The King Must Die by Mary Renault [A Review]

The King Must Die is Mary Renault’s retelling of one of the most enduring stories from antiquity – the legend of Theseus; the boy who discovers his father’s sword buried under a rock and goes on a perilous journey to find his father. Renault’s version stays true to the spirit and the key events from the original while incorporating what modern geological and archaeological discoveries can add to it. In addition, she has delivered a novel full of drama and as gripping as a thriller.

As a boy, growing up in Troizen, in bronze age Greece, Theseus is bullied by the other boys for his small size and lack of a father. The fact that his maternal grandfather is the King of Troizen is no protection and the boy keeps mostly to himself. Despite his challenges, he feels certain that fate has something great in store for him. He feels sure that he will grow to a match his peers and, as for his unknown father, his affinity for Poseidon convinces him that the great god is his real father.

His only childhood friend is the King Horse, the alpha male of the local horses. When the King Horse is sacrificed to Poseidon, as is their custom, the seven-year-old Theseus is heartbroken and comforted by his grandfather. The King talks to young Theseus about the origins of their people and the horse sacrifice ritual, the duty of Kings to be sacrificed themselves when their time comes and the concept of moira.

He paused in thought. I said to him, ‘What is that?’

‘Moira?’ he said. The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn round it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the shape of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end. Moira is all these.’

I thought about this, but it was too big for me.

As he grows, Theseus gets into fights with other boys and becomes known for taking dangerous risks on a dare. He is frequently beaten for his behaviour. Though frustrated that he will not grow as tall as the other boys and can’t excel at everything, his uncle encourages him to accept himself as he is and he finds there are some things his build is useful for, such as wrestling. One thing that Theseus shares with the other boys is the need to run and hide in the hills whenever a ship from Crete arrives. The Cretans are the great power of this time and mainland kingdoms have to pay tribute to King Minos, usually in the form of youths who are taken to Crete as slaves to perform the dangerous sport of bull dancing. Theseus hides too but he finds it shameful.

As his frustration with his mother, who won’t reveal his father’s identity, begins to boil over, she takes him to an old shrine to Zeus, used by the shore people before the Hellenes came to this land. She says she is bound by a vow to not reveal Theseus’ paternity. She says his father placed proof of Theseus’ paternity under the shrine’s stone altar. When he is old enough to lift it, he is old enough to learn the truth. Theseus tries but fails to lift the stone. But an idea comes to him in a dream and with a lever and a fulcrum he lifts the stone and grabs what is underneath.

Bringing what he has found – a pair of sandals and an elaborate sword – to his mother, she tells Theseus that he is the son of Aigeus, King of Athens. The revelation that his father is not divine and an outsider too, leaves Theseus feeling angry and humiliated. His grandfather again placates the prideful boy. He tells Theseus about the events leading up to his conception; how the land was devastated by drought and no sacrifice could end it or even force a sign from the gods. A priestess, who disliked the princess, said that it has been too long since a King has offered his daughter’s virginity and that is the sacrifice demanded by the gods. At this time, King Aigeus was visiting Troizen on his way home to Athens. Aigeus has problems of his own, with many rivals to his throne and no heir despite two marriages. The two Kings conspire to solve both their problems. They arrange things so that the princess’ virginity is not taken by a stranger, but by Aigeus himself.

Though it is not what he hoped to hear, the truth has given Theseus clarity and purpose. He knows what he must do now; he must go to Athens, meet his father and present himself as his rightful heir. But the road to Athens is long and perilous. The Isthmus is wild, lawless and filled with bandits. There is also the ever-present threat of Crete.

‘Theseuss,’ she said softly, as if her hissing tongue were forked. ‘Theseuss of Athens. 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.’

The King Must Die is Mary Renault’s retelling of the story of Theseus – one of the most durable legends from ancient Greece. It is plain to see why Theseus’ story has survived so long – it contains many elements that make for a great legend, especially in antiquity. Like Hercules and other legends, Theseus starts out as an unlikely hero, but his paternity marks him out for greatness, yet his will, wits, physique and leadership will need to survive severe tests if he is to reach his destiny. Remembered as a great warrior, lover and king – in good ways and bad – Theseus’ legend was invoked by many who came after him.

