Mary Renault, The King Must Die (1958)
Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea (1962)
What is a true king? That question runs throughout the two historical novels that Mary Renault wrote about Theseus, the legendary ruler of Athens. As the young hero grows up, from mysterious beginnings, through trials that test his strength both in body and mind, to an ultimately tragic end, he struggles to discern and accept his moira, his fate. A king, Theseus suggests, is one who is willing to sacrifice his personal destiny for the good of the people — “the king must die,” as ancient rituals demand, so that new life can arise.
Yet even as he accepts this age-old role, Theseus wrestles with a decadent matriarchal culture to bring about a new individual consciousness, transforming it into something less primal and more forward-looking. This view of clashing cultures may not be supported by current scholarship, but it was based on the theories and research available to Renault at the time of writing, and something about it still rings true. The quest of Theseus for kingship is the quest of each human being to understand and rule the warring factions within us, and to bring them into a dynamic balance that gives birth to new potential.
Renault comes up with many ingenious and plausible solutions to the riddles posed by trying to place the legends into a historical context. How could Theseus be fathered both by Poseidon and Aigeus? Why did he leave his bride Ariadne on the island of Naxos? What really happened during the four years he supposedly spent in the underworld after trying to steal Persephone out of Hades? Most famously and fascinatingly of all, what was the connection between the mythical Minotaur and the bull-dance revealed in the artwork of the excavated Knossos palace? Renault weaves these incidents and many others into a convincing, inwardly integrated picture of an ancient world that feels both foreign and familiar. There, customs and beliefs may be very different from ours, and yet basic human concerns remain eternal.
The language of the books is admirably pure, clear, and strong, as befits the subject, with not a word extraneous or out of place. The story is told by Theseus himself, who seems at the end of his long life to be reflecting on his many deeds and misdeeds, his triumphs and mistakes. There is no an attempt to rationalize this storytelling — it’s not portrayed as a letter to a young heir, or a diary in which Theseus works through his painful past — but simply floats between narrator and reader, a thread connecting us to a past that perhaps never was, but that during the time of reading seems utterly real.
Theseus is not always a likeable or admirable character. His obsession with replacing matriarchy and subjugating it to masculine rule is sometimes tiresome to a modern sensibility, and his behavior to various consorts, mistresses and children is not always as well-judged or compassionate as it could be. Yet in this deeply flawed, very human hero I also find much that speaks to me across the gulf of years and cultures. His joy in the bull-dance, the community of life he forms in the midst of death, the bright flame of a remarkable personality that burns not for itself alone, but to kindle others and bring them further than they ever imagined they could go — these are the images that will stay with me. In the second book, most memorable to me is the melancholy, doomed love story of Theseus and his Amazon queen Hippolyta, perfectly matched warrior spirits who could not long remain together against the more mundane, workaday pressures of the outside world. When Hippolyta falls, so does the better part of Theseus, as he himself recognizes; and this sad disintegration leads to the ultimate tragedy.
The new two-volume edition from the Folio Society is a splendid way to experience this mesmerizing tale. The striking illustrations by Geoff Grandfield, with their dramatic silhouettes that echo ancient vase paintings, frescoes, and other artwork, perfectly complement the classical strength and beauty of Renault’s language. If you have already read and loved the books, you will want these gorgeous volumes to cherish forever, and if you haven’t yet read them, I urge you to do so. You’ll find excitement and beauty, philosophy and action, danger and fulfillment — all the very best qualities of a myth retold.