Departure, Initiation, and Return in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” At first glance, Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” tells the tale of a Chinese agent for the Germans against the English during the first World War. In this short story, Yu Tsun (the spy) learns that a fellow agent has been eliminated. This means that he will undoubtedly be the next to be arrested and killed. This will probably happen before the end of the day.
Yu Tsun has a mission that must be performed: send the name of the city containing the English air base to Berlin without the message being intercepted before he is captured. Yu Tsun, although a flawed hero, is the story’s hero nonetheless, and the story outlines his attempt to fulfill his mission. Borges’ short story follows a mythological structure using Joseph Campbell’s three main stages of the hero’s journey: departure, initiation, and return. Along the way, Yu Tsun, quite by accident, discovers a tale of multiple paths, labyrinths both physical and metaphorical.
He learns of the concept of how multiple choices can lead to multiple realities. Even so, at the end, it appears that his fate has already been determined, and he has reached the last fork in his life’s path. Jorge Luis Borges uses this simple wartime spy story as a frame to tell a tale of philosophy, multiple worlds, and inescapable destiny. The story’s narrative begins with what turns out to be a spy’s confessional.
The surface story tells of his mission and how he seeks to accomplish it in the face of obstacles. A mythological analysis says that the story has a hero’s departure.
It also says that the story has a call to adventure or “call to some high historical undertaking” (Campbell 51), a brief refusal of the call, a starting point when the call is accepted, and guides on the journey’s path . The story goes on as the spy departs for another location to carry out his mission. Time is running out and there is no way of escape. A deeper look into the story shows the initiation that takes the flawed hero to a different dimension (metaphorically). It also shows the hero as he seeks to capture the great prize (in his case, obtained by performing a seemingly impossible task).
At the end of the story, the pursuer of the spy finds the spy’s whereabouts. The spy is ultimately captured even as he completes his mission. Metaphorically, there is a return, the leaving of the other world and the bringing back of the prize. These are performed by the hero with (in a variation) unwitting help in the form of an opposing force. In the story, Borges tells of paths that diverge and converge, “diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork” (267). So, too, a mythological critical analysis of the story reveals a multi-layered path.
The author of “The Garden of Forking Paths” converges the story’s multiple threads throughout the tale by use of the three main features of the hero’s journey. In spite of its unorthodox structure, the application of the simple mythological pattern of the hero’s adventure is evidenced in the story’s tripartite divisions into departure, initiation, return in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges. Yu Tsun is alerted to the fact that Captain Richard Madden, “[a]n Irishman at the service of England,” is in Viktor Runeberg’s (a fellow agent) apartment (263).
This telephone call metaphorically serves as a herald that a change is on the horizon, “Madden’s presence in Viktor Runeberg’s apartment meant the end of our anxieties and… also the end of our lives”(263). In this instance, while the adventure has already started in one sense (he is already an agent), he reaches the threshold of something different. He is certain that the end is near, and “it seemed… to [him] that that day… should be the one of [his] inexorable death” (263). He becomes depressed “in the midst of [his] hatred and terror,” not seeing anyway to fulfill his mission (264).
He says that he “must flee,” but what can he do in the short amount of time he believes he has left (264)? At this moment, the situation seems hopeless; he appears helpless and unable to complete his mission. However, “[s]omething—perhaps the mere vain ostentation of proving [his] resources were nil—made [him] look through [his] pockets”(264). He finds, among other things, a “revolver with one bullet”(264). This gives him the idea that “a pistol report can be heard at a great distance”(264). The “something” could be related in a mythological sense to supernatural aid.
While atypical because there is no form (of either flesh or spirit), it is help from a source outside of his conscious thought (264). He looks in the telephone book for a name and formulates a plan that is not immediately revealed to the reader. He sets out on his journey and goes to the train station. He gets in his seat and the train begins to move when he sees “[a] man whom [he] recognized running in vain to the end of the platform” (264-265). The man is his pursuer—Captain Richard Madden. Yu Tsun is frightened and “shrank into the far corner of the seat, away from the dreaded window” (265).
On the surface, this may look to be merely a narrow escape, but a mythological perspective takes a deeper look. This could be viewed as a parallel to crossing the first threshold and going into the unknown past a hostile guard. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says that, “[t]he adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades”(82).
