The/The Bull from the Sea King Must Die Summary

Mary Renault

The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The life of the legendary Attican hero Theseus spanned a period of approximately fifty years. In The King Must Die, Mary Renault delineates the course of his life up to the age of eighteen, when he assumes the kingship of Athens; in The Bull from the Sea, she recounts the vicissitudes of Theseus’ subsequent career to his death on the Aegean isle of Skyros. The opening section of Renault’s earlier novel is set in the Peloponnesian city of Troizen, where Theseus’ maternal grandfather, Pittheus, is king. It is here that King Aigeus of Athens once stopped over for the purpose of boarding a ship that would take him across the Saronic Gulf back to Attica. Aigeus was returning from a visit to the Delphic Oracle, whose advice he had sought on the matter of how best to put an end to his childless state. Unfortunately, the response of the priestess was too obscure to be of any help. While Aigeus is still in Troizen, Pittheus receives an oracle of his own from a local priestess directing him to sacrifice the maidenhead of his daughter, Aithra, to appease the wrath of the Earth Mother. He therefore arranges a sexual union between Aithra and his Athenian guest. Before Aigeus resumes his journey, he buries a sword and a pair of sandals under a huge rock and instructs Aithra to send any male offspring from their union to Athens when the child comes of age, provided that he is able to move the rock and retrieve the buried objects. A boy is born in due course and is named Theseus. Since enemies of Aigeus would surely attempt to kill any offspring of his who might have a claim to the kingship of Athens, the true identity of Theseus’ father is kept secret from the people of Troizen as well as from the boy himself. Pittheus, moreover, adroitly encourages everyone to accept the rumor that Theseus is the son of Poseidon.

It is only when Theseus reaches the age of seventeen that his mother invites him to test his strength by lifting the rock under which Aigeus has buried the sword and the pair of sandals. After failing to dislodge the rock through sheer strength alone, Theseus decides to substitute wit for brawn by employing a lever to aid him in the task and thus succeeds in reclaiming the buried objects. He is, thereupon, informed for the very first time that he is the son of Aigeus and has now duly qualified himself to claim his birthright as the Athenian king’s heir. Theseus chooses to go to Athens by the hazardous land route over the isthmus rather than by sea. At Eleusis, a city located fourteen miles northwest of Athens, Theseus finds himself forced to engage in mortal combat with a man named Kerkyon. After killing him, Theseus learns that Kerkyon’s death was part of a matriarchal ritual in which the consort to the Queen is sacrificed annually and that he himself is the new Year-King. Acting on the basis of his own strong patriarchal instincts, Theseus quickly sets about organizing activities among the menfolk of Eleusis that are aimed at putting an end to the worship of the Earth Mother as well as to the social dominance of women. These efforts are strongly opposed by the Queen’s brother. When the two fight a duel, the men of Eleusis side with Theseus and help him turn defeat into victory. Theseus then goes to Athens to be purified for having shed the blood of a kinsman and uses the occasion to reveal his identity to Aigeus. Even though Theseus is convinced that his destiny lies in Athens, he still returns to Eleusis briefly out of concern for the welfare of his comrades there. Once back in Eleusis, he is declared king and the queen commits suicide. Prior to departing for Athens again, Theseus replaces the matriarchal form of worship with a mystery religion espoused by an itinerant Thracian bard named Orpheus.

Many Greek cities at that time were obliged to pay tribute to the ruler of Crete because a member of his royal household had once been killed in a brawl on the mainland. It was mandated that a number of young men and women were to be dispatched on a periodical basis to serve as bull-dancers in the arena located within the labyrinthine palace at Knossus. In addition to providing amusement for the effete nobility of Crete, the highly lethal sport of bull-dancing constituted a religious ritual whose purpose was to...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Dick, Bernard F. The Hellenism of Mary Renault, 1972.

Ward, Anne G. The Quest for Theseus, 1970.

Wolfe, Peter. Mary Renault, 1969.