Challenge wrap-up 2020

As the year comes to a close, here’s a review of how I did on my challenges — which I kept to a minimum this year, not wanting to overdo it. And I’m quite happy with how I did, so that was a success!

I finished six books for Back to the Classics:

Classic with a Name in the Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Classic by a Woman Author: The World I Live In
Adapted Classic: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Classic about a Family: Brideshead Revisited
Translated Classic: Le Petit Prince
Classic with Nature in the Title: The Old Man and the Sea

And kept up with the Book Blog Discussion Challenge with a post (almost) every month:

Should I read more current books?
Do you have a reading plan?
Are there too many books?
Do you like books about fighting?
Do you dislike first-person narratives?
What is your favorite (or first favorite) classic?
Can you resist free books?
Am I addicted to reading?
Am I an e-book convert?
Should memoirs be considered fiction?
What is the best of the Emerald City Book Review?

I also kept going with my Reading All Around the World project. After reading twelve books, I slacked off in the last quarter of the year, but added Danubia to my list (I think it should count, even though it’s not about a single country, but a whole empire that has now been split up into many nations).

Other goals I had this year were to read more nonfiction — I did quite well with that, judging from my Nonfiction November round-up — and to read more books from my own shelves. This was not so successful, but I did polish off a few of those.

How have you done with your challenges this year? Did they help you to discover some great new authors? Or get to some books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

I’ve never been drawn to reading Hemingway, never got pulled into the mythology around him. I’d heard his language was simple — some said to the point of being a simplistic sort of “he-man” utterance, even though others lauded it as a pillar of modernism. I wasn’t that interested in modernism, and I wasn’t made to read him in school, so I gave him a miss. But when I was compiling my list of Books for Adult English Learners, this one was frequently recommended (it’s also often taught in high school). And I decided to have a look. What was Hemingway all about, anyway? Was he worth reading?

The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel; it’s barely even a story. It’s more of an extended metaphor, based on a tale that Hemingway heard spoiler alert! about an old Cuban fisherman who went on an epic fish-hunt for a giant marlin that was then eaten to the bone by sharks on his way home.

Yes, that’s all that happens. There is little of external interest, unless you are very interested in deep-sea fishing. And at first I thought I would be bored, but the metaphor got a hold of me, through its very limitations. Though I knew how the story would end, thanks to an introduction from the publisher that gives everything away, I was still compelled to keep reading until the man had lost everything he set out for, all his hopes, all his dreams. Yet, “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” he says.

It sounds like a macho anthem, man fighting against a hostile world, but the old man also expresses respect and wonder for his fishy prey, and even for the sharks who devour it. They act only according to their nature, while he blames himself for “going out too far.” And there is a young boy who cares for him and admires him and who meets him on his return — without that boy, this would be a bleak and violent fable indeed. But with him, I think it turns into something more; a reminder that we all will be devoured by the forces of nature, down to the bone, and it is only the relationships we have made, the ties of love and connection, that will remain.

The language is indeed simple, but not overly so.  The old man expresses his thoughts (sometimes out loud, for no particular reason) in a sort of peasant poetical style that is not very realistic for a poor Cuban fisherman, but without it there would not be much of a book. I found it readable enough, and I would read Hemingway again — though I understand he can be very uneven.

Have you read Hemingway? What would you recommend?

Back to the Classics: Classic with Nature in the Title


Back to the Classics: Le Petit Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1949)

There are, I would argue, two main kinds of “children’s books.” First of all there are the books that address a child’s perspective, which means the point of view of someone who is growing into the physical world and all its possibilities and challenges. These are stories of outward adventure, learning, and growth, of the playful exploration that is the hallmark of a healthy childhood. Inner development and learning are there, too, as they always accompany our outer efforts, but the focus is not on introspection.

Adults can certainly enjoy these books, and when they are done well they are as worthy of literary status as any so-called “adult” book — but one can say in terms of emphasis that they are really “written for children”; they start from the place on the map where the child is, and aim to help them go further, to find their direction in life.

On the other hand, there are also books that address the childlike part of the adult, the part of us that never does grow up or completely adapt itself to the outer world, no matter how old and experienced we become. This part of us still needs to learn and grow, and is desperately in need of instruction. In fact, if we do not find it, we will die.

