The King Must Die

by Mary Renault

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

The King Must Die is the story of the early years of Theseus, the legendary king of Athens. Set in pre-classical Greece and told by Theseus himself, the novel chronicles Theseus’ childhood, adolescence, and early manhood as the fatherless grandchild of King Pittheus of Troizen. As a young man, Theseus leaves Troizen in search of his father, King Aegeus of Athens, and in the process becomes involved in a lifelong struggle against the worship of Mother Dia, or Demeter, the goddess of fertility. The novel also describes in vivid detail Theseus’ adventures as a bull-dancer in Crete and his triumphant return to Athens.

Setting is of great importance in The King Must Die, and Renault organizes her novel in sections named for the places where events transpire. Book 1, “Troizen,” introduces Theseus as child in the court of King Pittheus, focusing on his difficulties with not knowing who his father is and his hope that he may be the son of the god Poseidon. He reveals to the reader his bravery, his sensitivity about his small stature, his highly sexed nature, and his desire to excel. The section culminates in his mother’s revelation that Theseus is the son of the king of Athens. As a result, he decides to journey to Athens to reveal himself to Aegeus.

In Book 2, “Eleusis,” Theseus accomplishes the dangerous crossing of the Isthmus, which joins the Peloponnesian Peninsula with Greece. When he arrives at Eleusis, a town outside Athens, he is forced to kill Kerkyon, the young husband of the queen of Eleusis, and to marry the queen. This marriage will ostensibly only last one year, when Theseus will be killed by the new king. Predictably, Theseus immediately begins to overturn the matriarchal rule of Eleusis and eventually succeeds in vanquishing the queen, establishing in her place a patriarchal form of government.

In Book 3, “Athens,” Theseus finally arrives at his father’s palace, but initially he does not tell Aegeus who he is, with the result that he is almost poisoned by his father’s mistress Medea, the famous Asian sorceress who has taken up residence in Athens. When Theseus does reveal his identity, Medea flees, but not before cursing Theseus, a curse that will eventually come to pass. Theseus has little time to establish a relationship with his father, for he volunteers to go to Crete as part of the tribute that the Cretan King Minos exacts from less-powerful kings. Before Theseus leaves for Crete, Theseus and Aegeus agree that if he lives to return, an unlikely possibility, he will put a white sail on his ship to signal that he lives.

The fourth and longest book of the novel, “Crete,” details Theseus’ experience in Crete as a bull-dancer, where he organizes his group of Athenian young men and women into the famous bull-team The Cranes. He immediately becomes the enemy of Asterion, who is supposedly the son of King Minos and his former wife Pasiphae but was actually fathered by a bull-dancer. When Theseus becomes the star of the bull-ring, Ariadne, the daughter of Pasiphae and Minos, falls in love with Theseus and the two become lovers. She, her father King Minos, and Theseus plot against Asterion, who is attempting to take over Crete. When an earthquake partially destroys the House of the Ax, or the “labyrinth,” Minos asks to be killed by Theseus. After Theseus organizes a battle and emerges as the leader of Crete, he and Ariadne quickly arrange to travel to Athens.

In the final book, “Naxos,” they stop off at the island of Naxos, where they encounter another...

(This entire section contains 678 words.)

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mother-worshipping culture in the process of sacrificing its year-king as part of a celebration in honor of the wine-god Dionysos. Horrified because Ariadne participates in the dismemberment of the young king, Theseus abandons her on Naxos and proceeds to Athens. After asking for a sign from Poseidon, he fails to paint his sail white, and Aegeus, thinking that his son is dead, commits suicide. The novel concludes as Theseus prepares to take up his rule as king of Athens.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

Mary Renault did not consider herself a feminist and did not wish to be discussed as a “woman writer.” Her novels, including The King Must Die, almost always focus on male protagonists and, as Carolyn Heilbrun has observed, fail to present powerful, independent women; instead, they depict female characters as vulnerable and weak. Gender issues do, however, appear in her fiction, and the tension between male and female power is an essential structuring principle of both The King Must Die and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

In The King Must Die, the powerful female principle represented by Mother Dia is resisted by Theseus, who wishes to transform earlier, earth-centered matriarchal structures into the male-dominated, sky-father worshipping culture of the Greeks. Theseus is frightened by the tremendous power of Mother Dia, a power that is based on her fecundity and regenerative potency, but he is always confident that masculine thinking, particularly in its political aspects, can overthrow the female principle. The depiction of women and female power in this novel is almost always unreservedly negative. Persephone, the queen of Eleusis, and Medea are presented as vicious, power-hungry women, and Ariadne is finally revealed to be capable of bloodthirsty, despicable action. Masculinity is equated with the Apollonian virtues of reason, light, order, and creativity, and it is no accident that Theseus flees to Apollo’s birthplace, the island of Delos, after abandoning Ariadne. The female principle is the enemy of true culture and civilization in this novel.

It is obvious that Mary Renault identified and concurred with Theseus’ belief in the superiority of masculine consciousness. An avid admirer of Apollo who named her own home “Delos,” she is quoted in David Sweetman’s biography of her as stating that Theseus’ fight against the female principle is “primitive man struggling to defend his new-found ego against the surrounding jungle of the unconscious . . .” In spite of Renault’s approval of Theseus’ behavior and orientation, however, The King Must Die inevitably forces the reader to speculate on the nature of female power.


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Burns, Landon D., Jr. “Men Are Only Men: The Novels of Mary Renault.” Critique 6, no. 3 (Winter, 1963): 102-121. Burns analyzes The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea as “legendary romance” rather than historical fiction and believes that the most important aspect of both novels is Theseus’ progression toward his “tragic maturity.”

Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Although Renault’s earlier novels set in contemporary England are discussed briefly, this book focuses on the fiction that takes place in the ancient world. Chapter 3, “To Be a King: The Theseus Novels,” looks at the sources of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea and analyzes both novels.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. “Women Writers and Female Characters: The Failure of Imagination.” In Reinventing Womanhood. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Heilbrun believes Renault to be representative of women writers who are unable to create characters that reflect their own autonomy and freedom and instead affirm patriarchal structures. Renault is discussed within the context of other women writers, including Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, and Penelope Mortimer.

Sweetman, David. Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. Sweetman looks at every aspect of Renault’s life and integrates discussions of her novels with the personal events of her life. This work, the only biography of Renault available, does an excellent job of introducing her to the reader.

Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault. New York: Twayne, 1969. This is the only full-length critical book on Renault that analyzes all of her work. Chapter 5, “The Mainland Savage,” contains an extended analysis of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. This study includes a chronology and bibliography, including secondary sources.


Critical Essays