A puzzle of historic proportions

THE Tuileries had several. So did Versailles. And the one at Hampton Court Palace I myself got lost in last summer. They are mazes -- hedge mazes -- or labyrinths. Horace Walpole (1717-97), in his ``Essay on Modern Gardening,'' asserts that he could find scarcely a ground plot without both a round and a square one.

In the United States, a replica of the Hampton Court Maze was created for a private estate in Waltham, Mass., in 1896. Another, 200-year-old replica of it still stands at Williamsburg, Va., on the grounds of the Governor's Palace.

Tintoretto painted mazes. The Italian architect Serlio designed them. Catherine de M'edicis had her share of them made to order. Still, they seem to have become in later centuries horticulturally controversial. tthews, writing in ``Mazes and Labyrinths'' (1922), admonishes: ``It may be a sad sight to the `high-brows of horticulture,' but to the unsophisticated many, it is a never-failing source of innocent merriment. Those who . . . deplore the perpetuation of these `topiary toys' should spend an hour or two in the Hampton Court Maze on a sunny holiday and witness the undiluted delight it affords to scores and hundreds of children, not to mention a fair sprinkling of their elders.''

While I cannot say that everyone I saw at Hampton Court was experiencing ``undiluted delight,'' I will attest that for myself there was admittedly intense pleasure, despite the considerable frustration. Why? Don't I get enough of entanglements in my daily living?

When we entered the maze, having paid our 50 pence each to the dour-faced man in the wooden booth, we did so with an attitude not unlike that of the characters in a novel, ``Three Men in a Boat,'' mentioned by Mr. Matthews in his book. ``It's absurd to call it a maze,'' one of them says at a chapter's end. ``You keep on taking the first turning to the right. We'll walk round for ten minutes and then go and get some lunch.''

In America, there might very well be warnings posted, in case a foot-tapping bus driver is waiting. Americans of every stripe are known to prefer speedy resolutions, even to fun. The British, on the other hand, sit sipping and let you find out for yourselves exactly what's in store.

All told, there is a half-mile of pathways on a quarter-acre. The maze, constructed in 1690, displacing an even older maze from Bishop Wolsey's time (1475-1530), is made of privet, hornbeam, yew, holly, and sycamore intertwined as densely as horticulturally possible to make the thick hedge walls. In more recent days, these green thicknesses, taller than a man, have been reinforced not with more plant matter but with black wrought-iron fence. After crisscrossing our paths for an hour or more, I understoo d: The temptation to try cutting through to freedom must have proved too great for some over the years.

We weren't alone in our puzzlement. The maze was crowded on this cloudy August day. Some people were running. I wondered where. Shoulders bumping, people shouting, meandering bewildered; nobody out for a stroll. Nor did it seem like a good place to bring very young children, who might not have the attention span.

For a moment, childlike, I too was in real distress. I wondered: Could we exit shamefacedly by the entrance? I remembered the looks on the faces of the Indian family we'd passed on our way in. I understood now what they had been doing, and why. Surely they had not enjoyed this little piece of British humor. Would I give up as they had? After a few more turns, I realized that even if I did choose to slink past the man leaning on his elbow in the ticket booth, the entrance would be just as difficult to fi nd as the egress.

When we reached the middle, that seemed a kind of triumph. But after retracing our steps there six or eight times, without a clue about which way to turn next, humility returned. The walls of greenery hemmed us in, confused and confounded us. More distress. But then I felt a little embarrassed smile creeping up. This wasn't supposed to be work, after all.

So I gave up the seriousness and logic of the real world and surprised myself: I found my way out, having exercised the playful part of my mind, my feet, and perhaps that too-often forgotten virtue: patience.

At the Tivoli Gardens, a terrace was specially built so that spectators could watch the entanglements get resolved. One consolation at Hampton Court: No one is watching you try and try again. Only the attendant is permitted at day's end to mount the rostrum and take in the view, to see that everyone formerly lost has been found.

Thanks to Jeanne Schinto for suggesting the excerpt from Johan Huizinga for today's ``Loose-leaf library.''

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