Children, for their part, can read and enjoy these books, but such reading gives them something they already possess. For children, they are reassuring and supportive, and help them to remember what they must not lose in the course of their journey into life. But they are actually written for adults, for people wandering and perhaps lost in the “adult” part of that journey. The orientation towards childhood is necessary, so that they can re-point themselves in the right direction again.

Le Petit Prince (which I reread in French during my Summer in Other Languages project this year) is one of the most famous and beloved examples of the latter kind of book. It presents itself as a book written for children — starting with the dedication, which is elaborately made to a friend of the author “when he was a little boy.” But even before the book really begins this highlights the fact that each grown-up was once a child, and that that child is still present in our inmost self, in the place to which we would dedicate ourselves, to which we should give our effort and our love. To the child-in-the-adult (and the child who must not lose himself in adulthood), the book is addressed.

You are probably familiar with the story: a pilot stranded in the desert has an encounter with a strange child-being, the Little Prince, whose origin and adventures are slowly revealed before he vanishes again. But — as you may also remember — the story begins with not with this encounter, but with the author’s childhood drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. Adults look at this picture and see not a fearsome predator, but an innocuous hat.

The Little Prince, on the other hand, recognizes it right away. He also sees the sheep within the box that the author draws for him (having failed miserably to draw a sheep as requested). And so it is clear that outer appearances are not what is important to our child-self, but the inner essence. Thus, it is also very likely that the appearance of the Little Prince to a man lost in the desert, in the harsh conditions of material existence, is not an outer happening, but a revelation of inward reality. He is the inner child that we all must meet, must befriend and comfort and learn from, before he disappears again on our re-entrance into ordinary life.

It was another book that I read in French this month that brought this to awareness for me: Toucher la vie, which is based upon a conference discussing mindfulness meditation. Here the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that an early stage on the path of trying to advance ourselves must be to turn towards the child within, to soothe its pain and bring it peace, acknowledging the hurts that have damaged us in life, and that we usually prefer to turn away from and ignore. If we do not have this healing encounter, then our efforts to do good in the world will fail, or we will even do harm.

He also uses the images of watering seeds of positive qualities like hope, understanding, compassion, and love, and not watering those seeds that will lead to suffering. This irresistibly reminded me of the Little Prince, the rose he waters faithfully, and the baobabs that would take over his tiny planet if they were allowed. (I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh may have read The Little Prince, but plant-images are of course common to all forms of esoteric teaching.)

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”* The Little Prince learns this central truth from a fox that he has tamed — or is it he who has been tamed by the fox, by his rose, by that for which he dares to connect himself in ties of responsibility that bring sorrow, but also beauty and joy?

Through the patient acceptance of pain that is transformed through love and relationship, the inner eye may be opened. That is what the pilot/author learns, and passes along to us, in this small book of profound wisdom. It’s definitely worth reading at any age, and in any language.

“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”*

*From the English translation by Katherine Woods

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Back to the Classics: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

It’s thanks to Sheree of Keeping Up with the Penguins that I picked up this little confection of the Jazz Age — her enthusiasm for it knows no bounds, especially in comparison to the contemporaneous, but far more loudly touted The Great Gatsby. I’ve nothing against Gatsby, but a fun, witty and insightful book by a woman with an eye on power and wealth inequalities between the sexes sounded great.

Well, I’m sorry, Sheree, but I can’t quite share your enthusiasm. Written as the diary of Lorelei Lee, a blonde bombshell originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and now traveling the world in search of males with unequal wealth to share with her, Gentlemen is a one-note farce with some humorous moments to offer, but no plot or character development to speak of.

Lorelei is a satire of the “dumb blonde” icon that frustrated Loos (a petite brunette screenwriter) by hogging all the masculine attention. Her diary is littered with misspellings and malapropisms and written in a breathless, repetitive style in which one can easily hear  the ditzy tones of a cinema platinum blonde. Here’s a sample, pulled at random from the chapter “Paris Is Devine”–

I mean the French gentlemen always seem to be squealing quite a lot, especially taxi drivers when they only get a small size yellow dime called a “fifty santeems” for a tip. But the good thing about French gentlemen is that everytime a French gentleman starts in to squeal, you can always stop him with five francs, no matter who he is. I mean it is so refreshing to listen to a French gentleman stop squealing, that it would really be quite a bargain even for ten francs.

