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Theseus #1

The King Must Die

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Theseus is the grandson of the King of Troizen, but his paternity is shrouded in mystery. When he discovers his father's sword beneath a rock, his mother reveals his true identity: Theseus is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and is his only heir. So begin Theseus's adventures. He undertakes the perilous journey to his father's palace, escaping bandits and ritual sacrifice in Eleusis, and slays the fearsome Minotaur in Knossos. Weaving legend and historical research, Renault breathes new life into the Theseus myth.

338 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1958

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About the author

Mary Renault

35 books1,372 followers
Mary Renault was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. In a sense, The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, is a warm-up for Renault's historical novels. By turning away from the 20th century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns, while examining the nature of love and leadership. The Charioteer could not be published in the U.S. until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.

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Profile Image for Terry .
402 reviews2,148 followers
April 10, 2013
The past, they say, is a foreign country. One might even go so far as to say that it is another world full of strange wonders and people who both fascinate and repel. I imagine that is why history so intrigues me and I definitely approach the subject with a heaping portion of romance as I in no way attempt to diminish the veneer and lustre which the intervening ages bring to previous eras. Despite this fascination I generally find myself of two minds when it comes to historical fiction. While the subject matter fascinates me and the promise of even vicariously visiting that foreign country, the past, is a powerfully attractive one I often find myself somewhat unimpressed by many of the books I have sampled in the genre which, for one reason or another, often fail to capture my interest. Sometimes I am critical of the anachronisms (real or perceived) that seem to litter these books as the writer attempts to make the past perhaps a bit too relatable to our present world. Other times I am simply unimpressed by mediocre writing (I imagine it is no more prevalent in this genre than any other, but somehow it particularly grates when I find it here). Then again, sometimes I am simply not interested in what turns out to be more a history lesson than a story with blood and life to it. I was glad therefore to have found Mary Renault’s _The King Must Die_ which proved to be both well-written, full of particular human interest, and displayed the wonder and strangeness of the past in all of its glory. I also consider it something of a return to the love affair I had in my youth with the Hellenic myths which seemed to fall to the wayside as I grew older and other interests crowded them out.

Renault takes as her subject the early Hellenic expansion among the Greek archipelago when the ancient chthonic mother-goddess religions of the autochthonous peoples (the “earthlings”) were being displaced by the more patriarchal sky-god religions of the invaders. The title of the book itself refers to the ancient tradition that the year-king married the goddess (or more accurately her avatar the high priestess) and would then be killed as a yearly sacrifice to the Great Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the harvest and safety of the people. Into this tradition she incorporates the story of Theseus and his rise to fame and power. The son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom, Theseus has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. Theseus comes to learn that some of his preconceptions about his birth may not be literally true, though he never loses the sense that there is a deep connection between himself and the Earth-shaker. I like how Renault handles this aspect of her story. The power of the gods and goddesses of the ancient religions permeates the story and is never simply disproved or denied, yet she also doesn’t make them explicit characters in the story and go fully into the realm of fantasy. There are indications of the ways in which these divinities interact with the world, and it is up to the characters (and the reader) to decide for themselves how to interpret these strange and seemingly coincidental events.

To make a long story short Theseus grows in knowledge and confidence and eventually leaves his tiny home in order to find his fortune, and his earthly father, in the wider world. His journeys take him across the wild and bandit-infested Isthmus of Corinth first to the goddess-ruled city of Eleusis and ultimately to Athens. From his early victories and society-changing actions Theseus is finally driven to the event that will cement his name in the history and myths of his people forever: the yearly tribute of youths from Athens to the kingdom of Minos in Crete. Again Renault does a superlative job of taking what is, on the face of it, an utterly fantastic story and bringing its details down to earth without divesting it of its magic and mythic allure. The Minotaur may not be a true half-man half-beast, but he is no less a fascinating power against which Theseus must stand. The bulk of the novel concentrates on the time Theseus spends in Crete at the labyrinthine court of Minos as leader of a team of bull-dancers. These bull-dancers hold a special place in the hierarchy of Crete, on the one hand they are slaves destined to die at the hand of the god’s creature, the bull; on the other they are sacred and popular athletes who, so long as they survive, are showered with praise, gifts, and glory and are an untouchable segment of the populace, forever kept apart.

