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The King Must Die: A Novel Paperback – February 12, 1988

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Editorial Reviews


"One of the truly fine historical novels of modern times. Not since Robert Graves's I Claudius has there been such an exciting living image of the Ancient World on this grand scale" New York Times "Takes the raw material of myth and makes it credible- I am spellbound by Miss Renault's art" Observer "Vivid and convincing... it brims with feeling" Sunday Times --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From the Inside Flap

The story of the mythical hero Theseus, slayer of monsters, abductor of princesses and king of Athens. He emerges from these pages as a clearly defined personality; brave, aggressive and quick. The core of the story is Theseus' Cretan adventure.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st edition (February 12, 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394751043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394751047
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (179 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 124 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on June 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
Mary Renault's great historical novel of Theseus begins when he is a young man in Troizen, a well-bred youth who has never known his father's identity. When, with the help of the gods, he succeeds in lifting a stone to reclaim his father's sword, Theseus discovers that he is the son of Aigeus, King of Athens. On his way to Athens to meet him, Theseus arrives in Eleusis, where after wrestling the king in a fight to the death, he finds himself, unexpectedly, the King of Eleusis. Later, in Athens, when fourteen young men and women are chosen by lot to become bull-dancers in Crete, fulfilling a tribute demanded by the King of Crete, Theseus listens to his god and joins the group, never knowing if he will survive to return to his father.

Renault tells the story of Theseus as if Theseus were a real person, not a mythical character, using history, archaeology, and a deep understanding of the cultures of the period to place Theseus in a realistic context. Her descriptions of the lifting of the stone, the wrestling match in Eleusis, Theseus's arrival at the palace in Athens, and especially his experiences in becoming a bull dancer bring the period vibrantly to life in ways consistent with the historical record. Theseus's devotion to the god Poseidon, to whom he prays throughout his journey, reflects his appreciation of his own smallness in relation to the gods, and his honoring of the gods unique to the kingdoms he visits show how the Greek religion gradually incorporated increasing numbers of gods and goddesses to explain the increasingly complex mysteries of life faced by Greek citizens.

Renault never fails to treat Theseus, his religion and culture, and the traditions of the countries in which he travels with the dignity they would have inspired in their own period.
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67 of 68 people found the following review helpful By JLind555 on December 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
Those readers who were upset at Mary Renault "tampering" with the accepted myth of Theseus should realize that her interest is not mythology but history. As a historical novelist, Renault has no peer. She researched her subjects thoroughly and evoked the time and place so accurately that her books seem to spring into life. She was less interested in Theseus as a mythological figure than as a historical figure, and her rendering of Theseus as a lightweight, fast on his feet, quick and active, seems absolutely correct. Renault is probably correct in believing that the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth derived from the actual bull dancers of ancient Crete, who were for the most part captive slaves from the subject territories ruled by Crete three thousand years ago, and her depiction of the bull court, and the team Theseus trained to dance with the bulls, realizing that they would either all survive together or they would all die together, is more compelling than any labyrinth story we are already familiar with. In "The King Must Die", Theseus becomes a very human figure we can relate to and empathize with, rather than a stiff mythological figure more god than man. This is Renault's genius -- she brings ancient civilizations so vividly to life that we feel we are right there in the middle of the action. "The King Must Die" is one of her best.
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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first read this book about 30 years ago and I have reread it several times since then. I generally don't reread books, so for me to do so as many times as I have with this one says a lot for the book. Before I read this, I was mildly familiar with the Theseus legend. After reading this book, I became extremely interested in the legend, particularly in the true-life palace at Knossos. The book gives some excellent background in the religions of the old matriarchal societies in which, each year, the king was sacrificed to the earth mother to ensure good crops for the next year. The theories on the bull dance which are based upon the findings at the palace of Knossos are excellently done. And the connection with Theseus belief that he is descended from the god Poseidon and so many things coinciding either with earthquake or something to do with the ocean prove that Mary Renault never left out any parts of her story when considering events that would take place. The research done for this book is great, and if you're like me it will lead you to do further research on your own. I recommend that you purchase this book and also its sequel The Bull from the Sea. You won't be going wrong!
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Kris Dotto on July 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
How many people picked up "The King Must Die" and put it back thinking it was another hackneyed palace-plot historical novel? The title has the unfortunate punch of a spy novel. But for those who've read it . . . again and again, "The King Must Die" is the best of Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece, and the best account of the Theseus myth.
Extensive research and exquisite talent combine in recreating Bronze Age Greece, down to the women's spangled skirts and the atmosphere in the smaller Greek cities. Theseus himself springs forward from the first page, a boy of reckless courage and pride whose belief that he is the son of a god is coupled with an intuition of coming earthquakes. When his parentage is revealed to be human, Theseus sets off to find his father--and Renault takes us deep into ancient spirituality and the forms of king and queenship.
From the first we understand that Theseus' people believed not in the divine right of kings, but the divinely-ordained duties of kings; the title is taken from the concept that a king might be called at any time to lay down his life for his people, or else lose his right to rule. The society Theseus moves in has not yet moved completely away from matriarchies, but is not entirely patriarchal either. Women hold power and no matter who the woman is, she is a presence, from Aithra (Theseus' mother) to Ariadne (the princess of Krete).
Nor are all the men chauvinistic boors, a fatal flaw in more than a few recent historical novels (at least those seeking to show the ancient world from a woman's point of view). From Theseus' grandfather Pittheus to Minos of Crete, the men of "The King Must Die" are by turns honorable, lust-driven, wise and attuned to the demands of the societies they live in.
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