It’s masterfully done, but there is, as I said, absolutely no development from beginning to end; the tone is exactly the same throughout. It’s a short novel, only 90 pages in my e-book edition, and in that Loos made a good call, I think. 90 pages of such deathless prose is plenty to give one a good dose of “Lorelei-speak,” but any more would definitely be excessive.

I concede that Lorelei is in not really as dumb as she appears. In regard to her main goal in life, getting money and jewels out of men, she is extremely clever and successful. But she has no heart and no apparent soul. She’s a highly-tuned exploitation machine. Fair enough, given that males in Lorelei’s world are generally out to exploit her for their own purposes — but the whole scenario is more sad than amusing, really.

As for “witty and insightful,” for wit and insight give me Lorelei’s friend Dorothy, who represents the “smart brunette” stereotype. Although we encounter her only through Lorelei’s clueless reportage, her remarks are always funny and to the point, like all the best one-liners — and spelled correctly, to boot.

Does Dorothy even really exist? One begins to wonder whether this is a case of a split personality, of the buried smarts that are unwanted by Lorelei’s male associates being shunted off to a shadow existence. Though Lorelei consulted “Dr Froyd” in Vienna, he didn’t give an opinion on the topic, so we’ll never know.

My verdict: glad I read it, it did make me smile in spots, and there may be some psychological resonances to ponder — but I don’t think I’ll be proclaiming it the Great American Novel. (Surely Edith Wharton was being ironic when she said that …)

The 1953 film, which I saw years ago, is a loose adaptation that has great performances by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and musical numbers to liven up the action, along with a softening of Loos’s more cynical world view. You might find that a positive or a negative, depending on how you feel about the original Lorelei, but it’s also worth a look as a cinema classic. And so it’s a perfect choice for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you read this, or seen the movie? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adapted Classic
Jazz Age June at Relevant Obscurity and Fanda Classiclit

Back to the Classics: The World I Live In

Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908)

When I read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, I was intrigued by one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to a college professor who found her compositions too derivative and wondered when she would write of her own unique experiences:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any…

The World I Live In could be seen as the fruit of this intention, and it is a remarkable piece of work. Composed from essays published in Century Magazine between 1904 and 1908, with an added final chapter, it is an extended meditation on the sensory and mental world inhabited by a deaf-blind person, and a rebuke to those who believe that because she cannot see and hear she cannot be fully human, perhaps does not even exist.

She responds with Descartes’ formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” and it’s clear that thought is her light, that her ability to think is in no way impaired by sensory deprivation. Her lucid, carefully constructed, and often playful prose guides us through her realm of experience, bringing us to understand how a condition that seems so alien and threatening can reveal aspects of our common humanity, our spiritual core.

Keller defends her choice to use visual and auditory imagery in her writing, arguing that she can by analogy comprehend many concepts related to the five-sensed world — just as we understand non-sensory concepts like love, faith, mercy and justice that we have never seen with our eyes. She can “see” a friend just as we do — not with her eyes, but with the inner vision which is what we really mean by that expression.

But it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.

In the NYRB Classics edition, the essays along with their coda, the prose-poem “A Chant of Darkness,” are followed by the earlier essay “Optimism” (1903) and the autobiographical sketch she published at the age of twelve, “My Story” (1894). An introduction by Roger Shattuck explains the circumstances of publication and points out elements of note in each work and in Keller’s thought as a whole.

At under 200 pages, it’s a compact but rich encapsulation of the life and ideas of an individual whose true achievements have been little understood or appreciated. I hope that it may become more widely known, and spark our own rehabilitation of the senses we possess but do not fully use, guiding us toward the practice of joyful creative activity that Keller so beautifully demonstrates.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author



Back to the Classics: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

I’m not a horror fan, so I’ve never made an effort to read the classics of the genre — but for one reason or another, in the last few years I’ve read Frankenstein, Dracula, and now this brief but hugely influential tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

With all three of these books, it is hard to come at them with an unspoiled mind because the basic facts of the story are usually well known. In this case, the dual identity of Dr Jekyll can hardly be news to anyone. But the reading of these stories usually holds other surprises, as the author’s particular method of storytelling is not held sacred in retellings or dramatizations, perhaps for good reason.