All of the elements of the myth are here: the brutal and savage Minotaur looming in the background, the decaying and decadent reign of the monarch known to the world as Minos, the labyrinth built by Daidalos through which Theseus must creep guided only by a thread, and the doomed love of the hero for the unfortunate maiden Ariadne, but they are all subtly transformed. Renault’s transmutation of them in some ways brings them closer to us as they become more plausibly human and understandable as ‘real’ events, but she does not go so far as to allow them to lose the lustre that gives to all true myths the shine and glory which make them everlasting. Of course this is a Greek tale and thus tragedy is a prevalent thread throughout. The tale ends as the first phase of Theseus’ rise and adventures are coming to a close and sets the stage for the final phase of his story in The Bull from the Sea to which I look forward (with suitable fear and trembling on behalf of the man unfortunate enough to be the ‘hero’).

Also posted at Shelf Inflicted
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books177 followers
May 2, 2023

The historical Theseus??

Renault attempts to recreate the story of Theseus as it might have occurred in history. There is no monstrous minotaur, and the Athenian youth who must come to Crete as reparation serve as bull dancers, an aesthetic precursor to the toreador. The novel is conceptually interesting and rich in historical detail.
Profile Image for Martin.
327 reviews143 followers
May 5, 2022
Theseus - the man behind the legend
The boy-bull dancer against the Minotaur


The secret birth of the Hero. In the tradition of Moses and King Arthur his birth was surrounded by secrecy, his upbringing in a provincial town away from the eyes of his rivals. This was to protect him until he could come to the aid of his father.
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.

Poseidon - god of the sea, horses and earthquakes. The seven year old Theseus was to serve at the temple of Poseidon where he found the gift of the god.
Another boy came to the sanctuary. He said, “Who is your father, towhead?”
With a bold front and sinking belly, I answered, “Poseidon. That’s why I am here.”


One day of midsummer, when I was ten years old, the noon stillness seemed heavier than I had ever known it. The grass of the grove was pale with drought; the mat of pine needles muffled every sound. No bird was singing; even the cicadas were dumb; the pine-tops stood unmoving against the deep blue sky, as stiff as bronze. When I wheeled in the tripod, its rattling seemed like thunder, and made me uneasy, I could not tell why. I trod soft-footed, and kept the vessels from chinking. And all the while I was thinking, “I have felt this before.”
I was glad to have done, and did not go to the spring, but straight outside, where I stood with my skin prickling. Up came Simo and said to me, “Well, son of Poseidon? Have you been talking to Father?”
I could not endure his voice sawing at the stillness. The offended silence seemed to brood around us. “Go away!” I said. “Can’t you feel Poseidon is angry?”
He stared at me; then gave a jeering whinny. As it left his mouth, the air above us was loud with whirring wings. All the birds in the grove had left their trees, and hung above uttering their warning calls. At the sound I tingled all over, body, limbs, and head. I did not know what oppressed me so; but Simo’s laughter was past bearing. I shouted, “Get out!” and stamped my foot.
My foot struck the earth; and the earth moved.
I felt a rumbling, and a sideways ripple, such as some huge horse’s flank might give to shake off flies. There was a great noise of cracking timber, and the roof of the shrine came leaning down toward us. Men shouted, women shrieked, dogs barked, howled and suddenly there was cold water all about my feet. It was pouring out from the sanctuary, from the rocks of the holy spring.
I stood half dazed. In all the din, I felt my head clear and lighten, like the air after thunder. “It was this,” I thought. “I felt it coming.” Then I remembered how I had felt strange, and cried, when I was four years old.
Everywhere in the precinct and beyond, people invoked Poseidon Earth-Shaker, and vowed him offerings if he would be still. Then close at hand I heard a voice weeping and bawling. Simo was walking backwards, his clenched fist pressed in homage to his brow, and crying, “I believe! I believe! Don’t let him kill me!”
As he blubbered, he backed into a slab of rock, and went down flat, and started to roar, so that the priests came running, thinking he was hurt. He went on babbling and pointing at me, while I stood too shaken to be glad, swallowing tears and wishing for my mother.
. . .
No one was killed in the earthquake; and of the houses cracked or broken, none fell right down. My grandfather sent the Palace workmen with two new columns for the shrine; they mended the conduit of the holy spring, and the water returned to its course again. He came out himself to see the work, and called me to him.
“I hear,” he said, “that the god sent you a warning.”
I had been long alone with my thought, till I hardly knew the truth any longer; but this came as true to me. He knew such things, because he was priest as well as king. My mind rested.
“Henceforth,” he said, “you will know it again. If it comes to you, run out of doors, and call to the people that Poseidon is angry. Then they can save themselves, before the houses fall. Such warnings are a favor of the god. Try to be worthy.”

