The Very Breath of Bronze Age Greece: Mary Renault’s The King Must Die

I came home from seeing a performance of Euripides’s Hippolytos on Friday night and immediately curled up with Mary Renault’s The King Must Die (1958), one of my favourite books of all time. It’s the first person story of Theseus, and Renault used the legend and everything that has been discovered by archaeology since, especially the excavation of Knossos, to write a story that’s psychologically as well as historically realistic. It’s also so engraved in my DNA that I am incapable of evaluating it sensibly. I know it almost by heart and could quote long passages. It seems to me to be exactly the way everyone ought to write historical fiction — in first person, written in reflection by the character late in life, and deep within the worldview of the period. I first read it when I was seven years old1, and even though I didn’t understand all the words it made me fall in love with the ancient world and Greek mythology and Achaean kingship.

But is it fantasy?

From Theseus’s point of view, in which the reader is steeped from the first moment, it’s fantasy. He may or may not be the son of Poseidon, but Poseidon speaks to him. We may if we choose interpret the earthquake warning as a natural thing — animals have it — and the times he heard the sea-surge in his ears as just his own blood thundering. This would seem to be the interpretation Renault prefers, judging by her end-note. But to Theseus, and therefore the text, the gods are real. Not only does he hear Poseidon, he gets aid from Apollo — or he interprets it that way. He lives in a world of lucky days, tides of fate, of different kinds of magic, and most of all destiny.

There are two things that tip this over from his psychology into actual fantasy. The first is that all the prophecies come true. There are a number of prophecies in the book. The first is that the myrtle grove will hatch the cuckoo’s chick — and when Theseus comes to Eleusis on the day when the king must die, he proclaims himself the child of the myrtle grove, unknowing, and of course, he is the cuckoo’s chick and overturns the custom. Then there’s the prophecy Medea makes, poetically expressed (“You will be king of the victims…”) and all of which comes true in every detail. Then there’s the omen of marrying the sea. All the omens and prophecies we see come true, and even the consciously faked prophecies, the ones Ariadne makes in Crete, are fulfilled. There are faked prophecies but no false ones. There’s nothing of the kind of scepticism Thucyddides shows about oracles — in this book, if there’s an oracle, it will be fulfilled.

The other is in the endnotes. In the endnotes to this book, Renault talks like a sensible grownup who doesn’t believe in the gods about animals having earthquake aura and the beliefs of pre-Homeric Greece. But there’s a sequel, less well structured, called The Bull From the Sea. In the endnotes to that book, Renault discusses the tradition that Theseus showed up to fight at Marathon, almost a thousand years after his death, and it’s quite clear from what she says and the way she discusses it that she thinks he really did. I mean if I’m assessing in real life whether people would say a culture hero would show up at a battle, versus whether their ghost really would, I’m going to go for the first. The Angels of Mons do not prove very much here! Ghosts fighting for Athens make the whole thing fantasy. Totally.

Beyond that, it has the feel of fantasy. To a fantasy reader the level of immersion in worldview feels like fantasy, Theseus’s belief in magic feels real, and when he says that the old woman puts spiders webs and green mould on his wounds yes, I know it’s penicillin really, but still, he thinks it’s magic and it has that feel.

But really it’s a historical novel deeply steeped in the mindset of the period, or what Renault and I imagine to be the mindset of the period, since we don’t know all that much about it. What we’re dealing with as facts here is archaeology, some lists, and much later stories. All the same, Renault makes it seem so real that I don’t doubt a word of it. Part of this is because Theseus is so real — a short man who believes he’s the son of a god and is overcompensating, a man whose resolve and courage is so great that he defines a rare moment of cowardice as an actual magic spell. His voice is absolutely perfect. The book begins with Theseus as a child, which helped me read it when I was a child. I don’t think I ever noticed until now how young Theseus is for this whole book. He’s not yet nineteen by the end of it, when he comes back from Crete.

The book is divided into distinct sections — Troezen, and Theseus’s childhood, Eleusis, where he is a year-king, Athens, where he meets his father and fights a war, and Crete, where he becomes a bull dancer. Unifying all of it is the idea of the sacrifice of the king for the people, which is the title, and which is all through Theseus’s attitudes to responsibility and power. The book begins with the sacrifice of a horse when Theseus is a child, and the explanation that the king too can be sacrificed, and it ends with his father sacrificing himself by throwing himself down from the citadel. This is a powerful thing, and it links everything together.

Theseus has an amazing energy. At one point a cousin says: “You have a strong life thread, Theseus. Where it crosses other men’s it frays them.” It’s amazing what he achieves — and he says he can’t help putting his hand to shape what he finds: the Companions in Eleusis, the bull dancers in Crete. On the one hand he has a yearning to achieve to prove himself, and nothing can ever be enough. On the other he has this sense of timing and of people that lets him achieve.

The material culture is that of the late bronze age, with an iron ring from far away an oddity and the only shadow of the new age that is coming in two generations with the Doric invasion. Orpheus shows up and talks about raising Stonehenge — I love that. The texture of daily life feels real, the things they eat and drink. Renault has looked at the actual objects of the Mycenean world and they all feel real, from the Cretan necklaces and face paint to the ox and the tripod given as a victory gift, from the women (including the king’s daughter) washing clothes in the stream to the plumbing of the Labyrinth. The tech level is precise, she has looked at the wall paintings of Knossos and the vase paintings as well as reading Homer with attention. (This is the generation before the Trojan war, they’re using the same shields and chariots.)

