What I’m Reading: Mary Renault – The King Must Die

I had not read anything by Mary Renault before, but seeing her mentioned in one breath with Dorothy Dunnett countless times had stirred my interest in her considerably. So when Leander of The Idle Woman suggested a joint read of one of her novels, I was even more enthusiastic than usual. She suggested either The King Must Die or Fires from Heaven, and since I already had the former, that’s the one we agreed on reading. You can find Leander’s post on the novel here, and as always I very strongly recommend reading it, as she does the novel considerably more justice than this post manages.

The King Must Die tells the story of Theseus, or more precisely the first part of it up to his return to Athens from Crete, and it it tells it in first person, with Theseus himself as narrator. Which is a rather unexpected choice, at least it surprised me – but maybe I’m just too used to Dorothy Dunnett’s mode of writing historical novels who uses a variety of literary techniques to keep her heroes at a distance from the reader. Not so Mary Renault, in fact quite to the contrary – she places us right in the middle of things, and indeed it is the immediacy of her writing and the degree if immersion she achieves with it which impressed me the most with this novel. It is all the more astonishing how fresh and vivid everything appears if you consider that the events the novel depicts have taken place thousands of years ago and that Mary Renault had to reach deep into the twilight of myths to draw her protagonsist and place them before us in a human light.

And Mary Renault does a truly marvelous job on that – I’m not very well versed in either Ancient history and mythology, and have to rely on rely far more extensive knowledge in that regard, but judging from that and even the meagre few references I caught myself, Renault is extremely inventive (helped by what appears a thorough familarity with the scholarship of her time) when it comes to humanizing the myths, managing to pull off some difficult narrative feats like coming up with a plausible explanation why Minotaurus is wearing minotaurus a bull’s head when Theseus kills him (an explanation which apparently even ties in with some findings made in the ruins of Minos’ palace in Knossos). But this humanizing of the myth is not to be understood as a complete rationalization of everything that seems strange to our modern mind about the way the Ancients perceived their world. After all, the novel is written from Theusus’ perspective, and the numinous plays a very large part in how he experiences and explains the world around him (and in fact, parts of his own inner self too); for me, it was in fact one of the greatest delights of this novel to see the world through Theseus’ eyes, and Mary Renault keeps the precarious balance of making coincidence as well as divine inervention a possibility when it comes to apparently supernatal occurences. Theseus’ sense for impending earthquakes, to take just one recurring example, might be a side effect of epilepsy, or it might be warnings sent to him by Poseidon – Theseus himself, firmly anchored in an animistic world-view, always comes down on the latter, but for the modern-day reader, Renault skillfully keeps things hovering on the verge between the rational and the irrational, with the effect that she steeps us into Theseus’ perspective on things without denying the distance that separates us from him, which is after all immense.

And The King Must Die admirably manages to bridge that gulf of millennia, steeping readers into the full sensory experience, making them see, hear, smell, taste and feel the world of Ancient Greece. This is mostly due to Mary Renault’s writing, which seems very straightforward on first look, but whose surface simplicity contains folded within it a vast richness of sensations, each sentence a dense concentrate of sights, sounds and smells that, as soon as it is dissolved in the reader’s imagation, blossoms into a bouquet of sensual impressions that is both overwhelming in its luxurious resplendence and subtle in its nuanced shadings. The part taking place on Crete (not accidentally the longest) in particular is nothing short of a marvel – I can’t remember having ever before felt so deeply and entrancingly drawn into its period by a historical novel before and the images of the Labyrinth that Renault conjures up, the colours of the murals and the dancers’ makeup, the smell of blood and dust, the rhythm of life in the Labyrinth and of the bull dances still linger in my mind and will likely do so for quite some time.

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6 comments

  1. I must have first read this book around 25 years ago, but it’s the most wonderful piece of writing that I have read it annually ever since, and it’s always as fresh and immersive as the first time. I only need to think of the book and I can see the sunlight gleaming on the sea, taste the salt, and hear the sea-surge in my ears…

    If you enjoyed this you MUST go on to read The Bull from the Sea. Again it’s an absolutely wonderful read, but the added intensity and tragedy of Theseus’s relationship with Hippolyta takes the story to even greater heights, and in my opinion, even surpasses the first novel. It’s quite possibly my favourite book of all time.

  2. Thank you very much for commenting! 🙂 – I actually did read The Bull from the Sea right after this, probably won’t be writing a post on it, however, as I’m currently fifty books or more behind (I read both novels back in February). I enjoyed The Bull from the Sea a lot, but don’t think it quite lived up to The King Must Die – the first part of the second novel was just too meandering and lacking in focus. It does indeed gain momentum once Hippolyta comes into play, the second part is just as wonderful as The King Must Die and I was very moved by the ending.

  3. I read it when I was in high school and I am 49 now. I have read ALL of her books and she is unsurpassed in writing historical fiction about ancient Greece. She also wrote nonfiction about Alexander the Great and there is a book about her entitled “The Hellenism of Mary Renault” that was in my university library! SHE’S PERFECT!!! 🙂

  4. Thank you for taking the time to comment; always nice to see someone get enthusiastic about books. 😉 And I’m certainly planning on reading more by her; I already pre-ordered her Alexander trilogy for my Kindle.

  5. This was my first Mary Renault book and I read it non stop over a weekend thirty years ago, I have since read all her books including the great Alexander trilogy and still come back to this book as her best. When I read this book I WAS Theseus, I felt the earth shake, I smelled the open sea and danced with the bulls in Crete. The Alexander books are great and historically a marvel in their accuracy but The King Must Due takes us back to the dawn of civilization and somehow translates the myth to reality.

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