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The King Must Die: A Novel Paperback – February 12, 1988
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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.
About the Author
MARY RENAULT has written over a dozen novels, has had her work adapted for radio, stage, and screeen, and has been the subject of documentaries and biographies. She is as widely known for her forthright treatment of gay relationships as she is her historical restructions of ancient Greece. She was born in London and educated at Oxford. She then trained as a nurse, where she met her lifelong partner Julie Mullard. After during World War II, she and Mullard settled in South Africa and traveled considerably in Africa and Greece. It was at this time that she began writing her historical novels, including The King Must Die, The Last of the Wine, and The Persian Boy. The biography The Nature of Alexander is one of her only non-fiction books. She died in Cape Town in 1983.
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Renault takes that structure and constructs a story that could have been the basis for the myth. In her tale, Theseus is raised by his mother, a priestess devoted to the earth goddess, and her family outside of Athens. As a teenager, he starts to return to Athens to be reunited with his father, who nearly kills him accidentally. He does volunteer to be sent to Crete, but for different reasons: in this version of the story, based on something more like actual history, the young people are sent to Crete to become "bull dancers", a team-based sort of sacred ritual bullfight. The labyrinth is the enormous palace of Minos, Ariadne is a priestess. Although the Olympians are mostly taken out, Theseus is gifted with an ability to sense pending earthquakes, kind of big deal in a seismically active region.
Reading this book actually reminded me a lot of my slog through The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell, a series which details the development of religions all over the world. Campbell traces the same transition in Western religious belief that Renault highlights, with earlier people just starting to form groups based around farming often believing in an earth goddess, who required human sacrifice in order to produce agricultural bounty, while later societies with more stratification turned to worship mostly-male sky gods. Renault portrays a Greece which is dealing with this exact movement, with Theseus himself working to convert a city where he finds himself from the latter to the former. The story is entertaining enough and Renault's prose is solid, but Theseus is a bit of a Mary Sue. He always has the right answers, for the right reasons (in his mind anyways), always does the correct thing. It made him kind of boring as a character...I wanted him to face more conflict from within, struggle against forces internal as well as external.
Theseus is motivated strongly by devotion to his religious beliefs, especially his sense of moira, or fate. This got to me thinking about the role of religion in public life. In Theseus' world, religion is a constantly part of daily life, both inside and outside the home. Today's Western world, on the other hand, is becoming progressively less and less religious. This is often treated as a reason for some sort of moral decline, which I find obnoxious as a non-religious but perfectly moral person. But it does have me wondering about something else that comes up often in The Masks of God: ritual, and its purpose of enforcing social structure and rules. We have some secular rites of passage: drivers licenses, high school graduation, college graduation, but these lack the solemnity of religious ceremonies. I certainly don't think that secular culture is incapable of creating meaningful rites to acknowledge maturation, but I don't think it's necessarily done so effectively yet. Anyways, to close out with the book itself: it's a decent read, but not a can't miss, and I don't feel any compulsion to seek out the sequel.
- from Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die"
Mary Renault weaves a tale so mythic in scope, that the story itself is only outshone by her fabulous prose. Beyond a vague awareness of the Minotaur, I was not familiar with the ancient Greek tales of Theseus. Renault takes the myth and works her narrative like Hephaestus works metal; into a believable and credible story.
The novel is flush with gods and goddesses, though not in a true physical sense nor are they metaphysically present, but they persist within the psyche of the Greek people (note: there was no ‘Greece’ in this period, but for the sake of saving space, I’ll generalize). Theseus believes fully in their existence and his fate that's tied to their whims.
Is he human? Is he a god? Or did he spawn from something in between? He certainly believes in the supernatural, and that he has an exceptional relationship with Poseidon. He is driven by fate and faith. His entire existence is colored by the mythical hands from above (and below) that guide his life’s path.
He is crushed when Ariadne, the daughter of Crete’s King Minos, shockingly relates the planning involved prior to her reading of oracles, “We have ninety clerks working in the Palace alone. It would be a chase every month, if no one knew what the oracles were going to be.” Ariadne’s pragmatic revelation that creates a crack in Theseus’ fate…one, though, that he’s able to keep from spreading.
The mythic themes provide the outline for Renault’s story. Medea, the mistress of Theseus’ (human) father, spits this curse, which touches on the well-know elements of the Theseus myth: “You will cross water to dance in blood. You will be King of the victims. You will tread the maze through fire, and you will tread it through darkness. Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus. The Earth Bull, and the Man Bull and the Bull from the Sea.”
Within this context, the ‘historical’ aspect to this ‘historical' fiction is very realistic and true to its age and time. The historical misogyny is appropriate in the world and age of Theseus and is often chivalric in it’s own way. The battlefield amongst male and female gods is a significant theme and Theseus travels between societies who sometimes favor the gods and others who favor the goddesses.
Theseus remembering an exchange with his Grandfather when he was still a boy, explaining a violent animal sacrifice to a young boy grappling with it’s meaning. “I had no word to say to him. The seed is still, when first it falls into the furrow.” Like Theseus’ Grandfather, Renault prose plants seeds which grow over time to expose their full meaning and understanding.
I highly recommend this book.
Once again, as in Last of the Wine, the story of The King Must Die is epic, over great distances and wonderful settings, military battle and skirmishes are once again a theme, though not as fantastic in comparison, e.g. the Spartan naval battle in Last of the Wine, yet The King Must Die has all the plot action we need. Dominant action in the plot lies elsewhere and is fair to call it startling. Once again, just as in Last of the Wine, the plot might give us pause to consider how applicable their behavior is to how we see things and how we behave today, and whether our modern priorities are justifiable. Theseus certainly is confronted with this first hand, and now as I prepare to read The Bull from the Sea, perhaps I'll learn what he does with that. I have an idea what that will be. Enjoy!!