Renault uses the myth to shape the story she is telling, but she uses the parts of it she wants to. She keeps the labyrinth and the thread but makes the minotaur human and the destruction the earthquake and tsunami that accompanied the destruction of Thera. It’s this constant blending of myth and archaeological fact that makes it feel so real — as if it’s the real story behind the legend. I read this before I read the legend and came to the legend through it, so I may not be the best person to judge how well it works. I am still seeing the legend through it. As I said, seeing Hippolytos brought me straight back to it. Renault was clearly familiar with Hippolytos, she gives the nurse, who is a significant character in the play, a small walk on part in the book. When we see Phaedra as a child, we see her with her nurse, and it’s clearly the same nurse Euripides wrote. That’s just so cool!

The world Renault shows us is one of Minyans and Hellenes, two cultures in conflict. The Minyans are small and dark and “had the land before us,” the rulers are fair and larger Hellenes. They are all getting mixed together — Theseus himself has fair hair but is small. The colonial take home message here is, unfortunately, that it’s just fine to be a Minyan as long as you adopt the ways of the conquerers.

The Minyans are matriarchal, and sacrifice their kings — among the Hellenes, the kings decide when to sacrifice themselves. Theseus is heir to Athens, but he becomes king of the Minyan kingdom of Eleusis and changes the custom. Before, the men fought wars when necessary and did some herding and hunting, but women made all the decisions. Afterwards men get all the power, and there’s one passage that rings particularly oddly:

Later that day I appointed my chief men, from those who had been particularly resolute in defying the women. Some of these would have had me put down women from every office in the land. Though I tended myself to extremes as young men do, yet I did not like this: it would bring them all together to work magic in the dark. One or two, who had pleased my eye, I should have been glad to see about me. Only I had not forgotten Medea, who had fooled a man as wise as my father was. And there were the old grandmothers who had run a household for fifty years and had more sense than many a warrior with his mind only on his standing; but besides their magic they had too many kindred and would have managed the men. So I thought again about what I had seen in Eleusis of women’s rule, and chose from those sour ones who took their pleasure in putting the others down. And these did more than the men to keep their sisters from rising up again. A few years later the women of Eleusis came begging me to appoint men in their stead. Thus I was able to make a favour of it.

Now the general excuse for sexist societies in fantasy and history is that it’s historically accurate, but this goes beyond that. She’s talking about the end of a matriarchal society — and whether or not they were matriarchal in reality, they were in the book. Nothing compels this change this way. There’s a big gap of “we don’t know” between here and recorded history. She has Theseus anachronistically setting up labour laws for craftsmen and farmers, she could have had women continuing in some roles of responsibility alongside the men and we could assume that also got lost in the generations between. This deliberate choosing of the “sour” women and the women begging for men instead feels sexist, but it also feels mean. It recalls some of Renault’s modern day novels, especially the all female hospital hierarchy in Purposes of Love, which reflects Renault’s own experiences as a nurse in such a hospital.

The King Must Die is really very odd about women. There are female bull dancers and Amazons. There are matriarchal societies, with good things about them. There’s a mother goddess. The women in Crete are literate. Generally women and the choices of women are visible in a way that they wouldn’t be if the book were written by a man in 1958.

However, Theseus is a man, and a heterosexual man, and there are various remarks about women who say no and then say yes, which no doubt went down better in 1958 than they do now. Most of the women Theseus has sex with don’t even get names. And never mind this kind of quasi-consent, he outright rapes the Queen of Eleusis (“for once in this room it shall be a man who says when”) and on another occasion she forces him to have sex without his consent. I should have counted that in my rape of men post, though it’s only one line.

There’s also a good virgin/bad slut divide. The only women who is sexual and positive is Hippolyta, who doesn’t appear in this volume except in parentheses. Theseus’s mother Aithra had sex once with Aigeus when she was fourteen and has been single ever since. Medea and the Queen of Eleusis are strong, sexual, and bad. They are nuanced antagonists, definitely, and not seen without sympathy, but they’re also definitely negative. Then there’s Ariadne, who Theseus loves. She’s tainted by her sexuality. I didn’t understand for years what she had in her hand after the bacchanalia. Because it was 1958, Renault couldn’t specify, and because I was a kid, I thought it was the dead king’s heart. But I think we’re supposed to read it as his penis and see Theseus’s revulsion and abandonment as natural in that light — that no man could continue to have sex with a woman who had castrated somebody else, even in a drunken frenzy.

Thalestris and Chryse and the female bull dancers are virgins as far as men are concerned — though it’s quite openly mentioned that some of them are lesbians. Theseus (and of course Renault, who was herself a lesbian) is quite OK with this. More unusually we also see Theseus as a straight man learning to be OK with gay men. He realises that it’s not their sexuality but his homophobia that’s the problem. I’d be impressed with this in a book written now, never mind nearly half a century ago. Of course, Theseus is one of Renault’s very few straight protagonists.

Although I can see some ways in which it reflects the attitudes of the time when it was written, I still love this book passionately. I ration re-reads because I can see the day I won’t be able to read it because I know it too well.


1 Am I suggesting that everyone ought to read this at seven, and The Lord of the Rings at eight? Only if they want to grow up like me. I think I am at least as much an awful warning as a role model.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. 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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