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The Bull from the Sea Paperback – July 10, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Excellent.... Mary Renault breathe[s] life and light into the faces of heroic personages.”–The New York Times Book Review

From the Inside Flap

The Bull from the Sea reconstructs the legend of Theseus, the valiant youth who slew the Minotaur, became king, and brought prosperity to Attica. Chief among his heroic exploits is the seduction of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, who irrevocably brought about both his greatest joy and his tragic destiny.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 2nd ed. edition (July 10, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375726802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375726804
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #248,932 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
"The Bull from the Sea" picks up from the moment "The King Must Die" ended, when Theseus returns from the destruction of Minoan Crete to learn that his father has committed suicide in his despair over his son's fate, and he is now king of Athens. The first chapters in the book seem fairly tame in comparison with the non-stop action of its predecessor, but the action picks up considerably with Theseus' invasion of Scythia and his battle with the Amazons and their queen Hippolyta, who turns out to be his soulmate and the one love of his life. When Hippolyta is killed in battle, Theseus is left with the legacy of their love, their son Hippolytos, and his other son, Akamas, by his wife Phaedra who he married strictly for policy, the sister of his first love Ariadne whom he abandoned at the end of "The King Must Die". Theseus's disillusionment in his sons and his betrayal by Phaedra reflect the growing cynicism of an aging king and shows us a sharply different Theseus than the intrepid young man of the first book. As usual, Renault's scrupulous research and her skill as a writer make her a joy to read; what makes me give this book four stars instead of five is its ending, which seems to be not so much an ending as a train wreck. It's as if somewhere in the last third of "The Bull from the Sea", Renault lost interest in her subject and just wanted to wrap the whole thing up and dispense with it. Perhaps the Theseus legend proved to be too much for one book, but not enough for two. Of all her historical novels, this one is probably her weakest; but when Renault is good, she is very, very good, and this book, while not her best, is very good indeed.
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Format: Paperback
Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" presented the mythological hero Theseus as a cocky young man who leads a revolt, frees his fellow Athenian slaves, and becomes a king. In "The Bull From The Sea," Theseus confronts the rest of his life and the strange destiny foretold to him on his homecoming from Crete.
Theseus's homecoming is marked by tragedy. His father Aigeus dies on seeing his ship come in with a black sail, thinking Theseus is lost. An old crone warns him, "Loose not the Bull from the Sea!" and, thanks to an encounter with a fearsome white bull imported from Crete, Theseus believes he's met the curse and dispelled any danger to himself or his reign. He attempts to settle down, eventually betrothing himself to young Phaedra, daughter of the dead king Minos of Crete.
Unfortunately for Phaedra, Theseus's friend Pirithous (a wonderful scoundrel) leads him off on an adventure to the Black Sea. There, Theseus encounters Amazons--notably, their young leader Hippolyta, with whom he falls in love. And his life takes a strange turn, for better and for worse.
Theseus continues to be cocky, but as the story goes along his tone changes; he becomes wearier, more cynical, with the passage of time and grief. Hippolyta is vividly portrayed, a grave young woman full of honor and bravery, who helps Theseus create a life in Athens that keeps his restlessness contained. When the Amazons come to reclaim their queen, Theseus and Hippolyta make a believable pair; the depiction of the battles are Homeric, thrilling and poetic. But when Theseus wins the war and loses Hippolyta, he loses a vital part of himself as well--the king is swiftly replaced by the adventurer.
All the elements of the myth are accounted for.
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Format: Paperback
The word "tragedy" is bandied about so much nowadays that it has become devalued. Any death, accident, or painful occurrence is routinely labeled "tragic". But if you want to understand the true meaning of tragedy, read this book! Theseus is a hero - a difficult idea for modern people to accept, in our prosaic times - and Mary Renault does a brilliant job of showing us his heroism, rather than just telling us about it. When danger threatens, when a firm hand is needed, Theseus instinctively takes over; and he always assumes, as he has done since early childhood, that one day the god Poseidon Earthshaker will demand his life in return for his people's safety.

The long series of disasters that, to us 21st century folk, just looks like the worst of luck, can in fact be traced directly to the flaws in Theseus' character: for, although heroic, he is far from perfect. His virtues are great, but so are his weaknesses; and pride is both the best of his virtues and the worst of his weaknesses. The phrase "train wreck", used by at least two other reviewers, is supremely apt because it connotes inevitability and terrible consequences stemming from an apparently slight cause.

Yet, just when things look blackest and he is sure of dying in disgrace, old, crippled, and forgotten by gods and men alike, Theseus is touched by a divine grace that fulfils his fate and completes the pattern of his life. The harmony of this novel is as perfect and satisfying, in its way, as that of a Bach cantata. If you can read the closing pages without at least wanting to cry, you probably have not fully understood the story.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
First, let me take a moment to explain what this book is . . . and what it is not. Many people like historical fiction. To me, that genre means creating a modern novel that is set in an earlier historical period. It may or not not include well-known historical characters. The Bull from the Sea is not, by this definition, historical fiction. In fact, if you like historial fiction a lot, you may not like this book.
Instead, I would describe what is done in this book as literary restoration. Ms. Renault has taken well-known stories about a famous Greek character and made them more accessible to the modern reader. By staying within what is known about the character, that limits an author's ability to create a modern novel. For example, if Theseus was idle for many years (as he was on occasion), Ms. Renault is stuck with that as part of her story. By contrast, a historical novelist could simply invent interesting things for such a flat period, and not have to worry about dealing with any story limits other than general credibility.
Mary Renault has done an outstanding job of fleshing out the life of Theseus from the time he returned from Crete after escaping from the Labyrinth and became King of Athens until his death. We especially learn a lot about what kind of thoughts drove him as he united the Greeks, established law and order, and reformed religion.
The ancient Greeks always seemed larger than life to me as a child. They were playing on a cosmic scale, with gods and goddesses lurking behind every bush. Often with little room to maneuver, they suffered from complications of the gods' preoccupations with their own quarrels. The fate of civilization always seemed to be in the balance.
Yet these people did not seem real, despite their appeal.
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