Plays and Plato: Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo

Mary Renault is one of my very favourite writers. The Mask of Apollo is about Nikeratos, an actor in the fourth century BC, who becomes a friend of Plato’s and sees close up the exciting events in Syracuse. It’s arguably fantasy because Nikeratos owns an old mask of Apollo through which the god speaks to him. But it’s really straight historical fiction, Nikeratos didn’t exist but almost all the other characters and events did, and Nikeratos is our easy way in to the politics and philosophy and theatre of an age so long ago. He believes in Apollo and the mask, but the reader doesn’t have to.

It’s a wonderful book, and what makes it so great is the confidence of his voice. It feels utterly authentic in every line, as if Renault had lived for a long time in ancient Greece. She did a lot of research, but it actually doesn’t matter, what matters is how seamlessly real it feels, even where she was making things up. If you like complicated immersive fantasy worlds, this feels just like one. You don’t need any background knowledge to read it.

I first read this when I was far too young for it, perhaps ten or eleven. I’ve been re-reading it regularly ever since. It wasn’t my first Renault (The King Must Die!) but it was one of my first few. What I found in it then was the strange world, and the theatre. It caught me up in it. Renault is one of the writers who shaped me. She had a huge influence on my understanding of the world, as well as my understanding of how you can tell a story.

Nikeratos is an actor who cares passionately about acting and theatre and brings his passion to the reader. He also understands an audience, and what Renault does with this is wonderful—she sets him in contrast to Plato and Dion who for all their philosophy do not understand how ordinary people feel. They don’t know what moves a crowd, and Nikeratos does. So we have a story here about Syracuse and Plato and how to rule, and a story about plays, and a tragedy that nobody can bear because the protagonists never meet, Plato and Alexander, made for each other. Renault makes the politics easy to understand, she opens up the world, we see through Nikeratos eyes and have his passionate but slightly cynical view on everything he sees.

Ask some poet to explain the awe of Delphi, and some philosopher to explain it. I work with the words of other men. I looked back down the valley, the olives falling mile on mile to a rock-clipped blink of sea. Behind a vast gulf of air were the highlands of Mount Korax, patched with sun and gloom, westward the iron cliffs of Kirphis; above us reared Parnassos, more felt than seen. Its head was hidden by its knees, the rock towers of the Pheidriades, which themselves seemed to gore the sky. Truly, Apollo is the greatest of all chorus masters. The town, with his temple in the midst, is as tiny as a toy in all this vastness; yet all those titan-heads seemed to stand around that and look towards it. They are the chorus round his altar, if he raised his arm they would sing a dithyramb. I don’t know any other deity who could bring off such a show. At Delphi, you don’t ask how they know it is the centre of the earth.

When talking about Northanger Abbey, I mentioned how alien people from another time can be. We don’t get that here; The Mask of Apollo is a modern novel. Well, 1966, but even so. Actually for 1966 it does very well, women students of Plato’s, (historical, but she didn’t need to make one of them a major character) most of the main characters openly gay, a positive dark-skinned character. A lot better than most SF of the sixties. We have modern writing and modern interpretation of the historical period.

Renault gives us Nikeratos’s life, from childhood onwards, his career as an actor, his love and friendship and passions. She also gives us, through his eyes, the story of Plato trying to make a philospher king and change history. He did change history and he did shape the world, and we’re still reading him, but he didn’t succeed in Syracuse—and yet this isn’t a sad book, because what matters is theatre, and the theatre has lasted, just as the philosophy has. The highest moments are always in theatres—in Delphi in the Myrmidons, in Syracuse in The Bacchae, and in Syracuse again when the city is sacked.

It’s the books I love most that are the hardest to write about, because I am so close to them it’s hard to step back from them. I really love this, and I think you will too.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out on January 18th, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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