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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On Rereading The King Must Die

I have just finished rereading Mary Renault's classic The King Must Die. I first read it when I was about eleven. I remember, because, having heard a radio play, I bought a copy as a birthday gift...and kept it, giving the birthday girl something else. My paperback is falling apart from so many readings over the years, so for this reread I bought an inexpensive ebook version. 


For those who don't know about it, it's a novel about the mythical hero Theseus, written as a straight historical novel with just a touch of fantasy, a bit like Mary Stewart's Merlin novels - and even then, you ask yourself if this or that  happened or not.

The title is based on the charming custom of ancient times in which the sacred king of a matriarchal society ruled for a year or seven or nine, then was killed, to make sure that the king was always young and strong and the crops would grow. Robert Graves and other scholars believed that this is where quite a lot of mythology comes from. (And if you ever read the very Stephen King-style novel Harvest Home by Tom Tryon, you'll find a sacred king thing happening in rural America)

 And Mary Renault works it into her novel. Her Theseus is not a giant of a man as generally believed; if he had been, she argues, he would never have been chosen for the bull dance, which required dancers who were short, slim and agile. What he does have plenty of is brains. 

He believes in his connection with the god Poseidon, even after he knows he was fathered by King Aigeus of Athens and that his ability to sense when an earthquake is coming is a family genetic thing on Aigeus's side, not because his father was a god. Because he believes this, he also has a strong sense of the king's duty to his people, including the possible duty to die for them - and that when the god makes this clear,  the king needs to consent. If he hasn't consented the sacrifice means nothing. 

So the stories about his adventures on the Isthmus of Corinth start with his being required to wrestle and kill the previous king of Eleusis - in mythology he's a bandit called Kerkyon, in the novel Kerkyon is the king's title, and when Theseus has defeated his predecessor he is Kerkyon. 

This Theseus is cocky, assertive and likes women, plural. He falls in love, but that doesn't mean he's not going to sleep with captive women. It's one of the things a man does, as far as he is concerned. He doesn't mistreat them, though. He respects the gods of wherever he is, including the Goddess, but he's patriarchal to the core. 

When he goes to Crete, he becomes close with his team, closer than siblings, and as their chosen leader he feels the same responsibility as he would for a kingdom. 

To be honest, I wouldn't want to be married to this Theseus - he would insist on his right not only to sleep with whoever he wanted but have them around the palace - not mistresses, but women who do the housework and come to his bed when required. 

But I would be more than happy to have him for my ruler. I'd feel safe. He would always put his subjects first.

This reread picked up a few things that I hadn't noticed last time I read it(not that long ago!) One was that there's a reference to the Thera explosion. The island is called Kalliste at the time, but it's Thera all right. There's a suggestion that this explains the earthquake that knocked out Knossos. I really must go back and reread that story!  

Now I'm trying to decide if I'm going to reread The Bull From The Sea, which picks up just after the first novel and is, in a way, the second half of one book. It's so sad... Later, perhaps.


Unknown said...

It's really fascinating how bits of mythology inspired the story and vice versa. It's like mythology and the story are different subjective opinions of the same reality. I've seen that a lot with mythologies that are the same in come countries but vary in others. I'm glad you enjoyed the book so much! :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

What an interesting way to think of mythology and story! And yes, mythologies are really variants of the same themes. Robert Graves takes a lot of trouble to explain the connections between Greece's myths and other countries' myths in his book The Greek Myths; he certainly convinced me! :-) Fairytales ditto. It is great to visit the Surlalunr web site, pick out a fairytale and then click on the variants from different countries.

Lan said...

Sounds like it would be a fascinating read though I do agree with you that I wouldn't want to be married to him either!

Sue Bursztynski said...

It is indeed a fascinating read, though even more so if you're a fan of Greek mythology! I suspect most of my students wouldn't be interested. ;-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh I LOVE that book. There's always something sexy about getting an insight into a craft from the inside, especially a performance craft - the way Renault sells te dangeroush craft of bull-dancing is something else. Totally convincing! despite meagre historical evidence.

I agree about the sequel. Hard to read - the exigencies of the original story!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, a wonderful book, and very convincing. I tweeted this because I have just finished reading Wendy Orr's Dragonfly Song, which also covers the craft of bull-dancing. Wendy will be doing an interview in the near future. It is very different from Mary Renault's suggestion of how it might have been done.

Sue Bursztynski said...

The Interview is up. And I have just learned that Wendy Orr knows a LOT about bulls, because she spent twenty years farming, with cattle, and her husband has a background with beef cattle. Check it out!