October 11, 2012
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...