Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
Renault, given her strained relations with her mother, often wrote about mothers’ relationships with their children. In her novels, she frequently portrayed mothers as vacuous, manipulative, injudicious, and destructive. In her later novels, Renault deals quite harshly with women in general. She made it clear in her social life that she preferred the company of men, usually homosexuals, and in interviews she vehemently denied being a feminist, nor did she wish to be viewed as a woman author, regarding herself simply as an author.
In The King Must Die, Renault is concerned with the matriarchal social and political structure of ancient Greece. The book is about Theseus, who vanquishes the king, a man who, through established tradition, was chosen by the queen and, after a year of marriage, sacrificed and replaced with a new king, who would also be sacrificed after his year of marriage. Renault’s Theseus is small but wiry. He has exceptionally quick reflexes.
Theseus, passing through Eleusis en route to Athens, wrestles the reigning king to his death, snapping his neck like a twig, whereupon Theseus becomes king. When his year ends, however, he eludes being sacrificed by killing his wife’s brother and pressing on to Athens, where he seeks to weaken Medea’s hold on his father’s court. He then volunteers to go to Crete as a performer in the bull court, a ceremony dedicated to the mother-goddess.
Theseus, in keeping with Greek legend, goes into the labyrinth for a meeting with Ariadne, priestess of the mother-goddess, who gives him the thread that will enable him to retrace his steps. He ultimately marries Ariadne, only to abandon her on the island of Naxos. Departing from the classical legend, in which Ariadne kills herself, Renault has her instead join the Bacchae in their revelry.
Theseus sails to Athens, but, on approaching the city, fails to unfurl the white sail, a prearranged signal that he is safe. His father, Aigeus, dies, thinking Theseus has been killed, thereby leaving it to Theseus to eliminate the old order, end the female domination of Athenian society, and usher in the Golden Age of Athens, which he turns into a thriving, male-dominated society.
In The King Must Die, Renault pushes her disdain of mothers into a broad arena. In choosing to write about the fall of the classical matriarchal system, she seems to be casting her lot with a male-dominated society.