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The King Must Die (1988)

The King Must Die (1988)
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3.99 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0394751043 (ISBN13: 9780394751047)
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English
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vintage
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The King Must Die (1988)
The King Must Die (1988)

About book: The past, they say, is a foreign country. One might even go so far as to say that it is another world full of strange wonders and people who both fascinate and repel. I imagine that is why history so intrigues me and I definitely approach the subject with a heaping portion of romance as I in no way attempt to diminish the veneer and lustre which the intervening ages bring to previous eras. Despite this fascination I generally find myself of two minds when it comes to historical fiction. While the subject matter fascinates me and the promise of even vicariously visiting that foreign country, the past, is a powerfully attractive one I often find myself somewhat unimpressed by many of the books I have sampled in the genre which, for one reason or another, often fail to capture my interest. Sometimes I am critical of the anachronisms (real or perceived) that seem to litter these books as the writer attempts to make the past perhaps a bit too relatable to our present world. Other times I am simply unimpressed by mediocre writing (I imagine it is no more prevalent in this genre than any other, but somehow it particularly grates when I find it here). Then again, sometimes I am simply not interested in what turns out to be more a history lesson than a story with blood and life to it. I was glad therefore to have found Mary Renault’s _The King Must Die_ which proved to be both well-written, full of particular human interest, and displayed the wonder and strangeness of the past in all of its glory. I also consider it something of a return to the love affair I had in my youth with the Hellenic myths which seemed to fall to the wayside as I grew older and other interests crowded them out.Renault takes as her subject the early Hellenic expansion among the Greek archipelago when the ancient chthonic mother-goddess religions of the autochthonous peoples (the “earthlings”) were being displaced by the more patriarchal sky-god religions of the invaders. The title of the book itself refers to the ancient tradition that the year-king married the goddess (or more accurately her avatar the high priestess) and would then be killed as a yearly sacrifice to the Great Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the harvest and safety of the people. Into this tradition she incorporates the story of Theseus and his rise to fame and power. The son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom, Theseus has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. Theseus comes to learn that some of his preconceptions about his birth may not be literally true, though he never loses the sense that there is a deep connection between himself and the Earth-shaker. I like how Renault handles this aspect of her story. The power of the gods and goddesses of the ancient religions permeates the story and is never simply disproved or denied, yet she also doesn’t make them explicit characters in the story and go fully into the realm of fantasy. There are indications of the ways in which these divinities interact with the world, and it is up to the characters (and the reader) to decide for themselves how to interpret these strange and seemingly coincidental events. To make a long story short Theseus grows in knowledge and confidence and eventually leaves his tiny home in order to find his fortune, and his earthly father, in the wider world. His journeys take him across the wild and bandit-infested Isthmus of Corinth first to the goddess-ruled city of Eleusis and ultimately to Athens. From his early victories and society-changing actions Theseus is finally driven to the event that will cement his name in the history and myths of his people forever: the yearly tribute of youths from Athens to the kingdom of Minos in Crete. Again Renault does a superlative job of taking what is, on the face of it, an utterly fantastic story and bringing its details down to earth without divesting it of its magic and mythic allure. The Minotaur may not be a true half-man half-beast, but he is no less a fascinating power against which Theseus must stand. The bulk of the novel concentrates on the time Theseus spends in Crete at the labyrinthine court of Minos as leader of a team of bull-dancers. These bull-dancers hold a special place in the hierarchy of Crete, on the one hand they are slaves destined to die at the hand of the god’s creature, the bull; on the other they are sacred and popular athletes who, so long as they survive, are showered with praise, gifts, and glory and are an untouchable segment of the populace, forever kept apart.All of the elements of the myth are here: the brutal and savage Minotaur looming in the background, the decaying and decadent reign of the monarch known to the world as Minos, the labyrinth built by Daidalos through which Theseus must creep guided only by a thread, and the doomed love of the hero for the unfortunate maiden Ariadne, but they are all subtly transformed. Renault’s transmutation of them in some ways brings them closer to us as they become more plausibly human and understandable as ‘real’ events, but she does not go so far as to allow them to lose the lustre that gives to all true myths the shine and glory which make them everlasting. Of course this is a Greek tale and thus tragedy is a prevalent thread throughout. The tale ends as the first phase of Theseus’ rise and adventures are coming to a close and sets the stage for the final phase of his story in The Bull from the Sea to which I look forward (with suitable fear and trembling on behalf of the man unfortunate enough to be the ‘hero’).Also posted at Shelf Inflicted