This might make it seem like all the storytelling work was done long ago and all Renault has to do is retell it! It is how she tells it that makes this version her own and a great book too.

First, it is beautifully written. The writing is powerful and evocative. The horse sacrifice I mention above occurs early in the book and immerses the reader in that bronze age world. You feel yourself witnessing something primitive and terrifying but also sacred and inviolable. It is an incredible moment in a book with several incredible moments. If you are familiar with the Theseus legend, you know what else must come and Renault delivers that emotional impact at those moments too.

It’s a great title too. There are several kings or would-be kings in the story and death, like destiny, is something they can try to face up to or run away from. But who is ‘the’ king of the title and why must he die?

Listen, and do not forget, and I will show you a mystery. It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all.

Second, Renault knows her Greeks. She was an undergrad at Oxford when Sir Arthur Evans returned with his findings from Crete and Knossos, including fragments of a 3,500-year-old wall painting depicting an androgynous Minoan bull leaper. She would visit Crete and see the findings for herself 30 years later. In writing The King Must Die and its sequel, The Bull From the Sea, Renault used a variety of sources including Herodotus, Euripides, Homer, Plutarch and Pausanius. The King Must Die is full of little details that show her knowledge of the time and the customs and make it more than just a plot-driven story.

But this does more than just add colour to the story; the customs are the story. Throughout his quest, Theseus is prevented from doing what he wants or what is easier or safer by his devout respect for honour, loyalty and the rites of religion, marriage, war and the duty of Kings. His decision to travel the dangerous land route to Athens rather than by sea is emblematic of many choices in his life. They create great moments of drama in the story where Theseus must kill or be killed, watch friends fall or leave family and lovers behind; all out of customs he will not defy.

‘What have I got myself into?’ I thought. ‘Death in front of me, and shame behind. Death that way too, if my own men despise me.’

It surprised me that there are almost no supernatural elements in the novel – there are no monsters, no giants, no divine intervention. Yes, the characters observe various religious rituals and they interpret events in terms of signs and judgements from various gods, but nothing terribly unnatural takes place. Renault did not have to do it this way; this is fiction after all. Looking over her oeuvre, Renault has written fictional novels set in the real world, retellings of legendary or mythical stories and novels of historical events and people. Perhaps she did not want to include supernatural elements in case that may detract from her historical fiction.

I had not planned this. It came to me while I was speaking. I knew they loved a portent, and to see moira working among mortal men. Perhaps that put it in my mind. But a god goes with one on one’s lucky day, and I think he sent it.

If you are familiar with Theseus you might wonder how she tells the story without including the supernatural. The challenge is the opposite of what a science-fiction, fantasy or magical-realist writer does and take a legendary story with supernatural elements and make it plausible without the special effects. Her method is quite genius. It is in no way a compromise or an evasion. Again, it is her knowledge of the culture and customs that are kept at the core of how she tells the story while also setting the boundaries. Then, she includes what geology and archaeology have to tell about Greece and Crete of the era. For example, she incorporates the eruption of Thera and archaeological evidence of civil strife on Crete into the story. By the time the story reaches its apex, her method has already won you over. She has taken a well-worn story and crafted a version that makes psychological sense for the characters, cultural sense of the time and place, incorporates what new discoveries tell us and keeps you guessing as well as any thriller.

Historian Bettany Hughes, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Renault’s Theseus novels, argues that it is best not to interpret Renault’s work as that of a classicist or a historian. Instead, Renault did what the Greeks themselves did with their stories as they reinterpreted them to suit new audiences over the centuries. I am grateful too, that this edition contains an Author’s Note by Renault where she explains some of her artistic choices such as her depiction of Theseus’ physique and the theme of royal sacrifice.

The King Must Die is the second Mary Renault novel I have read after The Last of the Wine and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It ends with Theseus’ story unfinished, however. For the conclusion of the story, I turn now to its sequel, The Bull From the Sea.

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