The/The Bull from the Sea King Must Die Themes

Mary Renault

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The sacred character of the kingship is one of the two major themes that link the ideological content of both novels. The other theme pertains to the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal values. In the author’s note accompanying The Bull from the Sea, Mary Renault summarizes the nature of this conflict for the benefit of those readers who are unfamiliar with the earlier novel. For the most part, she uses the occasion to reiterate the information related by Pittheus to Theseus in one of the opening chapters in The King Must Die. Here, Pittheus lectures his twelve-year-old grandson about the matriarchal societies that existed among the autochthonous inhabitants of Greece prior to their subjugation by Hellenic invaders. Throughout The King Must Die, Renault refers to these worshipers of the Earth Mother as “Minyans,” a designation which is difficult to justify on historical grounds. “Pelasgians” would have been far more appropriate.) In The Bull from the Sea, however, she has a change of heart and switches to the term “Shorefolk.” Theseus himself was to encounter two matriarchal societies at first hand, one at the city of Eleusis and the other on the island of Naxos. In each of these communities, a consort to the queen is put to death annually as part of an agricultural fertility rite similar to those delineated in the anthropological studies written by Sir James George Frazer and Jane Harrison.

It is clear that Renault finds both patriarchy and matriarchy to be one-sided and that she favors a fusion of the male and female principles. On an individual basis, such a fusion is best exemplified by the character traits of Hippolytos. The closest that Theseus ever comes to recognizing the merit of the feminine principle occurs when he joins Orpheus in establishing a mystery religion at Eleusis in honor of a goddess.