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To create and to soar: the Daedalus myth in Joyce's "Portrait"

To create and to soar: the Daedalus myth in Joyce's "Portrait"

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Published by muddledlunacy
A discussion of the Daedalus myth in James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".
A discussion of the Daedalus myth in James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man".

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Published by: muddledlunacy on Oct 22, 2009
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05/27/2010

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Lindsay BeardallENGL 2600-003To create and to soar: the Daedalus myth in Joyce’s
 Portrait 
 James Joyce’s
 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
is bursting at the seamswith allusions. One of the most noteworthy is the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.The myth works on many levels, giving overall structure and lending its labyrinthineroots to the novel. Stephen’s desire for flight and freedom, his artistic soul, even his name- Dedalus, all reflect and allude to this myth.The Greek myth of Daedalus claims that he was a great craftsman and innovator;an artisan. So great, in fact, that King Minos asked Daedalus to built a labyrinth to holdthe notorious half-bull, half-man monster, the Minotaur. After it was built, for reasonsthat vary with the telling, King Minos locked Daedalus and Daedalus’ son Icarus high ina tower within the labyrinth. But, Daedalus being the genius and innovator he was,couldn’t be kept locked up. He was inspired by the birds he saw wheeling above theocean outside his window, and decided to create wings for himself and his son to be ableto escape the tower and the grasp of King Minos. Stephen is well aware throughout thenovel of the myth his name denotes, and for this reason, is inspired by Daedalus. Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dimwaves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing theair…a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists…a symbol of theartist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of earth a newsoaring impalpable imperishable being? (183)
 
The accomplishment of flight is something Stephen both admires and desires. In amoment of epiphany and reflection on the beach, Stephen begins to realize this desireconsciously. Echoing the tower Daedalus and Icarus were trapped within, Stephen istrapped within the constraints of family, country, language, and religion. Poetry and artare his wings to escape these bonds.His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, tocry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds…This was the call of life to his soulnot the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair, not the inhuman voicethat had called him to the pale service of the altar. An instant of wild flight haddelivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain. (183-184)The realization that pursuing his art is the only way for him to live a complete,worthwhile life, showed that “his soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood” (184) andhe imagines himself as that “hawk-like man” (183), as Daedalus and Icarus, experiencingthe same freedom and exultant joy that flight and the escape from imprisonment can provide. “His heart trembled in an ecstasy of fear and his soul was in flight. His soul wassoaring in an air beyond the world…an ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wildhis breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs.” (183) This is themoment that Stephen finally realizes his potential and the freedom his artistry can givehim. He grasps that realization and holds tight to it, for it gives him purpose and hope.But there is more to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Before they leave the tower to fly to freedom on the island of Crete, Daedalus warns Icarus that the binding agentused on the wings (wax) would melt if he flew too close to the sun, rendering the wingsuseless and guaranteeing certain death. When they leave, Icarus is caught up in the joy of flight, and forgets his father’s warnings. The wax melts and Icarus’ wings fall apart. He
 
 plunges to the sea, and perishes. Daedalus is understandably distraught, but continues onhis way to Crete. Daedalus and Icarus are often used as symbols of artistry. Daedalus theclassical, practical artist, mature and straightforward, yet ingenious, and Icarus theromantic poet, passionate and emotional, yet often tragic. Stephen, despite his last nameDedalus (which is, consequently, his
 father’s
name), is most definitely a romantic artist,seeing the world in a completely different way than anyone else. “From sound and shapeand colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have cometo understand – that is art.” (224) Stephen’s mind is steeped in esthetic philosophy, and because of this he has the potential to become a great artist, something he eventuallyrealizes and clings to. Between Stephen and Daedalus, the major tie-in is art, somethingthey both feel strongly about and excel (or at least aspire to) at. On the title page of thenovel, there is a quote from Ovid, “Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes.” (2) Thistranslates to “And he applied his spirit to obscure arts.” Ovid is talking about Daedalus,and the fact that Joyce includes this quote on the title page shows us from the very beginning the parallels between Daedalus as an artist and Stephen as an artist. Stephenalso realizes the implications of his name; “He would create proudly out of the freedomand power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new andsoaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.” (184) Stephen is an artist down to hisvery soul, like Daedalus, and he utilizes this trait, this calling; searching for and findinghis identity, his individual purpose.One of Daedalus’ crowning achievements, and without a doubt the most widelyknown, is the labyrinth he created to imprison the Minotaur. The labyrinthine structure is

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