The Bull from the Sea

by Mary Renault
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

The Bull from the Sea did not excite the same critical interest as did The King Must Die, and in general the novel suffers from comparison with its predecessor. Yet many of the techniques used in the earlier novel are evident in the sequel. Renault’s famous insistence on historical accuracy is once again obvious in The Bull from the Sea. Although Renault was not academically trained in classical culture, her extensive reading and research enabled her to write fiction that gives her readers a real sense of the culture and everyday life of the Greeks. In this novel, she combines history, myth, and legend with a greater emphasis on psychological realism to create the story of the mature Theseus.

As in The King Must Die, Theseus’ personality pervades the novel, and his detailed, lively descriptions of the settings and circumstances of his life hold the reader’s interest. While the earlier novel focused on Theseus’ physical adventures, however, this novel is much more psychologically based. An older, more thoughtful Theseus narrates a story that is largely a chronicle of his thoughts and feelings, in particular his responses to the people around him. The Bull from the Sea centers on his relationship with Hippolyta, Hippolytos, and Phaedra. His reactions to them define Theseus’ character, as his earlier exploits in The King Must Die shed light on who he was.

Theseus’ love for Hippolyta is treated sensitively and even romantically by Renault. As an Amazon warrior, Hippolyta represents everything that Theseus’ culture rejects in females. She is physically powerful, emotionally and socially independent, and resistant to acting and dressing in conventionally feminine ways. In personality and demeanor she is much more like Theseus himself, and it becomes obvious in the novel that in loving Hippolyta, Theseus is actually loving another version of himself. Her death in battle befits a king rather than a mistress-lover, and Theseus’ inability to recover from his loss underscores his absolute devotion to her.

His relationship with his Cretan wife is equally illuminating in regard to his attitudes toward women. Although Cretan, Phaedra represents the typical Greek woman of the time. Artificial in both appearance and manner, she has a clinging, dependent personality that inspires only contempt in Theseus, and he has neither interest in nor affection for her. She is diametrically opposed to Hippolyta in every way, most notably in her dishonesty and manipulation of others. Renault is unmitigatedly negative in her characterization of Phaedra through Theseus’ eyes, so much so that his murder of her seems both inevitable and deserved.

Much more complex is Theseus’ relationship with his son Hippolytos, a connection that reveals Theseus’ lack of respect and toleration for a type of manhood very different from his own. From childhood Hippolytos is a loner, a worshiper of Artemis, and a thinker. During his childhood, his penetrating questions disturb the unintellectual Theseus, who, when his son matures, is horrified that he chooses chastity rather than the culturally approved promiscuity of most young men of the time. Hippolytos’ interest in animals and healing confuses his father, who wishes his son instead to take a political interest in Athens. It is not until Hippolytos’ death that Theseus comes to understand his son’s strength of character.

In The King Must Die, Renault concentrates on finding rational reasons for many of the myths surrounding the legend of Theseus. While she does this to a degree in The Bull from the Sea, particularly in her depiction of the mythic half-horse, half-human Centaurs as completely human and her explanation of Theseus and Pirithoos’ mythic journey to Hades as a piracy expedition that fails, in general she is more interested in attempting to understand the nature of Theseus’ connections with other people. She has rewritten the Greek playwright Euripides’ version of Hippolytos to create sympathy for Hippolytos rather than Phaedra, and she has transformed the myth of Theseus and Hippolyta into a believable love story. The psychological dimension of myth is her focus here.

Perhaps most ambitious is her version of Theseus’ demise, which emphasizes the elderly man’s vulnerability and despair after a series of tragedies. Theseus’ decision to commit suicide, so different from the mythic story of his murder by King Lykomedes, is handled with dignity. It is the culmination of both novels’ interest in the concept of moira, or fate—of a king who must always be ready to sacrifice himself when the proper time comes. Although The Bull from the Sea lacks the intensity and excitement of The King Must Die, it movingly tells the story of the end of a great hero.

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