Renault, Mary. The King Must Die.

NY: Pantheon, 1958.

I first got hooked on history, and therefore on historical fiction, as a highly imaginative and rather geeky kid living in Europe in the ‘50s. Anywhere we went, I could look around and see buildings and street scenes that were ancient before the United States was even invented, and it affected me on a deep level.

I read a lot of Thomas Costain and Samuel Shellabarger and Lawrence Schoonover. Then I discovered Mary Renault a couple of years after the publication of this novel — her second historical — and I became an instant fan. She has the special talent of taking myth and recasting it as “history as it might actually have been.”

The narrator is Theseus, beginning with his early childhood in the Mycenaean-era palace at Troizen on the northwest shore of the Peloponnese. He’s the grandson of the local king, the son of the community’s priestess, and he’s confident he has a destiny to fulfill, though he doesn’t yet know what it is. He lives in what we would regard as an “age of myth,” but that only means Theseus and his contemporaries see the world through a particular sort of lens that is foreign to us, based on specific societal values that we would find strange. But Renault understands them. Richard Hofstadter called a myth a legend magnified by tradition and accepted as the historical beginning of a nation, and that’s exactly what Theseus was to the later Greeks: The founder of the Athenian city-state, the synoikismos (unification) of Attica.

As a boy, Theseus is prone to experiencing omens, which makes him something of an oracle to those around him, an explainer of what the gods want from man. And he experiences and accepts the concept of moira — personal fate — at a visceral level. And he takes part in the sacrificial death of the King Horse to the sky gods, a feature of the religion of the stock-raising Hellenes before they invaded Greece. When he’s in doubt about what he should do, he goes directly to the gods, especially Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, whom he once thought was his father and later regards as his special “patron.”

In his teens, Theseus discovers the true identity of his father — he’s the king of the town of Athens, living on the fortified Acropolis — and sets off to reveal his existence and claim his inheritance. This involves traveling up the bandit-ridden Isthmus, where he makes a name for himself clearing out the Bad Guys, but then he fetches up at Eleusis, which is only a few miles from Athens but of another culture entirely. Eleusis is still ruled by the pre-Hellenic indigenous matrilineal culture that worships the Earth Mother and which follows the tradition of the Year-King, who must die every year for the benefit of the people and their crops, to be replaced by the next Year-King. But Theseus will change things, which is part of his job as a Hero. (And “hero” is another term with a very special meaning in Greek myth.)

It takes awhile, but he finally makes his way to Athens, no longer merely a supplicant but as the ruler of a neighboring state — the first step in Attica’s unification, a process he will continue by actual military conquest on his father’s behalf. But lurking in the background throughout the first part of the story is the incontestable naval power of Minoan Crete, demanding and collecting tribute from all the small kingdoms of coastal mainland Greece. For Athens, that tribute consists of an annual offering of adolescent boys and girls, drawn by lot, who will be sacrificed to Cretan religious practices. To protect his honor, Theseus finds himself forced to volunteer as part of the offering — another king who must face his almost certain death. And so he sails for Knossos.

On the voyage there, Theseus once again demonstrates his unique leadership — his innate kingship — by converting a loose group of teenagers into a disciplined, united team determined to survive whatever comes. And so they arrive at the great palace without walls, where Theseus must once again learn to understand and to deal with a foreign culture, and where he re-makes himself once again, this time into a successful bull-dancer, a sacrifice offered to Poseidon. But the Cretans have allowed their religion to degenerate into mere sport and Theseus knows the gods are unhappy about that. There’s going to be a reckoning, and he will be the agent of it.

This is not an enormously long book, only a little over 300 pages, but the ideas and action and descriptions are so packed together, it seems like an epic of much greater length. And, in fact, the rest of Theseus’s story is told in the sequel, The Bull from the Sea, which you should have ready to hand. I reread both books (and several of Renault’s other novels set in the ancient world) every decade or so. They’re vivid and exciting and thoughtful and instructive and every time I settle down to immerse myself in Theseus’s life, it’s like going back to a museum to look yet again at a well-loved painting. If someone who had never read an historical novel before asked me for a recommendation (and they have done), this is the first book I would hand them.

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