At seventeen his mother leads him to the hidden shrine of Zeus where he will learn of his real father
She led me up to the sacred oak, and stopped; and I saw at her feet a stone.
I knew it. I had found it as a boy, when Dexios and I first went tiptoe to the oak wood, daring each other under the gaze of the trees; the dryads who live there stare harder into one’s back than anywhere else I know. It was an old gray slab; put there for an altar, I suppose, when Zeus first hurled his thunder. I had never met anyone there, yet often there were fresh ashes, as if someone had been offering. Now they were there again, looking almost warm. Suddenly I wondered if it was my mother who came. Perhaps she had had some omen she meant to tell me of. I turned to her, feeling gooseflesh on my arms.
“Theseus,” she said. Her voice sounded hoarse, and I looked at her surprised. She blinked, and I saw her eyes were wet. “Do not be angry with me; it is no choice of mine. I swore your father the oath gods dare not break; or I would not do it. I promised him by the River, and the Daughters of Night, not to tell you who you are, unless by yourself you could lift this stone.”
For a moment my heart leaped up; royal priestesses do not take such vows at the bidding of base-born men. Then I looked again, and saw why she had wept.
She swallowed so hard that I heard it. “The proofs he left for you are buried there. He said I should try you at sixteen, but I saw it was too soon. But now I must.” Her tears ran down, and she wiped her face with her hands.
Presently I said, “Very well, Mother. But sit over there, and do not watch me.”
I crouched by the stone, and dug with my hands to find the lower edge. Then I loosened it round, scraping like a dog the earth away, hoping to find it thinner at the other end. But it was thicker there. So I went back, and straddled it, and hooked my fingers under it, and pulled. I could not even stir it.
It put me in a rage. I seized the stone and worried at it, more like a beast than a man, feeling my hands bleed and my sinews cracking. I had forgotten even my mother, till I heard the sound of her skirt and her running feet, and her voice crying, “Stop!”
I turned to her with my face dripping sweat. I was so beside myself that I shouted at her, as if she had been a peasant, “I told you to stay away!”
“Are you mad, Theseus?” she said.
“You will kill yourself.”
“Why not?” I said.


A harper told his tale of how the great lintels were lifted up to create Stonehenge.
I had been dreaming; and, being wakened, remembered my dream. I had seen the Hyperborean sanctuary, great hoists and engines standing against a gray sky, great stones rising, and kings leaning on the levers. And a thought came to me, sent straight from the god.
I got up, and went out to the yard of the Palace woodman. I found a short thick log and two longer ones, whose ends I trimmed to wedges. I bound them up, and getting them unhandily on my shoulders—for I was not used to carrying burdens—set out for the oak wood.
Sunrise glowed red as I climbed along the gorge; when I reached the grove, I saw the altar-slab all scattered with brightness, like the harper’s robe. I put down my load, and prayed to Apollo.
“Paian Apollo,” I said to him, “Apollo Longsight! If I am offending any god by this, send me an omen.”
I looked up. Blue had come into the sky; and wheeling high above I saw an eagle. He tilted his wing and swept away to the left, and the boughs hid him. “Well,” I thought, “no god could say better than that,” and then, “I should have come before to him.” For I had felt too much and reasoned too little, hearing what I was ready to hear, not what had been said. There had been nothing at all about raising the stone with my bare hands; only that I must do it alone.
I worked the lever well under, and stretched my back; the end of the stone rose up, and I kicked the fulcrum under. Then, when I was going to bear down, I remembered there was something to get out from below; when I let go of the lever, the stone would fall again. I sat down to think, on the root of the oak tree; and, seeing it stand above the ground, I saw my way. It was lucky I had brought a longer lever. It would just reach to wedge under the oak root.
The bundle distasted me; I wished my work undone, and the hidden fate left sleeping in the earth. Then I shook myself like a dog, and snatched at the cloth and jerked it. Gold tumbled and flashed in the light. Some knowledge came to me, that I must not let the thing fall to the ground, that it would be a bad omen. I am a man who can move quickly on a thought, and I caught it in mid-air. Then I knew why it must not fall. It was a sword.
The cloth had kept clean the hilt from earth. I saw it was richer than my grandfather’s. The grip was a cunning knot of twisted serpents; their outthrust heads made the guard, and their tails overlapped the blade, which, though green with time, was perfect still, the work of a master swordsmith. I thought, “A Hellene longsword. He was a gentleman, at least.”

