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Literature / The House of Asterion

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The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion.
Apollodorus: Bibliotheca, III, I

First published in 1947 in the Los anales de Buenos Aires newspaper, "The House of Asterion" ("La casa de Asterión") is a short fantasy story written by Jorge Luis Borges, then republished in 1949 in The Aleph.

Prince Asterion has heard all the nasty rumors said about him, where he is called arrogant, a misanthropist, mad, and is a prisoner of his home of infinite doors. Asterion denies these rumors, trying to tell himself that his life is ordinary, and enviable. Every nine years, nine men are sent to his home, and Asterion happily greets them and puts an end to their woeful existence. One of these men has time to prophesize that Asterion will find a redeemer. Because of that, he calmly awaits him and even wonders what he looks like. Is he a man? A bull? A bull with the head of a man? Or is he the opposite, like Asterion?

The short story was dedicated to Marta Mosquera Eastman. There's very little information about her, but what little information is available is that she was a friend of Borges at the time, and she later moved to Venezuela to work as a reporter.

Tropes in the work:

  • The Aloner: Asterion is completely alone on his home of infinite doors, due to the plebeians outside fearing him. Despite stating the contrary, he truly wishes to have someone to talk with, and one of his distractions is to pretend someone follows him.
  • Anachronism Stew: The short story is a Perspective Flip of the myth of the Minotaur. Asterion mentions Socrates, who lived in the years 469-399 B.C. Somehow, Asterion is aware of a philosopher that wouldn't exist until hundreds of years after the fall of the Kingdom of Crete, where the myth of the Minotaur is set.
  • Arc Number: Fourteen. Borges' annotations make it clear fourteen is Asterion's way of saying infinite.
    Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be only once: above, the intricate sun; below, Asterion.
  • Death Seeker: Ever since Asterion "delivered the men from all evil", one prophesized that he would perish at the hand of a redeemer. Since then, his loneliness doesn't affect him, and he is quietly waiting for him to arrive. The last paragraph changes perspective, and reveals the identity of Asterion, who did not put up much of a fight against Theseus.
    "Would you believe it, Ariadne?" said Theseus. "The Minotaur scarcely defended himself."
  • Half-Human Hybrid: After finishing his monologue, prince Asterion ponders what his redeemer will be like. Asterion asks if he will be a man or a bull, a bull with the face of a man, or like him. This reveals the identity of Asterion to the reader, as the Minotaur.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Despite being capable of leaving his home any time he wants, Asterion chooses not to, as the plebeians fear him. He laments he cannot read, but quickly states that he has distractions, which involve: running through his house until he is exhausted; pretending to be followed by someone; falling from the roof until he bleeds; and pretending to sleep and losing sight of the time. But his favorite game is to imagine he has an imaginary friend called "the other Asterion", who he plays with by showing him the house. Asterion has been alone in his home for so long, he thinks he possibly created the sun, the stars and the labyrinth but couldn't remember. Only the thought of a redeemer killing him calms his heart.
  • The Maze: Asterion's house is described by him as one never seen in the world, with Asterion claiming that a similar one existing in Egypt is a lie. The home has fourteen doors (though for Borges, Asterion refers to infinite) without locks, is open all day for anyone and the walls are described as stone galleries, with pools and gardens. Asterion says his home is the same size as the world, before correcting himself and claiming it is the world.
  • Mercy Kill: Every nine years, nine men enter into Asterion's house the labyrinth, and he "delivers them from all evil". The text states that for the Minotaur, killing these prisoners was an act of mercy on his part.
  • Never Learned to Read: Asterion never learned how to read, and is unaware of the difference between one word and another. He blames his impatience, and at times regrets this, as his life is quite boring even if he states the contrary.
  • Perspective Flip: "The House of Asterion" is a first-person retelling from the point of view of the Minotaur. Unlike the original story showing him as a mindless monster, Borges portrays him as a pitiable creature who desires a savior to free him.
  • First-Person Perspective: The short story is narrated through a first person perspective from the point of view of Asterion. The last paragraph changes to a third perspective omniscient narrative, revealing the twist that Asterion is the Minotaur.
  • Spell My Name with an S: Borges names the monster Asterión, which has been translated as Asterion. Despite this, other sources (like Sir James George Frazer's translation of Bibliotheca) call the creature Asterius.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The epigraph is from the third book of the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus. The quote is rewritten by Borges, ending before the complete sentence, seemingly to hide the identity of Asterion to the reader.
      And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur.
    • "I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher, I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing." This is a nod to Socrates, who believed that reading destroyed the memory.
    • "Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust." The sentence parallels Job's (19:25) exclamation about God, "I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth."
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs: Asterion quickly kills the men who enter his home, and doesn't move the bodies. Instead, he uses them to know where in the labyrinth he is.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • Asterion describes his mighty status as the son of a queen and his home, and how anyone can enter if they so wish. But despite his prideful attitude at the beginning of the monologue, denying himself to be a prisoner of the labyrinth, it becomes clear he's a pathetic living creature who wishes for his release of life. What's more, Asterion in all the text doesn't describe what he eats, which in the original myth, was the prisoners sent to him.
    • Asterion claims that the notion of him being arrogant, mad or misanthropic are but lies that he will punish in due time. The text makes it clear that he is mad out of boredom and loneliness; he is too proud of his status as a prince to admit he is a prisoner of the labyrinth; and he is a misanthropist as he kills the men who enter the labyrinth, thinking he is doing them a favor by releasing them of life. Not to mention that, if you're aware of the myth, Asterion eats the men he kills.