Mary Renault’s novels celebrate and eulogize people’s potential but transitory glory, a combination difficult for a world that has relinquished its acquaintance with the classics. Critic Peter Wolfe has described Renault’s first five novels as her literary apprenticeship, “1930’s novels” marked by then-fashionable themes of political engagement and sexual liberation. Bernard F. Dick has argued that her early fiction was influenced by the restrictive, pain-filled atmosphere of a World War II surgical hospital. Both are partly correct; Renault’s early work deals with the individual’s freedom from contemporary power structures and stifling social conventions.
Such topical concerns, however appealing to modern readers, are nevertheless peripheral to the core of Renault’s art, the Platonism that she followed to the mythic depths in her later novels. When she began to write, Renault was already familiar with the Theory of Ideas developed in Plato’s dialogues, wherein everything perceptible by human senses is imitative of changeless perfect Ideas beyond time and space. Each Idea corresponds to a class of earthly objects, all of which must inevitably change, leaving the Ideas the only objects of true knowledge in the universe. A transitory earthly object, however, may remind people of the Idea it represents. Plato theorized that before entering the body, the soul had encountered the infinite Ideas, and that, once embodied, the soul might vaguely remember them. Renault often convincingly incorporates Plato’s anamnesis, the doctrine that “learning is recollection,” in her fiction. Plato also believed that human recognition of such natural truths as the mathematically perfect circle could lead people stepwise to the contemplation of Absolute Truth, which he equated with Absolute Goodness and Absolute Beauty. He taught that the immortal human soul may be reborn through metempsychosis, or transmigration, another concept found throughout Renault’s work.
Renault’s novels are also informed by Plato’s theory of love as defined by Socrates in The Symposium (c. 388-368 b.c.e.): Love is the desire for immortality through possession of or union with the Beautiful. Love manifests itself on its lowest levels by human sexuality, proceeds upward through intellectual achievement, and culminates in a mystical union of the soul with the Idea of Beauty. That Renault’s heroes aspire to such union is their glory; that being mortal they must fail is the fate she eulogizes.
Plato, like most classical Greeks, allowed heterosexual love only the lowest rung on his ladder of love, as the necessary element for reproduction. Only the homosexual relationship was considered capable of inspiring the lifelong friendships that offered each partner the ideal of arete. All of Renault’s novels illustrate some aspect of Platonic love; in the first, Promise of Love, she shows Vivian, a nurse, and Mic, who loves her because she resembles her brother Jan, achieving self-knowledge not through sexual passion but by affection, the ultimate stage of Platonic love, which at the close of the novel “recalls the true lover of [Plato’s dialogue] the Phaedrus who is willing to sleep like a servant at the side of his beloved.”
Renault’s other early novels also have strong Platonic elements. Kind Are Her Answers foreshadows her interest in theater as mimetic form, Plato’s first literary love, which she realized more fully in The Mask of Apollo. Her third novel, The Middle Mist, concludes with references to Plato’s Lysis, his dialogue on friendship that claims that erotic satisfaction destroys philia, the more permanent nonphysical union promised by Platonic love, a theme to which Renault returned more successfully in The Last of the Wine. Renault attempted unconvincingly in Return to Night and North Face to state the amor vincit omnia tradition of “women’s fiction” in mythological metaphors, and found that she had to develop a new fictional mode capable of expressing her archetypal themes with Platonic concepts.
Not published in the United States until 1959 because of its forthright treatment of homosexuality, The Charioteer is the only Renault novel to incorporate a systematic development of Platonic philosophy as the vehicle for commentary on contemporary life. In the Phaedrus (c. 388-368 b.c.e.), Plato depicted reason as a charioteer who must balance the thrust of the white horse of honor against the unruly black horse of passion. The image unifies Renault’s tale of Laurie Odell, wounded at Dunkirk, who must come to terms with his homosexuality. After his friendship with the sexually naïve conscientious objector Andrew Raines dissolves, Laurie finds a lifelong partner in Ralph Lanyon, who brought him back wounded after they had fought at Dunkirk. Laurie attains an equilibrium between the two conflicting halves of his nature in a Platonic denial of sexual excess. As Renault comments in the epilogue, a Greek device she favors, “Now their [the horses’] heads droop side by side till their long manes mingle; and when the charioteer falls silent they are reconciled for a night in sleep.”
In the ideal Platonic pattern, the older man assumes a compassionate responsibility for the honor of the younger, altogether transcending physical attraction and cemented by shared courage in battle. Renault’s efforts at an entirely convincing presentation of such friendship are hindered by the intolerance with which homosexual relationships were usually viewed in the society of her time and the often pathetic insecurity it forced upon them. Despite these handicaps, Renault sympathetically portrays Laurie as “a modern Hephaestus, or maimed artist,” as Wolfe notes, a character who wins admiration through striving to heal his injured life and nature and make of them something lasting and beautiful.
From roots far deeper than Plato’s philosophy, Renault developed the vital impulse of her eight Greek novels, her major literary achievement. Central is the duality of Apollo and Dionysus, names the Greeks gave to the forces of the mind and of the heart, gods whose realms the mythologist Walter F. Otto has described as “sharply opposed” yet “in reality joined together by an eternal bond.” In Greek myth, Zeus’s archer son Apollo, wielder of the two-sided weapon of Truth, endowed people with the heavenly light called Art, by which he admonished humankind to self-knowledge and moderation through his oracle at Delphi. Paradoxically, Apollo shared his temple and the festival year at Delphi with his mysterious brother Dionysus, god of overwhelming ecstasy, born of mortal woman and all-powerful Zeus, torn apart each year to rise again, offering both wine’s solace and its madness to humankind. Thought and emotion were the two faces of the Greek coin of life—in Otto’s words, “the eternal contrast between a restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit.”
Each of Renault’s Greek novels focuses on a crucial nexus of physical and spiritual existence in Greek history. The age of legendary heroes such as Theseus of Athens, subject of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, was followed by the Trojan War, 1200 b.c.e., the stuff of classical epic and tragedy and the harbinger of Greece’s Dark Age, when only Athens stood against the Dorian invasion. By the sixth century b.c.e., the setting of The Praise Singer, Athens, under the benevolent tyrant Pisistratus, had become the model polis of the Greek peninsula, building a democracy that repelled imperial Persia and fostered the world’s greatest tragedies in their Dionysian festivals. The Last of the Wine treats the fall of Athens to Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, 404 b.c.e., torn by internal strife and bled by foreign expansion. The restored Athenian democracy of a half-century later is the milieu of The Mask of Apollo. Shortly after Plato’s death, his pupil Aristotle taught a prince in Macedon who dreams of Homeric deeds in Fire from Heaven, accomplishes them in The Persian Boy, and leaves an empire to be shattered by lesser men in Funeral Games—Alexander the Great.
The Last of the Wine
The Last of the Wine, like most of Renault’s Greek fiction, is ostensibly a memoir, a form favored by classical authors. Its fictional narrator, a young and “beautiful” Athenian knight named Alexias, endures the agonizing aftermath of Athens’s ill-fated Sicilian venture under Alkibiades, the magnetic but flawed former student of Sokrates. With Lysis, the historical figure on whom Plato modeled his dialogue on ideal friendship, Alexias begins the idealistic attachment they learned together from Sokrates, but physical passion, handled with sensitivity by Renault, overcomes them, and they ruefully must compromise their ideal. Sacrificing his honor for Lysis during the famine caused by the Spartan siege of Athens, Alexias models for sculptors, at least one lascivious, to feed his wounded friend, and in the battle to restore Athenian democracy, Lysis falls gloriously with Alexias’s name...
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