Here, most of the novella is concerned with characters who observe Jekyll and Hyde but are unable to put the two together. However, since any suspense meant to be caused thereby is no longer effective, it’s with some impatience that we wait to hear from Jekyll himself — which comes only at the end, after the fact, as it were. The oddly distant, third-hand point of view is not the most obvious way of creating a tense and thrilling tale. But perhaps there was some hesitancy about approaching this subject that caused Stevenson to put it at arm’s length.

As with Victor Frankenstein’s creature and the undead Count Dracula, Stevenson has created an image of the Double, the dark shadowy figure that lurks in our unconscious and that plays out our inadmissible desires. While Frankenstein is haunted by the product of his overly intellectual thinking, and Dracula embodies the evil bloodlust of egoistic feeling, Jekyll shows the dangers of splitting off a part of the will. Wanting to be an outwardly good and upright person, but still to indulge the drives (never explicitly spelled out) of his worse nature, he “precipitates out” that part of himself into the horrible Hyde. But his ability to control the transformation is limited, and becomes more precarious until the final tragic outcome.

All three of these works are powerful and compelling expressions of a psychological problem that has great relevance for our time — the encounter with the evil that lurks in each one of us, an unsolved riddle which calls up fantastical images as we try to understand and master it. Each author has created something that transcends the work it came from and has taken on a life of its own. But it is still always interesting and worthwhile to go back to the origin and experience its particular qualities.

Stevenson wrote the book after a disturbing dream, and it can resonate with some of our own nightmare experiences. The spiral of addiction, of being unable to come to oneself while in the grip of some overmastering drive, is imaged in Jekyll’s downfall, for example. To this dilemma Stevenson offers no answer, no viable solution, except perhaps that as readers we can observe this sad fate and try to learn something from it ourselves.

It’s notable that it’s when Jekyll has renounced the draft that transforms him into Hyde because of its dangers, but yet is unable to resist indulging in the vices of his dark side, that he starts transforming uncontrollably and unpredictably. How do we truly become masters of ourselves and all our parts and possibilities? Why are evil habits and compulsions so strong, even for fundamentally good people? The tale feels unfinished, and raises many questions. But it’s up to us try to answer them.

Back to the Classics: Name in the Title


Back to the Classics Challenge

Having finished my goal of reading 50 books from my Classics Club list, I have a hankering for another classics-based challenge. And so I return to Back to the Classics, which I’ve participated in in the past and enjoyed very much. The categories chosen by Karen of Books and Chocolate give an added layer of challenge and some structure to my reading quest.

Here are the categories for this year, and some books I think I might choose to read — subject to change. These are mostly leftovers from my Classics Club list, but I may come up with other options as I go along.

What would you choose for these categories?

1. 19th Century Classic. Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
2. 20th Century Classic. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
 3. Classic by a Woman Author. AngelElizabeth Taylor
4. Classic in Translation. The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov
5. Classic by a Person of Color. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
6. A Genre Classic. Foundation – Isaac Asimov
7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
 8. Classic with a Place in the Title. DublinersJames Joyce
9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
10. Classic About a Family. The Brothers KaramazovFyodor Dostoyevsky
11. Abandoned Classic. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
12. Classic Adaptation. Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
Updated with what I actually read:
1. 19th Century Classic. 
2. 20th Century Classic. 
 3. Classic by a Woman Author. The World I Live InHelen Keller
4. Classic in Translation. Le Petit Prince Antoine de Saint Exupery
5. Classic by a Person of Color. 
6. A Genre Classic. 
7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
 8. Classic with a Place in the Title.
9. Classic with Nature in the Title. The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
10. Classic About a Family. Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
11. Abandoned Classic. 
12. Classic Adaptation. Gentlemen Prefer BlondesAnita Loos

Challenge Update

How did I do with the reading challenges I undertook this year? Here’s a round-up of my progress, or lack thereof, along with my intentions for next year.