‘For a man in darkness, there is only one god to pray to.’ ‘The King Must Die’ is a historical novel by Mary Renault, first published in 1958. Set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in Crete, and Naxos, it traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, one of the heroes in Greek mythology. Ms Renault’s story constructs a story around Theseus which, while not a simple retelling of the myth, could form the basis of it. The story begins in Troizen, the land of Theseus’s grandfather, King Pittheus. Theseus believes that he is the son of the sea-god Poseidon, and when he discovers that he can sense earthquakes, he considers this is proof of his heritage. When he is seventeen, after lifting a stone to recover his father’s sword, he learns that his father is Aigeus, King of Athens. He decides to travel to Athens, but along the way he unexpectedly becomes the King of Eleusis.‘To be a king’, I thought, ‘what is it? To do justice, to go to war for one’s people, make their peace with the gods? Surely it is this.’Theseus eventually reaches Athens, meets his father and then volunteers to become one of the fourteen bull-dancers demanded as tribute by the King of Crete. He does not know whether he will survive, or whether he will return to Athens to see his father.‘It is a saying of the Bull Court that the longer you live there, the longer you may.’In this book, Theseus is made real by Ms Renault’s knowledge of archaeology, culture and history. He pays homage to Poseidon, but recognises the other gods who are part of the world in which he lives. The whole book is magnificent, but I especially enjoyed Theseus’s experiences in becoming a bull-dancer. This novel and its sequel, ‘The Bull From the Sea’ (published in 1962) are two of the best works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. Theseus’s adventures are - well - legendary, but what works best in this novel is the realistic context and plausible life that Ms Renault has created for him.‘Man born of women cannot outrun his fate. Better then not to question the Immortals, nor when they have spoken to grieve one’s heart in vain. A bound is set to our knowing, and wisdom is not to search beyond it. Men are only men.’Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Reviews
Jane
Brilliant retelling of the story of Theseus! I started this novel more as a duty than as enjoyment, but was soon plunged into the world of Bronze Age Greece. I can see why this novel has survived all these years and why Renault is a classic. However I have to ask myself, were this novel published in 2015 for the first time, would it be as popular as it was when first published in 1958? In Troizen, Theseus finds out he is heir to the king of Athens, by his strength in lifting a sword [similar motif as King Arthur!]. He travels there through Eleusis. The inhabitants are worshippers of a Mother Goddess, and are a matrilineal society. When in Athens, he is recognized as heir by King Aegius and cursed by the priestess Medea, who tries to poison him. Her chilling words: "You will cross water to dance in blood. You will be King of the victims. You will tread the maze through fire, and you will tread it through darkness. Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus: The Earth Bull, the Man Bull, and the Bull from the Sea."Her prophecy begins to be fulfilled when he becomes part of tribute to Crete; he travels there with a band of young people from Athens and Eleusis. He becomes a bull-dancer and leader of the little group. the "Cranes". While there, the Earth Bull is aroused resulting in a severe earthquake. After he kills the Minotaur, he and many other bull-dancers escape Crete to Naxos. Ariadne is left there--not abandoned cruelly as the original myth has it, but the culture there is close to the Cretan. The young people journey homeward, dropping off bull-dancers at their homes on the way.The book was much better than I thought it would be. It has not aged, in my opinion. I liked the author's taking elements from the myth, such as the Minotaur, the Labyrinth and Theseus's leaving Ariadne on Naxos and using them in her story in new, logical, completely unexpected ways. Her language was nothing short of marvelous. To me, there was a perfect balance of description and dialogue. I plan to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.
Cyn
Let me start off by saying, I will definitely read the other books in this series so that's a fairly good indication of how much I enjoyed this book. The story it told was one of the early Hellenic expansion in Greece which was also the beginning of the movement away from a more matriarchal, earth goddess culture to a patriarchal, Sky king culture. The book takes the story of Theseus and all it's exotic trappings and relates those well-known mythological events through a lens of realism. The gods and godesses of the age figure prominently in the book but they are not *characters* in the book which is a clever way of handling this part of the tale. Renault doesn't outright dismantle the mythology which would crush some of the magic in these stories but she doesn't dive into the realm of a fantasy novel either, she leaves the decision to the reader. Theseus remains the fortunate hero favored by the gods and he is a compelling character, even when you know the outcome of the entire story, you find the telling suspensful. I am taking a break between books but I am really looking forward to the next one.
Bap
This is a historical novel based on Theseus a Greek prince who has two fathers, one Poisiden and the other the king of Athens. He grows up unaware of his lineage and when he grows old enough and wise enough, while still a teen ager, to remove a rock and retrieve a sword, his mother sends him off to Athens to meet his father and his fate which includes along the way on the coast road a place where the woman rule and a king lives one year before being slain. Hence the king must die. He survives this challenge and breaks the spell and finally arrives in Athens. His father embraces him but the Greek cities are in a state of vassalage to Crete at the time and by way of tribute not only does each city give goods but also young men and woman to be sacrificed in Crete. Theseus volunteer to be part of the tribute and ultimately he kills the bull, the minoteur and an earthquake ruins Crete. He is aided by the kings daughter. They escape and return to Athens but his father believes that his son has perished, and he kills himself. Anyway, you get the general idea.Theseus is credited in Athens as the man who liberated Athens to allow it to take its place as a great city-stae.Mary Renault grew up in England and was a lesbian. She left England to settle in South Africa which had a greater tolerance for such matters--who knew?The book was good but it abounds in characters and situations that required a level of concentration which I did not bring to the reading or a basic knowledge of Greek mythology to fully appreciate the story.
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