His mother tells Theseus of his father and the land he rules
“There was a reason,” she said. She picked up the comb, and pulled her hair forward. “He said to me, ‘If he has not brawn, he will need wit. If he has neither, he may still be a good son to you in Troizen. So keep him there. Why send him to die in Athens?’”
“In Athens?” I said staring.
“What is his name?” I said. “I must have heard it, but I don’t remember.”
“Aigeus,” she said, as if she were listening to herself. “Aigeus, son of Pandion, son of Kekrops. They are of the seed of Hephaistos, Lord of the Earth Fire, who married the Mother.”
“There was a reason,” she said again. “We must find a ship, to send you to Athens.”

This marks the true start of his many adventures;
Theseus walks along the Isthmus where he defeated many cruel robbers,
He is welcomed in Eleusis as the Corn King, who reigns for one year and then is sacrificed - he ends this tradition,
At Athens the witch priestess, Medea, tries to poison him,
His father greets him as son and together they vanquish the enemies of Athens,
The Cretan tax gathers take Athenian young men and girls for the Bull Dance,
Theseus takes the place of one Bull Dancer . . .


The Cretan Bull will decide their fates and the fates of the Greek kingdoms!

Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
July 17, 2018
"Many-formed are the gods; and the end men look for is not the end they bring."
- Mary Renault, The King Must Die


A nice, detailed historical fiction (well, let's call it mytholigical fiction, yes?) about Theseus, the founding hero of Athens. Renault takes many of the Labors of Theseus and weaves them with the stories of Theseus, Aegeus, and Medea, and Theseus, King Minos, and the Minotaur.

Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Knausgaard's book 'A Time For Everything' where he takes the flood myths of genesis and humanizes them. Both Mnausgaard and Renaut share the same gift for seeing the men (and women) behind the myth; of deconstructing what the history might have looked like that created these origin myths. I love this approach. It, at once, is interesting, informative, and subversive.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,924 reviews386 followers
May 26, 2016
I found myself rooting about in my memory, struggling to recall the Greek mythology that I studied as an undergraduate student, as I evaluated this lovely historical fantasy. My memory is rather hazy, but I think that Renault did a remarkably lovely job of formulating the myth into a plausible tale.

I had to love Theseus’ young-man enthusiasm, his gung-ho attitude, and his willingness to plunge into whatever the Gods presented to him and attempt to succeed at it, whether it is wrestling, chasing bandits, governing, or acrobatics. Oh, to have that youthful energy later in life!

I also appreciated that although Poseidon speaks to Theseus, that he doesn’t literally appear and conduct a conversation with the young man. We just take Theseus’ word about what he is experiencing when he receives communication from the deity—it remains his personal experience, not requiring the reader to join him in his faith.

In addition, I found Renault’s version of the shift from matriarchal to patriarchal society in the ancient world to be believable.

I can see where I will be revisiting some of the classical tales in the near future, to restore my memories and prepare to read more of Renault’s charming fiction.

