The Garden of Forking Paths

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"The Garden of Forking Paths"
Short story by Jorge Luis Borges
Collection first edition
Original titleEl jardín de senderos que se bifurcan
TranslatorAnthony Boucher
Genre(s)Spy fiction, war fiction
Published inEl Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941)
Ficciones (1944)
PublisherEditorial Sur
Media typePrint
Publication date1941
Published in English1948

"The Garden of Forking Paths" (original Spanish title: "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan") is a 1941 short story by Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. It is the title story in the collection El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (1941), which was republished in its entirety in Ficciones (Fictions) in 1944. It was the first of Borges's works to be translated into English by Anthony Boucher when it appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in August 1948.

The story's theme has been said to foreshadow the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.[1][2] It may have been inspired by work of the philosopher and science fiction author Olaf Stapledon.[1]

Borges's vision of "forking paths" has been cited as inspiration by numerous new media scholars, in particular within the field of hypertext fiction.[3][4][5] Other stories by Borges that explore the idea of infinite texts include "The Library of Babel" and "The Book of Sand".[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The narrator opens the story by noting a delay in a British attack on the Serre-Montauban line during World War I, and states that the signed statement of Chinese professor Yu Tsun allows the events to be understood in a new way. The remainder of the story consists of this statement.

Tsun is living in the United Kingdom during the war but acting as a spy for Imperial Germany, motivated not by a love of the latter country, but by a desire to prove to his chief that he is not racially inferior. He has discovered a crucial bit of information, the location of a new British artillery park. However, he also learns that a British intelligence officer, Richard Madden, has just killed another member of Tsun's spy ring and will surely catch Tsun within the day. Tsun forms a plan to transmit his information to Germany and flees on a train, narrowly escaping capture by Madden.

Tsun arrives at the village of Ashgrove to seek a man named Stephen Albert. Thinking about labyrinths as he walks, he remembers one of his ancestors, a provincial governor named Ts'ui Pên. Ts'ui Pen had retired from civil service to construct "a novel that would be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and a labyrinth in which all men would become lost."[6][7] However, he was apparently murdered before he could complete either task, leaving only incoherent drafts of the novel and no known labyrinth.

On reaching Albert's house, Tsun is astonished to learn that Albert is a Sinologist who is himself studying Ts'ui Pen's incomplete novel. Albert, himself thrilled to meet a descendant of Ts'ui Pen, explains that he believes Ts'ui Pen's novel and labyrinth were not distinct projects, but rather two descriptions of a single project. Albert had acquired a letter by Ts'ui Pen that included the statement, "I leave to several futures (not to all) my garden of forking paths."[8][9] In Albert's interpretation, these forking paths represented the various possible futures that spun out from each event of the novel, all of which Ts'ui Pen describes in separate chapters, rather than choosing a single outcome for each event. The novel's apparent multiple drafts of various chapters were in fact a single work, in which the infinitely forking futures are described. The novel is thus "an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time".[10][11]

Overwhelmed with emotion, Tsun states that by unlocking his ancestor's masterpiece, Albert has surely earned his gratitude in every divergent future. Albert replies with a smile that there is at least one timeline where Tsun is his enemy.

At that moment, Tsun sees Madden running through the house's garden. He asks Albert to turn around on a pretext and shoots him fatally in the back. As Tsun awaits hanging in his cell, he explains that he successfully transmitted the message that the British artillery was in the town of Albert, Somme by killing a man of that name, and that his German chief understood the significance when he saw the murder in the newspapers. However, Tsun notes that the chief "does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness."[12][13]

In modern culture[edit]

  • In statistics, the garden of forking paths fallacy refers to how making a series of decisions along a large decision tree can lead to a higher false-positive rate in an experiment.[14] Named by statistician Andrew Gelman, this concept references "The Garden of Forking Paths" to describe how scientists can make false discoveries when they do not pre-specify a data analysis plan and instead choose "one analysis for the particular data they saw."[15]
  • In 1987, Stuart Moulthrop created a hypertextual version of "The Garden of Forking Paths" titled Victory Garden.[3][16]
  • Parallels have been drawn between the concepts in the story and the many-worlds interpretation in physics by Bryce DeWitt[17] in his preface to "The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics".[2]
  • Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves also had a great deal of influence from many of Borges' short stories, and the character Zampanò is somewhat of a Borges figure himself (his blindness, his obsession with infinity, his masterful writing that seems to loop back on itself but never in the same way...). "The Garden of Forking Paths" is specifically mentioned in footnote #167 of the novel.[18]
  • The first-person shooter video game Ultrakill derives the title of a level from Borges' book. The game's "Garden of Forking Paths" contains a more literal interpretation of the title, with players navigating a labyrinth located within a science-fiction interpretation of Dante's Inferno.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Moran, Dominic (2012). "Borges and the Multiverse: Some Further Thoughts". Bulletin of Spanish Studies. 89 (6): 925–942. doi:10.1080/14753820.2012.712326. ISSN 1475-3820. S2CID 170301710.
  2. ^ a b The Many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, N. Graham and B. DeWitt eds., Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1973. "UCIspace @ the Libraries - "The Theory of the Universal Wave Function," long thesis as published, 1973". Archived from the original on 2013-08-25. Retrieved 2013-08-25.
  3. ^ a b c Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
  4. ^ Bolter, Jay David; Joyce, Michael (1987). "Hypertext and Creative Writing". Hypertext '87 Papers. ACM. pp. 41–50.
  5. ^ Moulthrop, Stuart (1991). "Reading From the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of 'Forking Paths'". In Delany, Paul; Landow, George P. (eds.). Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press. ISBN 9780585354446.
  6. ^ Borges 1964, p. 22.
  7. ^ Spanish: "para escribir una novela que fuera todavía más populosa que el Hung Lu Meng y para edificar un laberinto en el que se perdieran todos los hombres."
  8. ^ Borges 1964, p. 25.
  9. ^ Spanish: "Dejo a los varios porvenires (no a todos) mi jardín de senderos que se bifurcan."
  10. ^ Borges, Jorge Luis (1964). Labyrinths. Translated by Yates, Donald A. p. 27.
  11. ^ Spanish: "una enorme adivinanza, o parábola, cuyo tema es el tiempo"
  12. ^ Borges 1964, p. 29.
  13. ^ Spanish: "No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio."
  14. ^ Gelman, Andrew. "Garden of Forking Paths and p-Hacking" (PDF).
  15. ^ The garden of forking paths: Why multiple comparisons can be a problem, even when there is no “fishing expedition” or “p-hacking” and the research hypothesis was posited ahead of time, Andrew Gelman and Eric Loken
  16. ^ "Eastgate: Victory Garden".
  17. ^ Biographical Sketch of Hugh Everett, III, Eugene Shikhovtsev
  18. ^ Borges: Influence and References: Mark Z. Danielewski. Retrieved March 15, 2007. Archived 2014-10-15 at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]