Home » Newpages Blog » The Requited Distance

The Requited Distance

In Greek mythology, there is perhaps no myth so painfully evocative and morally instructive as that of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, the brilliant architect of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, constructs wings of feather and wax so that he and his son can escape their imprisonment. They are almost successful, until Icarus, forgetting his father’s warnings, flies too close to the sun and his wings melt, plunging him to his death. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s The Requited Distance mines this myth, as well as the other stories related to Daedalus, for their rich and mournful underpinnings. Griffiths presents the conception and birth of the Minotaur, the construction of the labyrinth, Daedalus’s attempted murder of his nephew Perdix, and Icarus’s fatal flight through many different eyes (including that of a watching fig tree), capturing profound emotions with her lush descriptions. Throughout, we witness the cost of unwieldy desire and ambition.

In Greek mythology, there is perhaps no myth so painfully evocative and morally instructive as that of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, the brilliant architect of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, constructs wings of feather and wax so that he and his son can escape their imprisonment. They are almost successful, until Icarus, forgetting his father’s warnings, flies too close to the sun and his wings melt, plunging him to his death. Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s The Requited Distance mines this myth, as well as the other stories related to Daedalus, for their rich and mournful underpinnings. Griffiths presents the conception and birth of the Minotaur, the construction of the labyrinth, Daedalus’s attempted murder of his nephew Perdix, and Icarus’s fatal flight through many different eyes (including that of a watching fig tree), capturing profound emotions with her lush descriptions. Throughout, we witness the cost of unwieldy desire and ambition.

Beginning abruptly and memorably with Pasiphae’s lust for the white bull (given by Poseidon to Minos, who fails to sacrifice it), Griffiths enthralls us with her startling depiction of Pasiphae’s physical experience of bestiality, a rough and punishing satisfaction to her desire:

my ribcage             exposed enough
to be shattered       Twist my neck
to feel the animal’s  bristling So hard
to bear this             Flying then apart

Here, the words seem to split in sympathy with Pasiphae’s body. Daedalus has facilitated this mating by building Pasiphae the wooden frame of a cow to seduce the bull. His first foray into emulating the animal form therefore foreshadows the tragic result of his later attempts, as it results in violence and the subsequent birth of a monster, the Minotaur. Daedalus sympathizes with Pasiphae:

Lonely, I too turn away
from the companionship of
my own form

The frailty of moral
desire is bewildering—

In these lines, Griffiths places Daedalus in the same position of transgression as Pasiphae and thereafter each act of invention or creation seems as dangerous as Icarus’s upward trajectory.

In Griffith’s poems, the relationship between Daedalus and Icarus is troubled and distant, doomed by Daedalus’s obsession with his work, “My father loved wings more / than my life.” As Daedalus speaks out in poems full of mourning and regret, Icarus seems to have an existential crisis as he probes the circumstances of his shortened life and abrupt death, “Here I am, widowed / by my father’s happiness.”

Increasingly, Daedalus seems like the classic tragic hero, undone by his own need to create. His attempt to murder Perdix when his nephew threatened to surpass him as an inventor might have served as a warning to Icarus: “His brilliant dreams / can only harm you.” Still, Griffiths finds beauty in the yearning that Pasiphae, Daedalus, and Icarus all display. Each character seeks the extraordinary and reaches it, even though they are later crushed by the equally extraordinary consequences:

This is how you made us better,
dreams of flying men
formed through fire,
blue clay, wingspan.

The way that Griffiths structures her book, placing both Daedalus’s and Icarus’s laments before recounting their flight, leaves us on that note of absurd hope—the exuberant arc of Icarus’s ascent.

Spread the word!