The King Must Die

March 20, 2004

Mary Renault's The King Must Die

Posted by Ed

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that the piece of fan mail that gave him the most pleasure came from the historical novelist Mary Renault. Renault is fairly obscure today, but she was once quite well-known for her novels about ancient Greece: The Last of the Wine describes Athens in the time of Socrates, a trilogy of novels recounts the life of Alexander the Great, and two novels--The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea--attempt to reconstruct the legend of Theseus in historically plausible terms. These books sound like exactly the type of novel I'd most enjoy, and so--armed with Tolkien's glowing recommendation--I decided to give Renault's first Theseus novel a try.

The King Must Die is the sort of book that I would have loved when I was twelve years old. (I hope I don't sound arrogant or overly cute writing this; I consider the comment high praise. Not everyone can write a historical novel capable of capturing the imagination of a pre-adolescent, after all.) Renault has painted a vivid portrait of life in the eastern Mediterranean, with especially detailed descriptions of a thriving and multi-racial Cretan empire and of a religious cult on the island of Naxos. She has also carefully considered the personality and character of Theseus, arguing that he was most likely a crafty wrestler with a wiry build, not a gigantic Bronze Age Warrior:

If one examines the legend in this light, a well-defined personality emerges. It is that of a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous; touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny.

The result is a remarkably plausible story. Renault immersed herself in classical scholarship and in the latest archaeological research, striving to produce a work of "mythological fiction" as consistent with our knowledge of the past as possible. In The King Must Die, Athenian captives are sent to Crete not as sacrifices to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, but as slaves destined to entertain the Cretan elite in the bull-ring; the villain is Asterion, an illegitimate son of the Cretan king known as "the Minotaur" for his cruelty; the role of magic in the story is small and subtle.

Renault's greatest strength, then, was to create an extremely convincing portrait of life in the world of ancient Greece; in this sense, I don't think it's a coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien loved her work, since his greatest achievement was the creation of another fully realized fictional world, Middle Earth. In fact, Tolkien seems to have been a major influence on Renault: according to a biography by David Sweetman, Renault knew Tolkien as a tutor when she was an Oxford student (before he'd written The Hobbit), considered his portrayal of an alternate world in The Lord of the Rings a model for her own work, and frequently discussed his writing in her letters. Another source even claims that Renault wrote a Tolkien-influenced medieval novel--an unpublished work of fantasy--before turning to the Greek world for inspiration.

According to Sweetman, Renault was also a fan (and friend) of Patrick O'Brian. She was so impressed by Master and Commander that she sent him a glowing note praising his writing; she later helped him research The Mauritius Command by sending him long descriptions of the Cape of Good Hope. (O'Brian thanked her by dedicating the book to her.) Here's an excerpt from Renault's first letter to O'Brian:

For years and years I have been saying that nothing, not even Zoe Oldenbourg's The Cornerstone, has ever quite equalled Rose Macaulay's They Were Defeated for that real empathy with the life-style of a period, which is the result of applying imagination, and a deep humanity, to a knowledge of the sources so thorough that it merges into instinct. This book of yours equals if not surpasses it. I can't express to you the excitement and delight with which I have been following characters so real in universal humanity, drawn with so much sympathy totally without softness, so individual, and at the same time perfectly men of their age. So real do they become that one never conceives of their not continuing to exist when the last page has been turned; and thousands of readers will pay you the supreme tribute of slight resentment at your ceasing to recount their lives.

This strikes me as a telling passage--both as a description of good historical fiction and as a yardstick for measuring the success of Renault's novels. As I mentioned above, I think that The King Must Die did a brilliant job portraying the world of ancient Greece in lively and (as far as I know) historically convincing terms; Renault also succeeded in transforming the ancient myth of the Minotaur into a plausible plot for a modern novel. Nevertheless, I was less impressed by her portrayal of the mentality of Theseus and her look into the minds and personalities of the ancient Greeks.

Theseus, I'd argue, never appears in The King Must Die as a fully convincing character. We learn the basic contours of his personality early on, and his actions are consistent with those personality traits, but we never really get a perfect sense of what makes him tick. This problem is compounded by Renault's decision to make Theseus the novel's narrator, which adds an unfortunate layer of self-consciousness to his thoughts and actions.

The bigger problem, however, was that Theseus never struck me as "a perfect man of his age." Renault sometimes refers to the Greek concepts that shaped his mentality and world-view, like moira, but she never really shows us how this concept differed from the Western conception of fate. Moreover, she has a tendency to use English terms that felt anachronistic to me, like "gentleman" and "baron." She never explains how an ancient Greek viewed the concept of "gentlemanly behavior" or tells us what a "gentleman" was; she talks about the differences between kings and commoners, but never goes beyond that to discuss differences between the common people and "nobles" (to use another anachronistic term.) The result is that Theseus sometimes feels like a twentieth-century Englishman sent backwards in time to Minoan Crete. (Would anyone but a Brit care so much about acting like a "gentleman"?) Furthermore, when Renault moves beyond Theseus to discuss the thoughts and actions of the other characters, she often ends up explaining them or telling us about them--not showing us what they did and describing the world in their own words. This tendency gave the novel an overly didactic air, and sometimes kept me from fully empathizing with her characters.

I don't want to suggest that Renault's goal should have been complete authenticity--an objective that would have left her readers hopelessly confused and frustrated if it could somehow have been achieved. But her look into the mind of Theseus struck me as underdeveloped. To be fair, this was probably the greatest challenge facing Renault in her writing, and even if she'd succeeded in this goal, she'd have left many of her readers unsatisfied. How does one recreate the mentality of a borderline illiterate, after all? How does one reconstruct the modes of thought of an ancient king in a manner that's simultaneously lively, historically accurate, and comprehensible to modern readers? How does one balance the need to explain people's thoughts and to let them speak in their own (seemingly bizarre) way? How does one combine the modern art of novel-writing with the ancient art of story-telling?

Even so, my overall opinion of The King Must Die was more positive than negative. In one sense, after all, it's unfair to hold Renault to such exacting standards: I think it's fair to say that historians of the 1950s were less concerned with the mentality of their subjects than are historians today, and Renault seems more aware of the challenges facing her than many historical novelists of the present day. I don't feel a burning need to read The Bull From the Sea, Renault's second Theseus novel, but I may well return to her work someday. After all, her sense of the ancient Greek world seems far too convincing for me to abandon it completely.

Posted by Ed at March 20, 2004 11:21 AM

The King Must Die made me realize for the first time the pagan roots of Christianity.

Posted by: Sue at February 18, 2005 08:19 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?