The King Must Die

by Mary Renault

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

Mary Renault is famous for the uncompromising historical accuracy of her novels that are set in the ancient world. Although she is not academically trained in classical culture, her extensive reading and research enable her to construct novels that give the reader a real sense of the culture and everyday lives of the Greeks. In The King Must Die, she combines history, myth, legend, and archaeological evidence to provide a fascinating and believable background for the adventures of young Theseus.

Having Theseus tell his own story in first-person narration lends an immediacy and liveliness to the novel that are matched by the fast-paced chronological development of the plot. Theseus’ personality pervades the novel and keeps the reader intimately involved in his plight. He is intelligent but not intellectual, sensitive, highly sexed, and sometimes misogynistic, and he unfailingly provides precise details about the people, places, and cultures he encounters. Although unabashedly proud of his Hellenic heritage, he is curious about Eleusis and Crete, which enables Renault to provide readers with the fruits of her research into these cultures. For example, the emotional center of the novel is located in the “Crete” section. Theseus’ descriptions of the sophisticated, pampered lifestyle of the Cretans, their artwork, and the lives of the bull-dancers have an almost documentary-like realism.

Mary Renault’s enormous knowledge of Greek mythology is also an important component of the The King Must Die, in which she uses several of the most important Greek myths to illuminate Theseus’ exploits. Myths, for Renault, are modern misreadings of what were originally true events. Mythic characters such as Medea, Ariadne, King Minos, and Theseus himself are repeatedly revealed as all-too-human individuals whose histories have been exaggerated and distorted by later accounts. Medea, for example, is treated as an intelligent, powerful woman who effectively manipulates the fears of those around her to gain her ends. The legendary King Minos is characterized as an ill, aging, fearful ruler who wants to ensure his daughter’s safety so that he can die in peace. Renault’s rewriting of the mythic Minotaur as the depraved, power-hungry Asterion humanizes the myth and sets up a plausible conflict between him and Theseus.

Even more creative is Renault’s refashioning of several of the most important myths that surround the character of Theseus. Always searching for rational explanations of the more fantastical elements of mythology, Renault has Theseus acknowledge that his legendary journey across the Isthmus, when he supposedly accomplished larger-than-life feats, was wildly exaggerated even during his own lifetime. His successful battles with human monsters such as Sinis Pinebender are explained as political moves in his attempt to unify Athens, and his failure to change the color of his sail to signal his return to his father is depicted as the result of his special relationship with Poseidon. Perhaps most interesting is Renault’s explanation of why Theseus abandoned Ariadne. This action is justified by Ariadne’s behavior during a Dionysian festival rather than being a consequence of Theseus’ brutality or indifference. In fact, it is another example of Theseus’ canny political agenda, for the reader realizes that his plans for a strong, invulnerable Athens cannot include a woman from a female-centered, decadent culture such as that of Crete.

Renault’s knowledge of Greek culture and ideas is central to the historical integrity of her novels. The King Must Die serves as an excellent introduction to the various dimensions of Hellenic life. A conversation between King Pittheus and a very young Theseus contains an excellent description of the concept of moira, or fate, in Greek culture, just as Renault’s depictions of the deaths of the young Eleusinian king and the young king of Naxos provide insight into the pharmakos, or scapegoat, ritual of killing certain individuals to ensure the health and safety of the group. The profoundly religious nature of Greek thinking and the relationships between gods and humans are explored in depth, particularly the notion that human beings cannot ever hope to rival the gods in any area of life. Mary Renault’s love and respect for the Greeks make this novel a testimonial to Greek culture.

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