Somehow, I missed classic historical fiction author Mary Renault when I was growing up, though I was a big fan of authors like Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart. So when Charlotte talked about this book way back in September, I immediately tracked it down via ILL. Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure I can say anything she didn’t say already… but as it was excellent, I’ll try.
The King Must Die by Mary Renault. Pantheon Books, 1958.
This is the story of the early life of Theseus, before he became king of Athens, told in a way that combines the myths with archaeological findings and the author’s own ideas about the character into a story that feels more plausible than the original myth without taking away the mythic quality. While nothing happens that the modern person might not feel explainable by science, the presence of the gods is very real to the characters.
Growing up in Troizen as the son of the priestess princess, Theseus always believed he was the son of Poseidon, and waits to be bigger and stronger than the other boys as a sign that he was fathered by a god. But while he can sense earthquakes before they happen, a sign of favor from Poseidon Earthshaker, he stays on the small side. Finally he learns the truth of his parentage: his mother offered up her virginity to the Mother, while his father, sent by Poseidon, was the king of Athens. He sets off to prove himself to his father, only as he insists on going overland, he runs into a lot of trouble on the way. When he finally gets to Athens, he’s the sacrificial king of a matriarchal kingdom in between, scheduled to wrestle to the death with the next candidate for the throne within the year – a good bit of story is spent with him convincing the men of this kingdom that having the kingdom run by men would be better. His father only narrowly avoids poisoning him before he realizes who he is. He is his father’s only heir, but their joy is short-lived: every year, Athens pays a tribute of young people to Crete who dance the sacred bull dances. This is sacred to the Cretans but more punitive for the countries that pay their tribute in youths, as bull-dancers don’t live long and at any rate never come home again. These are chosen by lot from among the youths that the Cretans choose as having the right slender, athletic build. Theseus has the right build, and also the will to try to change the ancient custom, so he alters the lots so that his is chosen.
And now comes the part that is the most interesting part of the myth of Theseus. It’s both the part of the book that I enjoyed the most and the part where it most felt like Renault was pulling apart the fabric of the myth to find the threads of truth inside. Ariadne is considered the Goddess on Earth; her half-brother is not an actual minotaur, but a large, greedy and uncouth man, still very much endangering both Theseus, his band, and the cohesiveness of all Crete. While Theseus clearly considers non-Hellenes and women to be inferior to Hellenic men, he forms his group of tributes into a strong team, one that is able to last longer than any of the other, less dedicated teams, and inspires other teams to similar heights. As things get worse, even as the adrenaline rush of the bull dance calls to him, he knows it’s time to take his team and Ariadne and get out.
There is a lot going on in this book – a lot of action, character development, richly described scenery, and a lot of thinking about how humanity changes. Theseus is the kind of man who – at least at the beginning – thinks that a different servant girl in his bed each night is his due, and thinks nothing of having sired a lot of illegitimate children in his teens. (There’s a lot of sex, heterosexual on Theseus’s part and homosexuality known to be common among the bulldancers of both sexes. Nothing is explicitly described, though.) The racism and sexism are both appalling to my modern sensibilities, even as Theseus is still understandable, likeable, and following his own sense of honor. And while the patriarchy is hard to accept, the matriarchal kingdoms that required the sacrifice of a handsome young man every year is not really better. Each little society thinks all the others barbarians – and there is so much on all sides of both civilization and Barbary. It’s dense enough that I had to give up trying to read it with kids around, and had to wait until I could have quiet to focus on it. This is an obvious choice for teens who think they’ve outgrown Percy Jackson.