Jan Bajtlik, Greek Myths and Mazes. Warsaw: Candlewick Studio, 2019. Pp. 74. ISBN 978–1–5362–0964–8. $35.00.
One of Homer’s most pleasing idiosyncrasies is the pleasure he takes in well-made objects. He praises well-built ships and well-built cities, and even carts get singled out for being “well-fellied” (whatever that means). The bard has a word for “working something cunningly,” δαιδάλλων, which Homer uses to describe (among other things) Odysseus’s remarkable bed, built upon a rooted olive-stump and inlaid with gold and silver. The word appears to be derived from — certainly related to — the name of the great inventor and artist Daedalus, crafter of the Cretan Labyrinth and mythic founder of human flight. This gives us the wonderful English word “daedal,” meaning “intricately worked” or “beautifully wrought.” This is the word that comes to mind to describe the work of the talented young artist Jan Bajtlik, whose book Greek Myths and Mazes is a kind of extended meditation on — and ostensive definition of — what daedal means.
I found the book prominently displayed in an independent bookshop/bar in Kingston, New York (the fantastic Rough Draft). I am always on the lookout for books about the ancient world to share with my children, and the cover caught my eye: a cartoon fleet of oculated Grecian warships, each sporting an ensign from the best shields of Hellas (boar, Gorgon, triskelion, et al.), bears a load of hoplites across a wave-tossed sea. The sea brims with intricate detail of the sort that enchants kids’ eyes: you realize, as you inspect, that a battle is afoot: the Achaeans are ramming their prows into the keels of the enemy; arms, horses, and scattered men appear in the waves; spears flash and arrows fly; Poseidon with his trident leads the way. Through it all a whitened pathway leads: the whole is a maze, cunningly designed to lead your eye from place to place on the page. Intrigued, I took the book down from atop the shelf and began to leaf through it.
Inside, I found an embarrassment of daedal riches: twenty-four gorgeous mazes, each 15”x22” and splayed out across two pages, every one an intricate imagining of Greek history (such as the palace of Minos at Knossos) or mythology (there are mazes to guide the youngster through the voyage of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, the story of Oedipus, etc.). There is beautiful visual variatio: some mazes offer seemingly infinite detail, while others are bare and architectural; the red flames of the burning of Troy contrast with the stony marbles of a Greek theater; some tell an entire story, while others are nothing but visual delights. All are beautifully rendered and intelligently imagined, drawing heavily on the Greek vasepainting and sculptural traditions. All would make wonderful decorations for a Classics classroom or child’s room. I hope many are made into posters; at 15”x22” the images are impressive, but they would look fabulous at twice the size as well. Fifteen large pages of explanatory notes, well-suited to students, follow the mazes.
The book is also unusually well-bound, its reinforced binding sitting well in the hands, and remaining open to the desired page, details that would please the Poet. Everything about the book suggests excellence: the paper, the ink, the special design for the numbers on the pages. The only thing I had my doubts about were the mazes themselves: would anyone really try to trace a path through these mazes? But I have tried a few and found that the maze actually does lead the reader effectively through the entire image. And while I would not want my child to draw on such a beautiful book, the mazes are actually simple enough that you can trace their path with your finger — no pencil required. In this age of color photocopying, many teachers may be able to photocopy pages and distribute them in class. They would be useful activities for students trying to remember the Labors of Hercules or sequence the wanderings of Odysseus. The ideal age for the book is probably from fourth to sixth grade, but the aesthetic value of the book is so high that almost anyone can hold the book with pleasure. I have found that the mazes can serve as a memory aid for ex tempore tellings of the myths to pre-school age children.
The artist, Jan Bajtlik, lives and works in Poland; but the quality of his drawings has won admirers in multiple countries: editions of his other books have been printed in Polish, German, Dutch, Spanish, French, and English. The book is not cheap ($35, in hardback), but it is a pleasure that such beautiful, interesting work has been brought before the public in such a high-quality edition. A beautifully designed, well-crafted book of mazes: what, in the end, could be more daedal? It makes a perfect gift for any child who knows the pleasure of sitting at home absorbed in a good book. And it just might be the first book that some child out there will really fall in love with.
John Byron Kuhner is former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and editor of In Medias Res.