My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Theseus is well-known to us from Greek myth as the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur of Crete. and the betrayer of Ariadne. In The King Must Die, Mary Renault imagined what might have been the reality behind that myth.
Renault, an English writer of historical novels, almost reached the status of myth in her own life. She was perhaps best known for her excellent trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great: Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games. I read those books many years ago in my Alexander period, a time when I was fascinated with the life of the Macedonian general who conquered much of the known world. They were beautifully written and I've always intended to read more of Renault's work.
I have to admit I was a little disappointed with The King Must Die. It didn't quite live up to the standard that I remembered from the three Alexander books. Perhaps my memory is faulty or perhaps I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for Theseus at this time.
The story of Theseus is told by the man himself. The stage of his life covered here is his late teenage years, from about age sixteen. In ancient Greece, that was quite old enough for a boy to consider himself a man and to take on the responsibilities of adulthood in that society, but the voice of the narrator here is that of a rather callow youth with a fulsome estimation of his own abilities and standing in the world. (Lately, I seem to be stuck in the mode of reading books with such narrators. It's getting a bit tiresome and I need a break. I think perhaps I was unable to give this book its just due simply because of that recent experience.)
Anyway, I was interested to read in the biographical sketch of the author at the end of this book that her fascination with Greek philosophy led her to St. Hugh's College at Oxford where one of her tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien!
Another interesting bit about her life is that she is considered to be the first British novelist to have included an unconcealed homosexual love in one of her books, The Charioteer. Renault herself was a lesbian, and there are numerous references in The King Must Die to homosexual lovers. This was accepted as a perfectly normal part of life in ancient Greece.
But back to Theseus.
In Renault's telling, Theseus is the son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom. He has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. It seems that everyone in Greek mythology either was or believed him/herself to be the son/daughter of some god. In their belief system, the gods were very much a part of everyday life and often interacted carnally with human beings.
At length, it is revealed that Theseus is, in fact, the son of the king of Athens, and he leaves his home on a quest to reach that city and reveal himself to his father, who has no idea that he exists. On his way, he has many adventures - which generally means battles - and he reaches the city of Eleusis which worships the Great Mother and has an ancient tradition that their year-king marries the goddess (or the high priestess who represents the goddess) and at the end of his year, he is sacrificed to the Earth Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the year's harvest and the safety of the people. Theseus kills the current king and marries the widow/high priestess, thus becoming a year-king himself.
But he isn't sacrificed at the end of his year. Instead, he leads a revolution that frees the people from the tyranny of this tradition and continues on to Athens.
In Athens, of course, a different kind of fate awaits him. Athens must provide a yearly tribute of its youths to the kingdom of Minos in Crete to be a sacrifice to the minotaur. (One can see perhaps where Suzanne Collins got her idea for The Hunger Games. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!) Although he is the son of the king and could be exempted from this fate, Theseus insists upon becoming part of the tribute and he sails for Crete with the other victims.
In Crete, he trains with the other tributes at the labyrinthine court of Minos to be a bull-dancer. As such, he is a slave who is destined to die on the horns and hooves of the god's creature, the bull, but as long as he can manage to stay alive, he is considered a sacred and popular athlete who lives a pampered life.
Then he meets Ariadne, the daughter of the king, and he falls in love. She helps him, providing him with a thread to guide him through the labyrinth built by Daidalos and helping him with the rebellion which allows him and his friends to escape from Crete. He takes Ariadne with him but then abandons her on the island of Naxos. So much for true love!
The end of this part of the Theseus myth is that, as he sailed back to Athens, he forgot to change the sail from black to white to signal his father that he was alive and well. His father, thinking him dead, committed suicide by throwing himself from a parapet. Of course, none of this was Theseus' fault. At least in Theseus' telling.
Renault did a really good job of including all the elements of the myth in an understandable human story of supposedly real events. Hers was a unique talent for interpreting myth and making it plausible for modern readers.
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