Shadow and character: The King Must Die by Mary Renault

the king must dieThe King Must Die, Mary Renault (historical fiction)

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns glow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.               Our house is Hellene, sprung from the seed of Ever-Living Zeus. We worship the Sky Gods before Mother Dia and the gods of earth. And we have never mixed our blood with the blood of the Shore People, who had the land before us.                                                                 My grandfather had about fifteen children in his household, when I was born. But his queen and her sons were dead, leaving only my mother born in wedlock. As for my father, it was said in the Palace that I had been fathered by a god. By the time I was five, I had perceived that some people doubted this. But my mother never spoke of it; and I cannot remember a time when I should have cared to ask her.

The life story of Theseus, legendary Greek hero who killed the Minotaur, escaped slavery in Crete, and as king of Athens unified Greece and ushered in a golden age, begins with his pride in worshipping a father-god and his scorn of the goddess-worshipping Shore people. But right alongside this scorn is his respect for and awe of his mother, and she is a priestess of the goddess. The conflict between the older matriarchal societies and the patriarchal ones that conquer them is the context of Theseus’s life; in his case, the political is up close and personal. In this time when the father has begun to take precedence over the mother and being born in wedlock has become a very big deal, Theseus doesn’t know who his father is. His story in this first book is about how he tries to measure up to a mythical, absent man, and to his very-much-present grandfather, whose teaching – that a true king is a sacrifice for his people – informs and sustains Theseus when he goes as part of the tribute to dance in the bull ring in Crete.

Theseus’s surrender to the ideal of the king as a sacrifice sends him to Crete, but ‘surrender’ is temporary — as soon as his seasickness wears off, long before the ship reaches Crete, Theseus takes on his kingship by becoming the leader of the thirteen other captives. From then on he actively uses the ‘masculine’ strengths of intellect, courage, ambition, and athleticism to survive and thrive in the bull ring, until, with Ariadne’s help, he wins free of the Labyrinth and leads his people and the rest of the bull dancers out of Crete.

But his reverence for the Sky gods and their light blinds him; Theseus has trouble with the dark. He needs Ariadne’s help to unravel the secret of the Labyrinth, but when he understands her particular darkness, he deserts her. Throughout his life (see The Bull from the Sea) there is a push-pull between what he perceives as the dark goddesses of earth and the bright gods of the sky; since he can’t accept the dark feminine, he can’t see into the darkness, not in others or in himself, until events have worked themselves out.

One thought on “Shadow and character: The King Must Die by Mary Renault

  1. […] Evangeline Walton retold some of the lesser known stories from The Mabinogion (ancient Welsh): The Island of the Mighty; The Children of Llyr; *The Song of Rhiannon; and The Prince of Annwn. She wrote in the 1940s-50s but her books didn’t do well until they were reissued in the 1970s. She is a total word magician; her books are evocative, simply written, psychologically astute, bringing a mythical past alive. Just discovered: she wrote two books about Theseus, but didn’t even try to publish them during her lifetime, because that other magician of bringing the past to life, Mary Renault, had just published her Theseus books. (See earlier post.) […]

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