It was Jo Walton's excellent book, Among Others that inspired me to pick up this novel and I am very glad that I did.
Profile Image for nastya .
449 reviews289 followers
May 7, 2021
Well this was a disappointment. I love me some good retelling/historical fiction and this is a beloved classic of the genre, so I expected to love it.
My main issue was with our hero, Theseus. The whole story is a hero's journey but the hero was so dull. And his first person narration only made it more obvious. I never felt him truly desiring anything: glory, riches, love. He went on this journey just because he was told to. Prophecy, destiny, you see.
Prose is masterful but the story was never-ending, meandering with a speed of snail. I never was interested in it. It actually reminded me of Lavinia - beautifully written but detached, even though it’s a first person narration. But again I think it's because we have such an unexciting hero.
Novel touches on interesting themes of gender clash and more general - culture clash and I liked attention to details and foreignness of this ancient world and people. But it was not enough for me to enjoy this novel. This was my first Mary Renault and I think I'll try her again, but will skip the sequel to this one.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews141 followers
September 4, 2018
I was amazed by how this portrayal of ancient Greece hinges on the description of specific practices. How Theseus is treated in formal and personal situations, how he expects to be treated, and what happens he enters into cultural contexts foreign to him all do so much to bring the world to vivid life. I learned about how far you can get by writing short insights into expectations of who does what and how.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
January 25, 2011
I hoped to enjoy Mary Renault's work a lot. I'm not a classicist so much now, but I'm still interested, and a plausible retelling that tries to put a bit of history into fantastical myth is usually worth a look, in my view. And this was, in some ways: realistic up to a point, detailed, exciting at times...

I just really didn't like Theseus, the narrator and central character. I thought he was smug, and it rankled, especially when he was smug about breaking women's power. There are a few positive female characters -- his mother, some of the bull leapers -- but really all the time it's an attack on the power women wield. It claims to acknowledge the importance of that female power, and perhaps if things were different with Ariadne, it would have, but her doll-like aspect, her childlike disconnection... It just all rang the same note: don't put power in women's hands.

That was profoundly discomforting to read, regardless of how accurate it may be as a portrayal of the attitudes of the period.

The other main problem was how much it dragged for me. Layer on layer of detail, of embroidering the stories and explaining every detail... The breathless moments during the bull leaping were the best part.
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews341 followers
February 23, 2011
This book was assigned to me in high school, and after that I quickly read every historical novel by Renault I could get a hold of. It's certainly one of the books responsible for making me interested in both history and historical fiction.

Along with Robert Graves, Mary Renault is my gold standard in historical fiction--but especially Renault. I think because more than any other author, she gave me the sense that the people in other times, though complex and human, aren't simply moderns in strange dress. Renault's books were the first I can remember finding a sympathetic view of homosexuality. This isn't to the fore in this particular book focusing on the mythic figure of Theseus (probably why it was considered tame enough to be assigned to me in my Catholic High School), but I remember in my teens her depiction of a place and era that put no negative evaluation on homosexuality in novels such as The Last of the Wine and Fire from Heaven was a revelation to me, that yes, the past is a different country. I also remember that it took the pagan religion of the time seriously and treated it sympathetically--as just another system of belief. That too stood out to me.

This particular novel also made an impression on me because, like Mary Stuart's Crystal Cave about Merlin, it took a mythical figure I assumed was pure fantasy, and wrote a plausible tale grounding Theseus in the Late Bronze Age world and making him a real and appealing fleshed-out figure telling his own story in an engaging voice.

I highly recommend both this book and the sequel, The Bull From the Sea. And her novels of Alexander the Great starting with Fire from Heaven. And the picture of Socrates and Athens during Peloponnesian War in The Last of the Wine. Just all of her historical novels are excellent, gripping reads.
Profile Image for Iset.
665 reviews491 followers
February 24, 2011
Perhaps my most major criticism of the entire book is that it does get off to a bit of a slow start. Renault's attention to details and wonderfully sophisticated use of language are usually a big treat, but we are thrown right into the thick of it straight from the off and what's going on is left to the reader to figure out. As a result some readers may feel for the first couple of chapters that the conjunction of confusing situation, complex language and lack of initial events or action renders the beginning of this book somewhat plodding. However, once you get past that initial stumbling block, you won't be able to put this book down until the end. The plot basically follows the Theseus legend, but Renault is not afraid to take detours and make alterations in order to make the story more historical than mythological and for the sake of plausibility and believability. Obviously this walks a fine line between improving on and butchering the legend, but Renault judges that line to perfection. She even explains why she deviates from the conventional idea of Theseus as a huge, muscled man after the model of Herakles; namely because a youth chosen for bull-leaping in Krete would have had to have been slight, quick and agile rather than big and hulking, and because Theseus is often shown in close hand-to-hand combat with brutish monsters and it seems unlikely that he could have overcome them by sheer strength alone, more likely that he was a slighter build and relied on clever wrestling tricks of the trade rather than pushing power.

The plot follows a good arc, though perhaps since it is strongly based on the legend we cannot attribute that pleasing character growth and story arc to Renault alone. One of the arcs is in the way that the setting becomes ever more metropolitan; we begin in Theseus' homeland, a bit of a provincial backwater of a kingdom to be honest, moving on to the city of Athens which is a glittering jewel of the Peloponnese as portrayed by Renault at this period, and finally Theseus ends up on the highly developed island of Krete. More than anything else though, the arc of the story is Theseus' coming of age. From a boy struggling to understand his place in the world in Troizen and believing that he is the son of Poseidon, to the frustrated year-king of Eleusis where he learns to use his wits to earn his powers and effect change, to the heir of Aigeus in Athens where he must learn the responsibilities that come with his position, and to the palace at Knossos where Theseus becomes true leader of his own little microcosm of society. The developments in the plot seem natural and unforced, nothing leaps completely out of the implausible blue, but that's not to say that the story is in any way predictable - unless you've read the legend of Theseus before of course, but even then don't expect anything!

The quality of the writing is very high, but yet I found it fairly accessible as well, albeit the potential to come across as slightly plodding and slow in the first few chapters. In terms of historical setting, Mary Renault's novel is completely groundbreaking. The legend of Theseus is a well known story in Greek myth, the most famous episode in his tale being his confrontation with the fantastical half-man half-bull creature known as the Minotaur in the bowels of a twisted maze called the Labyrinth and aided by a ball of twine given to him by Princess Ariadne. There have been many retellings of the legend, but Mary Renault's is the first attempt to find the history behind the myth. Given this, this might be a good point to also discuss historical accuracy. Keeping in mind that this was published in 1958 and our knowledge about this period of history has since moved on by over half a century, it's clear that Renault has put significant effort into the historical accuracy of the piece, and even some of the scenarios which we now know to be incorrect were the accepted interpretation by the academic community based on the knowledge of 1958. There's no magic involved, only plausible human stories. Great stuff, highly recommended.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,106 reviews748 followers
July 29, 2019
This is a fictional imagining of the real life adventures of Theseus that ended up being the origin of the Ancient Greek myth of Theseus. The story follows the same outlines of the myth less the direct interventions of the gods and minus the actual existence of minotaurs. However, that doesn't mean the gods play no role in the story. The narrative is in the first person voice of Theseus and he considers himself to be the son—in a spiritual sense—of Poseidon. His faith in Poseidon leads to prayers and divine guidance that is similar to current day language used by Christian believers.

If this story has any historicity it would have occurred circa 12th century BC when Minoan dominance was nearing its end. As the story begins the surrounding nations are still required to pay tribute to Knossos. Among these obligations included the sending of a certain number of young people each year to be "bull dancers"—a form of bull fighting where a number of dancers are in the arena at the same time with the bull, and their role was to entertain the crowd by teasing the bull. This includes such things as vaulting somersaults off the top of the bull when it charges. Their life expectancy is short, and when Theseus volunteers to be a member of the contingent it is considered to be his death sentence. .

The title's reference to required death of Kings alludes to a reoccurring theme in the story that in order for a king to lead his people he must consent to the risk of sacrifice so "he can walk with the god." Some neighboring countries still continue the tradition of ritual sacrifice the life of their King to please the gods. The Hellene people don't perform this ritual, but the spirit of sacrifice on the part of their king in order to protect the welfare of his people is expected. Thus when young people are drafted to go to Knossos, Theseus, as an aspirant king in the spirit of sacrifice, volunteers to join the group.

