007.
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