Reading the End is celebrating the books of Mary Renault this week, and I promised a review of my favorite of her books, The King Must Die (1958).
Mary Renault is the author of many superb books about ancient Greece, all of which my mother owned. When I was twelve or so, and whining about not having anything to read, she handed me The King Must Die, a re-telling of the myth of Theseus. My socks were knocked off, and over the next ten years, it was one of my top re-reads. It's been fifteen or twenty years since I last re-read it (years in which my to-be-read pile grew to monstrous proportions, and my desperate need for books was finally assuaged). So I was rather curious to see how it held up.
The story starts with Theseus growing up the son of the princess of the small Greek polity of Troizen. The identity of his father is unknown, but rumor has it that he was Poseidon, god of the ocean, and of earthquakes...a story young Theseus believes. But though Theseus does have a preternatural sense of foreboding before earthquakes, he shows no other signs of divine blood; no extraordinary height or physical prowess. When he reaches manhood, he learns the true story of his birth--how his mother sacrificed her virginity alone on an island to appease the wrath of the Mother Goddess, and how the stranger who swam ashore was the king of Athens.
It's clear in this beginning section that Renault isn't going to pull any punches to sanitize her view of ancient Greece. Sex is an accepted fact of life to young Theseus, and he enjoys it, and feels entitled to it (which makes him not entirely sympathetic to grown-up me, but it feels accurate...). She does a magnificent job setting up a world in which the gods are really truly real, and present, in daily life--never once does Theseus anachronistically question their existence. More troubling is her view of this era as one in which fair-haired, horse riding Hellenes swept down from their north, conquering the shorter, darker people of the coast, the Minyans, and bringing their sky gods to the fore of the pantheon of divinities....It's natural that Theseus accepts this as right and proper, but it is essentially racist imperialism, and therefore troubling.
So in any event Theseus sets out overland to meet his father, with lots of adventures on the way, most important of which is his defeat of the year king of the Goddess worshipping, Minyan people of Eleusis. He is supposed to accede to his own death the following year...but instead he subverts the old ways, and co-opts the power of the queen for himself, and travels on to Athens already a king.
His father Aigeus eventually recognizes the young and powerful Theseus as his son and heir, but Athens has its own problems. Crete rules the seas, and demands from Athens a tribute of young men and women, destined to be bull-dancers in the palace of Minos. Theseus casts his lot into tribute, and sets off for Crete...
At this point the book becomes truly excellent, in my opinion. Theseus molds the other 13 in the tribute into a team in which distinctions of Minyan and Hellene are meaningless, and they become bull dancers of extraordinary renown, not just because of their physical skills, but because of Theseus' shrewed political manipulations (shades of The Hunger Games, and Ender's Game). I adore detailed fictional descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts, and the bull dancing is no exception to this. (In my re-reading, I would often skip the early parts and cut right to this section...).
But even more gripping than the specifics of training for the bull dancing is how Renault makes the story of Theseus, and Ariadne, the Cretan princess with whom he falls in love, and the defeat of the Minotaur things that are Real and Possible, without sacrificing the details of the myth. Yes, the Minotaur here does not literally have a bull's head, but metaphorically he is still the monster of the myth....and the story becomes one of political, religious, and personal conflict in which the gods are very real, though the modern observer might not think so.
The King Must Die was the first time I encountered gay and lesbian characters in fiction--the bull dancers take lovers amongst themselves, and with wealthy patrons of both genders, and this is an accepted part of life. Although strictly heterosexual Theseus is a bit dismissive of the "pretty boys," he recognizes the worth of the individuals behind the jewelry and makeup, and one of the lesbian bull dancers, an Amazon, is a superb leader in her own right. It was also the first book I read in which there is lots of sex (though not explicitly described), which rather overshadowed considerations of the gender of the participants in my young mind....
I was much more consciously troubled this time around by the Minyan/Hellene
distinctions, because in the last twenty years I have dealt at work on a regular basis with the European invasion of New England and its consequences, and so I am rather more aware of the racist cant of conquest than I used to be. Though, during the course of the book, Theseus confronts the tension between the two groups directly and positively, he still ends it with a "Hellenes rule" attitude, which is believable, but truly yuck. Likewise, I disliked Theseus' rather unappealing sense of
entitlement with regard to sex a lot more this time around. This is, of course, the Catch 22 of historical fiction--people in the past believed lots of offensive things, but to pretend otherwise weakens and falsifies the story....
But still I was utterly absorbed by the story. The
world-building is incredible, packed with sensory detail, and with a
political and religious framework so solid that the metaphors and the
exaggerations of the myths all become, for me, part of a very real past. It is full of the numinous power of the gods, so inextricably part of the characters' world-view that the reader is sucked in to a reality at once believable and utterly foreign. And so it continues to be one of my two touch-stone books of historical fiction in which myth and magic are made reality (the other being The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart).