Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

"By classical times the Theseus legend ... had so fabulous a garnish that it has sometimes been dismissed as pure fairy-tale, or, after Frazer, as religious myth. This briskness was not shared by those who had observed the remarkable durability of Greek tradition; and the rationalists had their first setback when Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the Palace of Knossos, with its labyrinthine complexity, eponymous sacred axes, numerous representations of youths and girls performing the Bull Dance, and seal-carvings of the bull-headed Minotaur. The most fantastic-seeming part of the story having thus been linked to fact, it becomes tempting to guess where else a fairy-tale gloss may have disguised human actualities."
Mary Renault, "Author's note", The King Must Die (1958 [1986]), p. 373.
I first read The King Must Die when I was 11 or 12. I was loaned a copy by my grandmother (who died when I was 14), I think because I'd been enthusing about the Cretan Chronicles role-playing books which were popular in my last year at primary school.

At the time, I was thrilled by the tale of high adventure in a richly drawn ancient world. I especially loved the brilliant conceit: using archaeological evidence to tell the "real" story behind the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. It clearly influenced me when I pulled the same trick (and about the same moment in history) for my Doctor Who book The Slitheen Excursion, and I'm writing something now that's along the same lines but set in a different period. (Far better than my lowly efforts, it's the trick pulled in Philip Reeve's amazing Here Lies Arthur.)

The book is extraordinary in its rich, convincing portrait of the ancient world - where different tribes and groups of people are distinctly drawn. I was also impressed by how much Renault confronted the sexual mores of the time - Theseus does not partake in but does not mind the frequent moments of gay sex. For a bestselling book written in the 1950s, that seemed especially extraordinary - though I've now read up a bit more about Renault and her work.

Renault's author's note at the end of the novel spells out  over two and a half pages her logical methods in making the legend "real". It's great that she performs the trick, then tells us how it's done and invites us to reread the legend (provided after the author's note) to judge how she's done. A select bibliography of learned tomes further adds to the chutzpah: she's challenging us to fault her. I also wonder how much these scholarly credentials dare us to question all the gay bits. I shall add David Sweetman's biography to my reading list in the hope of finding out.

And yet, reading the book again, I think there's a fundamental flaw: the palace of Knossos is destroyed by chance - the eruption of Kalliste is a force majeure. Renault works into the story that this is the Gods' response to Theseus' actions, but if the whole book is about undercutting myth with reality, this doesn't quite ring true. The defeat of the Minoans would have happened anyway, whatever our hero might have done.

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