This is not a perfect parallel, for the battle with the gatekeeper (who in this case is also the hero’s main adversary) is only won by the hero’s punctuality, not his skill and cunning, and the danger does not fade but is only delayed until the next train. As Yu Tsun gets to his seat, he notices his fellow travelers. They include “a few farmers, a woman dressed in mourning, a young boy who was reading with fervor the Annals of Tacitus, a wounded and happy soldier” (264). There is nothing interesting at face value. But, in this story, nothing should be aken at face value. Rene de Costa, a professor of romance languages at the University of Chicago and the author of Humor in Borges (Wayne), says, “This last qualifier is momentarily in tension with the first, but only until we realize why the wounded soldier is “happy. ” He is happy to be still alive. Indeed, for this soldier, the war is happily over. The traveling widow probably collects a pension, and the student at leisure is handily avoiding military service by dutifully studying the cyclical dynastic wars in imperial Rome.
The overall thrust of this story is not comic but ironic” (Costa). He gets off the train at the Ashgrove station. A boy at the station asks if he is “going to Dr. Stephen Albert’s house,” and then he tells him he “won’t get lost if [he] take[s] this road to the left and at every crossroads turn again to [his] left” (265). For Yu Tsun, these directions brings to mind that “such was the common procedure for discovering the central point of certain labyrinths” (265). This gets him to thinking of his ancestor Ts’ui Pen, “who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel… nd to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost” (265). He goes on with these thoughts until he comes to the house. Dr. Albert meets him at the door, and addressing Yu Tsun “in [his] own language” assumes that he “no doubt wish[es] to see the garden” (266). Yu Tsun learns that the garden Dr. Albert refers to is “the garden of forking paths” of his “ancestor Ts’ui Pen” (266). Yu Tsun follows him inside, and decides that his “irrevocable determination could wait” (266). This scene could be viewed metaphorically as a brief refusal of the call, if for only a few minutes.
While this is not the usual place to find a refusal in the sequence of events (showing the story to have an unorthodox structure), Campbell says “[t]he myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest” (59-60). This instance certainly falls under that category. Dr. Stephen Albert, “a Sinologist” brings his guest inside and they sit down together (266). Yu Tsun hears of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pen, and his choice to “close himself up for thirteen years in the Pavilion of the Limpid Solitude.
When he died, his heirs found nothing save chaotic manuscripts. His family… wished to condemn them to the fire; but his executor—a Taoist or Buddhist monk—insisted on their publication” (266). Yu Tsun is already aware of this, and says that he and the other descendants “continue to curse that monk… The book is an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts… in the third chapter the hero dies, in the fourth he is alive” (266). The heirs of Ts’ui Pen look at the surface of events and see only confusion.
Yu Tsun goes physically through the complicated path to Albert’s house and began his journey into a world of unfamiliar ideas. Metaphorically, this can be related to the beginning of the initiation stage of the hero’s journey. Campbell says, “[o]nce having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms” (97). Albert then says that the missing labyrinth is “of symbols… [a]n invisible labyrinth of time” (266). Albert points out that “no one in the vast territories that were his came upon the labyrinth” so, “the confusion of the novel suggest[s] to [him] that it [is] the maze” (266).
Albert has “questioned… the ways in which a book can be infinite” (266). Albert’s thoughts turn to “that night which is at the middle of the Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade (through a magical oversight of the copyist) begins to relate word for word the story of the Thousand and One Nights, establishing the risk of coming once again to the night when she must repeat it, and thus on to infinity” (267). This instance in the Thousand and One Nights corresponds to the complexity woven into “The Garden of Forking Paths. Both stories have an unorthodox structure with a frame story, and stories within the main story being told. Evelyn Fishburn, author of “Traces of the Thousand and One Nights in Borges (Iowa),” et al, says, “[i]n a traditional labyrinth you have to turn, and turn, and turn again until you find the centre (or the way out). These turns are diversions (Latin divertere) which mean both to amuse and to turn aside. The “Nights” mission was to draw attention away from a serious concern (diversion) through entertainment (diversion)… For Scheherazade… t is a life-saving operation; her tales are what delays the moment of her execution”(Fishburn). Albert is also delaying Yu Tsun from his objective with his tale, although in this instance the delay is unintentional. Albert then shows Yu Tsun “a fragment of a letter [he] discovered” (267). The words left by Ts’ui Pen are “I leave to the various futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths” (267, italics). This passage illuminates for Albert that “ ‘the garden of forking paths’ [is] the chaotic novel;… ‘the various futures (not to all)’… the forking in time, not in space” (267).
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