I always do well with the Book Blogger Discussion Challenge, perhaps because I set a reasonable goal for myself (one discussion per month), and so far I haven’t run out of ideas! Here are the topics I discussed this year:


With the Back to the Classics challenge, I fell short of reading from all twelve of Karen’s categories, but I certainly enjoyed what I did read. I made it to nine (earning two entries in the challenge giveaway) and am currently reading one more book which would count for pre-1800 (Don Quixote). I hope to finish DQ by the end of the year, but don’t think I’ll be able to post a review by then. Here are the categories and what I read:


I challenged myself to read the New York Times list of Six Books To Understand Trump’s Win, and am super impressed that I did it! You can find my reviews of these titles, plus Dark Money (which in my opinion belonged on that list), in my Trying to Understand posts.


Now, Mount TBR! I started out strong and on target with my goal of 60 books, but floundered in the middle and gave up. Next year I’m going to deal with this goal differently, given that I seem to have the most energy for it in the first months of the year. I did read 34 books from my list and am working my darnedest to finish #35, the aforementioned Don Quixote, which is actually a pretty impressive result.

  1. The Blackthorn Key – Kevin Sands
  2. Bronze and Sunflower – Cao Wenxuan
  3. Carry On, Mister Bowditch – Jean Latham
  4. The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz – John Crowley
  5. The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
  6. Esperanza Rising – Pam Munoz Ryan
  7. Everyone Belongs to God – Christoph Blumhardt
  8. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
  9. A Fugue in Time – Rumer Godden
  10. The Gilded Chalet – Padraig Rooney
  11. The Goose Girl – Shannon Hale
  12. Hell and High Water – Tanya Landman
  13. I Was a Stranger – John Haskett
  14. It Ends with Revelations – Dodie Smith
  15. The King Must Die – Mary Renault
  16. Life at Blandings – P.G. Wodehouse
  17. The Little Grey Men – B.B.
  18. Mansfield Park Revisited – Joan Aiken
  19. Midnight Is a Place -Joan Aiken
  20. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr
  21. The Morning Gift – Eva Ibbotson
  22. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
  23. One Half from the East – Nadia Hashimi
  24. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
  25. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih
  26. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death – James Runcie
  27. Smoky-House – Elizabeth Goudge
  28. Sophie Someone – Hayley Long
  29. The Spirit Within Us – Evelyn Capel
  30. Towers in the Mist – Elizabeth Goudge
  31. Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy
  32. The Transcendental Murder – Jane Langton
  33. Why on Earth? – Signe Schaefer
  34. Wild Strawberries – Angela Thirkell


With Lark’s Backlist Reader Challenge, I read only one book out of my goal of ten (An Unnecessary Woman). Oh, plus I read The Little Grey Men aloud to my son. I like the idea of this challenge but I just had too many balls in the air at once.

I’ve already summarized my results from the Around the World project. I’m pleased with my progress on this one, perhaps because I had no particular goal for the year to meet or fall short of. A lesson for the future?

With that in mind, a challenge of mine for 2018 is going to be taking on fewer challenges. (Famous last words, right?)

I’m going to carry on with the Classics Club, but not do Back to the Classics. I’m going to continue Reading All Around the World, but not have a particular target for Mount TBR. My Backlist Reading will have to take a back seat for now too.

The Book Blogger Discussion Challenge isn’t really a reading challenge, and I love having discussions on my blog so it’s something I would do anyway. The linkups provided by the challenge hosts are a great help for connecting with other bloggers, and to me that’s the main point of the exercise.

One new challenge I do want to take on is the Chapter-a-day Les Miserables readalong. I just can’t resist the idea of reading a chapter a day of a single book for an entire year. Will it be too slow for me? Will I lose momentum? Or will it make the book feel more like part of my life than reading usually does? I can’t wait to find out!

What challenges have you undertaken this year, and how do you feel about them? What are you excited about for next year?

The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.

My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.

That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.

Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?

Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.

The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.

Back to the Classics Challenge: A Gothic or horror classic
Classics Club List
The 1951 Club


To be a king: Mary Renault’s Theseus books

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.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die

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.

(c) Geoff Grandfield – illustration for The Folio Society’s edition of Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea

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.

Click here for information on The King Must Die
Click here for information on The Bull from the Sea
Click here for information on The Folio Society


Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic set in a place I would like to visit (Athens and Crete)