Jan 5 2011 11:27am

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

The Mask of Apollo by Mary RenaultMary 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.

1. DavidA1

Jo, it is a little spooky how so many of my favorite books and authors turn out to be your favorites too. As usual you do a great job explaining why this book is so wonderful. In this and all her books, it does seem as if Mary Renault lived in ancient Greece and came back to tell us about it. Her calm prose is a delight. But this book is a particular favorite because I have a long background in the theatre (although I do something very different now) and Nikaratos's voice and view point as an actor, the details of what he knows and what he cares about, ring absolutely true to me. She understands and values actors, which I find is rare in writers as a class.
Ron Garrison
2. Man-0-Manetheran
Mary Renault is an exqusite writer, and her books are among the oldest I own. As Tolkien is responsible for my interest in fantasy and who opened up that whole genre to me, Mary Renault is the responsible party when it comes to hisorical fiction. She creates the world so thoroughly that it comes alive. Her stories are captivating and worth reading again and again.
William S. Higgins
3. higgins
DavidA1 (or rather DavidA) writes:
Jo, it is a little spooky how so many of my favorite books and authors turn out to be your favorites too.

You want spooky? Read Among Others once it comes out next month. As Charles de Lint said (see, "It has also jumped right into my short list of favorite books ever, and it's one that I plan to reread more than once."
James Goetsch
4. Jedikalos
I have been in love with Classical Greece forever, and in a way made a career out of it (I teach Ancient Philosophy, among other things, so it is at least part of my career!). I learned Classical Greek to read Aeschylus and Plato, and Renault's books have always made the ancient Greek world come alive for me in a way nothing else ever has. I love the portrayal of Plato in this book, seen, as it were, with different eyes than the usual, and the characterization of Aristotle and Speusippus, which I find hilarious. And the ending is absolutely haunting (what if Plato had taught Alexander instead of Arisotle? Ahhh . . . . )
5. Leah Hansen
I fell in love with Ancient Greece at about age 7, when I read way ahead in my history books to learn more about it because I found it so fascinating. Seventeen years later, I'm still a huge fan. I immediately placed a library request for this book after reading your review, Jo... thank you! I'm really looking forward it. And thank goodness for libraries!
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
DavidA(1): I should ask you what you've read that I haven't, because there'd be a high probability of me liking it! But there are other people who disagree with every word I say and still like my posts, so that seems to be OK.

Higgins: A.S. Byatt says that nobody writes about how people like to read, because it gets too meta. I disagree. (In fact I immediately disagreed and leapt up and down demanding that Byatt read Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, but while Delany may have read Byatt, clearly not the other way around.)
7. HelenS
A.S. Byatt thought one shouldn't write something that got too meta? The woman who never meta meta* she didn't likea?

*"A man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a meta phor?"
8. Doug M.
This and _The Last of the Wine_ are the two keepers. The Theseus books are excellent, but she's bound by the legends, and I think she was still finding her voice anyway. Anything with Alexander in it suffers from the fact that she fell violently and completely in love with Alexander; she's neither the first nor the last to have done so, but it bends the books out of shape.

But this one is all good. The first page where Nikeratos, looking back from his old age, contemplates the fact that his father almost killed him at birth -- because that was a perfectly normal thing for a poor-but-respectable family to do with an ugly, runty younger son? That opening just grabs you and pulls you in and the book never lets you go thereafter.

Doug M.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Doug M: I agree it's a brilliant start, but that's actually the opening of The Last of the Wine.
10. Foxessa
I've read of this author's novels, and some of them several times.

At this stage the one of her works that endures for me on every level is The Last of the Wine.

Evidently archeology and other sciences have shown so much about The King Must Die and Bull From the Sea is rong, which now, with knowing all that, is hard for this reader to get around,

Whereas, the more I learn about certain periods Patrick O'Brian in micro as with the War of 1812, the more he gets right.

Love, c.
11. Lisa (starmetal oak)
This looks right up my alley! Thanks!
12. Doug M.
Ohh, right you are, Jo. I had the difficult father of this book's protagonist cross-wired with the even more difficult father of that one.

(Hm, Renault went there a lot, didn't she? Theseus and his father, Theseus and his older son, Alexander and Philip. Just noticed that.)

Doug M.
13. Raskos
No mention of The Praise Singer? It's a non-Alexandrine, non-Minoan Renault Greek historical - the life of Simonides, as I recall. Nobody ever seems to remember it, but I thought that it was pretty good. She gets in some of the mixed familiarity and alien-ness of the Classical Greeks again when she has her protagonist talk about the ethics of writing adulatory verse for his keep - hard to imagine anyone maintaining the antinomy today, at least in the West.
14. reaeverywhereelse
Very simply, this book and Last of the Wine were the key books in my youth that gave me insight into my sexual orientation.
15. Ingrid C
The book about Simonides was my favourite too, maybe because I always loved his epitaph for the Spartans at Thermopylae. Renault also wrote an account of the battle aimed at young adults called The Lion in the Gateway. That's very good too. Another of her books I always liked is The Friendly Young Ladies, which is set just before WWII.
Renault was gay, lived in South-Africa to escape British attitudes, but opposed apartheid. So of course gay and non-white characters were not peripheral to her.
16. zvi999
Yay, Jo. Delany's bit in _Stars..._ about Rat Korga reading the cubes is one of the great tour de forces (tours de force?) of literary SF. I may just have to go and read it again right now, I like it so much.
17. OtterB
I'll have to look these up. I know I read them long ago; I read my way through all of Renault but don't own anything but The King Must Die.

I was rereading the Alexander books recently, set onto them by Jo Graham's "Stealing Fire." If you like this kind of historical fantasy, I recommend it highly.
18. EmmaG
I'm rediscovering Mary Renault, whose books I devoured in my teens, after reading David Sweetman's biography (an interesting read, with rather clunky prose at times).

It's lovely to see so many people still love her work. I count myself so lucky to have first encountered homosexuality in her books, where it seemed so natural and unexceptable, that I never had any issues over people's sexuality.

She brings ancient Greece to life, as many others have said above. And her scholarly approach never descends to sensationalism.

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