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...
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