Mon
Sep 28 2009 4:32pm
An Alien, Distant World: Mary Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea

Some people become passionate readers and fans of science fiction during childhood or adolescence. I picked up on sf somewhat later than that; my escape reading of choice during my youth was historical novels, and one of my favorite writers was Mary Renault.

Historical fiction is actually good preparation for reading sf. Both the historical novelist and the science fiction writer are writing about worlds unlike our own. (Here I’m thinking of writers who create plausible fictional worlds that are bound by certain facts, not those whose writing veers toward fantasy.) The historical novelist has to consider what has actually happened, while the sf writer is dealing in possibilities, but they are both in the business of imagining a world unlike our own and yet connected to it. A feeling for history is almost an essential for writing and appreciating good science fiction, for sensing the connections between the past and future that run through our present.

Mary Renault retells the myth of  Theseus in The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, which should probably be treated as one long novel in two volumes. Reading the first book (which sent me racing to the library to check out the second) as a somewhat messed-up kid in the early 1960s made a powerful impression. The dark, violent, yet alluring culture of ancient Greece combined with an attractive, promiscuous hero was irresistible, but it was the tension between an old (and dying) matriarchal society and the increasingly dominant sky-god-worshipping patriarchal culture that held me. Renault drew on both the writings of Robert Graves and archeological discoveries for her novels, and didn’t make the mistake of importing the mores of her own time to a distant past.

That she was herself a lesbian, and thus an outsider in her own culture, must have contributed to her empathy for the homosexual characters in The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, who are depicted largely sympathetically and as part of the normal human spectrum of sexual behavior. Even though Theseus, the narrator, is the center of the story, he is surrounded by a rich cast of strong female characters, among them his mother Aithra, the queen Peresphone, the Cretan princess Ariadne, Hippolyta of the Amazons, and the female bulldancers who are fellow captives with Theseus on Crete. I loved the strength of these women; I wanted to be more like them and less like myself. Identifying with characters may be a problem for literary critics, but it’s standard operating procedure for most bookreading kids.

Looking back, it seems to me now that one of the most important passages in these two novels is the question asked by Theseus’s physician son Hippolytos near the end of The Bull from the Sea: “…I started to wonder: what are men for?” Theseus, used to interpreting various phenomena as expressions of the will of the gods, is taken aback: “I had never heard such a question. It made me shrink back; if a man began asking such things, where would be the end of it?” In the context of the novel, you feel the force of that question, what it must have been like for someone to ask it for the first time. What a distant and alien world, in which such a question could shock, and yet we’re still trying to answer it even as some of us long to retreat into old certainties. Mary Renault may have awakened an interest in both ancient Greece and philosophy in me (my college degrees are in classical philosophy), but I wonder now if that passage pointed me in the direction of sf. Reword the question as “What is intelligent life for?” and it’s a question science fiction continues to ask.


Pamela Sargent’s Seed Seeker, third in a trilogy that includes Earthseed and Farseed, will be published by Tor in 2010. Her other novels include Venus of Dreams, The Shore of Women, and the historical novel Ruler of the Sky, which Gary Jennings called “formidably researched and exquisitely written.” She lives, works, writes, and reads in Albany, New York.

6 comments
James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
What glorious books they are, too: I remember simply devouring all of her work when I first came across them in high school, and I have reread them across the years many times. I particularly love the Last of the Wine, for its portrayal of Socrates, and The Mask of Apollo, for its portrayal of Plato, but the best by far, I think, is The Praise Singer. Her work was one of the many reasons I began to study classical Greek so long ago (a decision never regretted).
Kate Keith-Fitzgerald
2. ceitfianna
I love these books and its fascinating to think of historical fiction in terms of science fiction. My father has always read hard science fiction and I've never found the appeal but I'll plunge deeply into good historical fiction and fantasy.

I think its just another type of world building and understanding and when done well can be so powerful. Have you read the novels of Sharon Kay Penman? She does an amazing job of looking at the world of medieval England, Dorothy Dunnett too.
rick gregory
3. rickg
All of Renault's work is just stunning. Nice to see it get a post here and I'd recommend it all to spec fic readers.
Agnes Kormendi
4. tapsi
One of my absolute favourites! When I was a teenager my father gave me his own copy of "The King Must Die" in Hungarian because it was one of his favourite books, but for some reason "The Bull from the Sea" was never translated and we didn't even know it existed. I only discovered it a few months ago by accident and ordered it immediately. It was strange to read the two volumes almost 20 years apart, but they still worked.
Doug M.
5. Doug M.
These may be her best. Some of her other books are marred by her tendency to hero-worship; her Socrates is annoyingly good, her Plato is even more so, and her Alexander is so fucking awesomely wonderful in every damn way that you really can't wait for him to get to Babylon and die.

Theseus, OTOH, is very plausibly imperfect; he's alternately likable, lovable, annoying, and so bloody wrong you want to just reach into the book and slam him. His character flaws get more play in the second book, which may be why that one is better -- though it's very painful to read towards the end. (I read it as a teenager, having no idea what was coming, so it made a lasting impression.)

Oh, and the underlying history isn't very good any more -- we know a lot more about Mycenaean Greece today, and much of her stuff just doesn't fly. (The gigantic invasion from the north probably didn't fly back in the 1950s when she wrote it, but that one can be forgiven for dramatic effect.) Crete probably wasn't much like how she describes it, the dates of the various earthquakes don't line up, the earlier mother-goddess worship thing is sideways, and so on und so weiter.

That raises an interesting question: if you write a historical novel, but then later scholarship changes the history of that period all out of recognition, what does your novel become? Fantasy? Alternate history?


Doug M.
Doug M.
7. pilgrimsoul
I can't read much historical fiction anymore--because of the accuracy factor mentioned by Doug M., but she was such a marvelous, evocative story teller who wrote such luscious prose. I've also wondered if the popularity of her books contributed in some part to the shift in attitude--incomplete, I understand--toward homosexuality in general.

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