Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Mary Renault’s final novel represents an appropriate conclusion to her series of eight novels dealing with Greek themes. In addition to these, she produced a biography of Alexander in 1975. Of the historical novels with a Greek setting, three—Fire from Heaven (1969), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games—deal with Alexander’s career and empire. Renault appeared captivated by Alexander’s enigmatic character, bold leadership, and genius in achieving the loyalty of his followers.

In Funeral Games, the narrative structure is episodic, arranged by sections for each year of the plot in the manner of a chronicle. The accounts of the plot’s early years are longer and more complicated than those for later years, and several years during the action are omitted. The style is both simple and arresting, and the novel flows smoothly, shifting gracefully from an omniscient narrator to a limited character point of view.

Critics have found numerous flaws in Renault’s art, particularly in her oversimplified characters and her use of anachronisms. Anachronism in this novel is minimal, but the characters are so numerous and the plot so complicated that few characters are well-rounded or well developed. Renault’s work bears comparison with Robert Graves’s series of historical novels, I, Claudius (1934). While the two novelists’ efforts to recapture a lost world are perhaps equally serious, Graves develops his narrative in much greater detail, and his characters evince more substantial development as individuals. Renault relies more heavily on the historical events themselves to hold the reader’s interest.