Mary Renault Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

All but two of the works published by Mary Renault (rehn-OHLT) are novels. The Lion in the Gateway: Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae (1964) is a children’s history of ancient Greek battles. The Nature of Alexander (1975) is a heavily documented biography placing the charismatic leader in the context of his time and customs, a book that also defines the two abiding preoccupations of Alexander’s life and Renault’s art. “Outward striving for honor,” the Greek to philotimo, balances arete, the profound inward thirst for achievement knowingly made beautiful. Together, as Alexander himself wrote, they win immortality: “It is a lovely thing to live with courage,/ and die leaving an everlasting fame.”


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Critics praised Mary Renault’s first five novels, written and set around World War II, for their realism, psychological depth, and literary technique. In 1946, one year prior to its publication, Return to Night won the MGM Award, $150,000, then the world’s largest literary prize. Although this novel was never made into a motion picture, the award brought Renault American acclaim, augmented later by the success of her Greek novels, but her work has never gained the academic attention it deserves. Renault received the National Association of Independent Schools Award in 1963 and the Silver Pen Award in 1971, and she was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Did her parents’ concern for her future turn out to be an advantage for Mary Renault?

Explain how Renault’s interest in Greek literature allowed her to deal significantly with the problems of her own time.

Renault was not unusual in writing about homosexual relationships, but was she more candid than her contemporaries in treating this subject?

Many writers of historical fiction take generous liberties with history. Where does Renault stand in this respect?

What did Renault learn as a nurse that helped her in writing fiction?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Burns, Landon C., Jr. “Men Are Only Men: The Novels of Mary Renault.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 4 (Winter, 1963): 102-121. A good but limited look at Renault’s historical fiction. Burns examines character, theme, and use of classical myth in The Last of the Wine, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea.

Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1972. An excellent introduction to Renault’s work, examining her entire literary output through Fire from Heaven. Places Renault in the mainstream of fiction and applauds her as one of the most creative historical novelists of the twentieth century.

Sweetman, David. Mary Renault: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. The first part explores Renault’s life in England, including her education at Oxford. The second part describes her years in South Africa. A fascinating study of Renault’s sexuality as it relates to her historical novels. Includes a bibliography.

Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault. New York: Twayne, 1969. The first full-length examination of the writer. Wolfe’s study is both a plea for Renault’s recognition by the critics as an important twentieth century writer and a critical analysis of her work. He has high praise for most of her novels but dislikes North Face and The Bull from the Sea.