The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault [A Review]

After being thoroughly entertained by the admirable The King Must Die, I was eager to read Mary Renault’s sequel, The Bull From the Sea, which concludes her retelling of the legend of Theseus.

Cover image of The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault

Note – since The Bull From the Sea is a sequel, this review contains spoilers with regards to the earlier novel, The King Must Die.

Having survived enslavement as a bull-dancer on Crete, led his fellow slaves in an uprising and slain the Minotauros, Theseus returns to Athens to find his father dead and himself to blame. Before he had left, King Aigeus told Theseus to use white sails on his return to Athens to let him know his son was alive. Theseus neglected to do so, thinking it unimportant and since the gods gave him no sign to do otherwise, he sailed into Athens with black sails to find his father has taken his own life thinking his son dead.

Theseus now finds himself King of Athens. He has a lot to attend to. He has left Crete kingless and vulnerable and he does not want to hesitate to capture it and ensure that mainland Greek kingdoms will no longer have to pay tribute to an island king. But the mainland kingdoms may cause him trouble as well and he will have to work to subdue them. He does not doubt that he is ready for the responsibility.

‘What would he say?’ I thought. ‘What is it like there, in the fields of Hades where the sun does not rise or set, nor seasons alter? Nor do men change; for where change is life is, and these, who are only shadows of lives past, must keep forever the shape of their earthly selves, whatever they made of them when they walked in daylight. Need the gods judge us further? Surely that is sentence enough, to live with ourselves, and to remember. Oh, Zeus, Apollo, not without glory let me go down into the land of twilight! And when I am there, let me hear my name spoken in the world of men. Death does not master us, while the bard sings and the child remembers.’

But being king is not all war, conquest and plunder. There are subtler arts of politics, religious observance, marriage and raising an heir. An encounter with an aged and blind Oedipus serves as a lesson and a warning. But Theseus has a restless spirit and thirsts for a life of adventure and glory. Fortunately, he has found a convenient escape. With no Cretan sea power to prevent it, piracy has become an aristocratic pursuit and Theseus has taken to it warmly. Marriage sounds tedious and messy to him yet he can’t continue to ignore repeated warnings of not attending to it.

She said nothing. But I would have thought worse of myself forever, if I had lain till morning with a woman I could not warm. There was never yet a son or daughter of the House of Minos, but had in them some of the fire of Helios from whose seed they sprung. I was there to serve my kingdom. Perhaps if I had gone about my duty briskly, without trying to make it better than it was, and left the fire unwakened, the shape of future things might have been changed. But I pitied her, for fate had been her master, as it had been mine. Also it is my nature to want victory, in this as in other things. No man can outrun the destined end, from the day he is born.

The Bull From the Sea is the conclusion of Mary Renault’s retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Theseus which she began in the excellent The King Must Die. Being the third Mary Renault novel I have read, it contains many of the elements I have come to associate with her. It is well-written, her knowledge of the Greeks and their culture abounds and gives the story not only considerable colour but also provides the force behind the drama. Unfortunately, I don’t think the story itself quite lived up to the high standard of the earlier book.

The King Must Die, which tells the story of Theseus’ life up to his triumphant return to Athens, is a great story wonderfully told by Renault. It has the benefit of a central quest, or two really. The first being his journey across the dangerous Isthmus to meet his father the king. The other of his survival as a bull dancer on Crete, learning new leadership and manhandling skills as he does so, his infiltration of the politics on the island culminating in his leading a slave revolt. It is a story of great drama and tension as well as adventure, danger and growth.

The Bull From the Sea, in contrast, is a shorter book and, while much takes place, it lacks the pull of a compelling overarching quest or journey. Even though there is a lot to tell, much of it is not. Theseus, who narrates The Bull From the Sea as he does in The King Must Die, glosses over the conquest of Crete and the subjugation of other mainland kingdoms under his rule. Instead, more focus is given to his friendship with Pirithoos and their seasonal piracy adventures.

In the great days of Minos, pirates were no better thought of than brigands on the land. But now there was no fleet strong enough to guard all the sea-roads. Kings fought for their own shores, and sometimes sailed out to take vengeance; and where there is war there’s spoil. From this it was not far to roving on adventure. Young men could set themselves up in life; kings could grow rich without hard taxes, which pleased their people; warriors could show what they were made of, and see the wonders of the earth. Only the graybeards murmured, when I put to sea with Roving Pirithoos and manned the benches of my ships with spearmen.

The strongest parts of the story come in the middle of the book. This covers the course of his meeting, abduction and relationship with Amazon leader Hipployta; the great love of his life but one who his people would never accept as a queen. This period of Theseus’ culminates in his biggest military test. An enormous composite army, including Sarmatians, Scythians and Amazons are descending on Theseus’ Kingdom from the north. It will take all of his ability to defend his kingdom. It is a great part of the book and makes up for a slow first half, I just wished for more.

This is a mystery, which I tell only to kings, since it concerns them: consent and fear nothing, for the god will enter you and take away your grief. I give you this counsel, which no other man has lived to give. Surely it must be good for something, to some leader of the people in time to come. Or why did I live?

If there is a journey in The Bull From the Sea, it is of Theseus’ journey in understanding his role as king. Renault, in her Author’s Note in this edition, suggests that two forms of divine kingship existed in this period and that the Theseus legend suggests a conflict between the two.

It is assumed […] that two forms of divine kingship coexisted in Mycenaean Greece. The Pelasgians, or Shore Folk, and the Minoans worshipped the Earth Mother, whose king consort was an inferior, expendable figure, sacrificed after each cycle of the crops so that his youth and potency could be forever renewed. Though in Crete a Greek conquest had brought hereditary kingship, parts of the old cult remained.

[…] But Theseus’ forbears, patriarchal invaders from the north, saw their kings as direct intermediaries between the people and the Sky Gods on whose life-giving rain the crops depended. On the King, therefore, devolved the noble responsibility of offering his own life as supreme sacrifice when, in times of great crisis, the auguries demanded it. [Theseus’] life story implies a tension and conflict between these two principles.

In a way, Renault’s Theseus novels have a parallel in Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. In each pair of novels, the first book covers the protagonist’s life up to their assumption of power and the second book covers the remainder of their life in power. In the first book, where the protagonist is the outsider, the sideliner, the underdog; it can be easier for the reader to find that story compelling. A sequel where the protagonist has near absolute power has to be a different type of story with different appeals. Claudius the God perhaps shows some of the difficulties of writing the second half of a story that takes this form but also shows how it can be done. It can be dull at times in comparison to the first novel, but it builds to great moments of drama. The Bull From the Sea has some similarities but I don’t think quite reaches that same level or enjoyability. That being said, they are different novels with different plots and styles and it is unfair to take the comparison too far.

The Bull From the Sea did not thrill me like The King Must Die. But perhaps, given more time to reflect, and viewed in isolation from its predecessor, it can be appreciated as a different type of novel. One where the still young hero must come to terms with what it means to accept all the power he set out to gain, what he will do to hold on to it when threatened and, as he ages, what his duty requires of him.

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