Theseus encounters the traditional ritual sacrifice of kings twice, once in Eleusis during his initial trip to Athens and once again during his return trip on the Island of Naxos. Then at the end of the story Thesus unintentionally sacrifices the life of his father—King of Athens—by flying the black sail on his ship on his return to Athens. The suicide of his father caused by interpreting the black sail as bad news is not explicitly covered in this book, but it is inferred with the anticipation that the reader knows about the mythical story. According to this version of the story the use of the black sail was in accordance with the perceived wishes of Poseidon.

This book has a sequel, The Bull from the Sea, that continues the story of Theseus into his later life.
Profile Image for Lydia.
294 reviews229 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
March 3, 2018
Sorry, folks, I'm giving up on this book at page 296. Normally if I've gotten this far into a book, I'll carry on until the end, but I cannot bring myself to read the final 100 pages.

The first half of this book falls flat. There is no interest, no engaging plot, no character building. It just drags on without seeming to have any purpose. I will give the book the positive that the plot picks up a bit about halfway through, when Theseus becomes a bull dancer in Crete. I thought that perhaps I could learn to enjoy this book once we hit this section, but it hasn't happened.

Renault's writing is convoluted, confusing and overly-complicated. Her sentences wander without needing to. Perhaps it is considered by some to be poetic or descriptive; I found it infuriating. You don't need to say 50 words when 10 words will suffice. I often got to the end of a sentence and forgot where it has started. Sometimes I couldn't even figure out what she was trying to say, because my brain switched off. This was particularly bothersome because she often hid an important plot point in the middle of a lengthy description. The syntax was often so convoluted, I had to read some paragraphs two or three times to figure out what was actually happening. I don't need this from a piece of historical fiction that I'm purely reading for fun.

Then we have the fact that our main character, Theseus, is unlikeable. A character can be problematic and annoying and terrible, but I can still love them. Achilles is a case in point. That boy had some serious issues and yet I love him. Theseus was just too bland to make up for his misogyny and arrogance. He bored me.

So I'm afraid I'm not going to waste any more of my life reading this book, it's just not worth it.

I'm going against popular opinion, so perhaps you'll love it. But this book is just not for me.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
722 reviews140 followers
May 12, 2019
Imagine Theseus not as some action hero or an exemplar of classical pedagogy, but as a real person. Imagine him as a 6-year old in awe of Poseidon with his many epithets: earth-shaker, wave gatherer, shepherd of ships, horse lover. This Theseus has a charming innocence with his firm belief that Poseidon is his father and the father of the unbroken King Stallion who rules his grandfather's pastures. The child enters the pasture to greet his brother, to the horror of the head groom and the other servants.

Author Mary Renault employs a first person point of view which permits the reader to experience the excitement, disappointment and discoveries of the child as he matures. He will become an astute judge of character, an agile athlete, and a pragmatic strategist in the bronze age world of ancient Greece. It's an alien world to the modern reader. For most, death was early and brutal. However, old age with its infirmities and indignities was scarcely better, and possibly much worse. Lineage was a point of pride, not to be contaminated by “base blood.” Oft-repeated stories, a calendar of rituals, and custom preserved a sense of continuity with the past. Priest and ruler were the two faces of pragmatism and piety.

No single word in the English language summarizes the interconnected values that kept these societies in harmony. Theseus' grandfather King Pittheus explains it as moira: “'The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn round it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the share of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end. Moira is all of this.'” (p.15) Moira implies both free will and duty. The rituals and customs are empty without the consent Pittheus states. Theseus will find that moira is possibility and direction. Without its attendant humility, ambition is misdirected. Moira is the thing that separates men from animals yet connects them to a natural order. Each event in Theseus' adventures will represent another expression of moira.

The bronze age is a fragmented world. Theseus' home city of Troizen is dedicated to Poseidon. Eleusis practices a more archaic religion. Dia (Demeter), the earth mother, is ascendent; a priestess-queen is ruler. Her husband the king is sacrificed each spring and his supplanter is her new consort for the year. The ritual is a revolting spectacle. Both consent and piety are absent. Theseus reflects: “They [the people] care nothing for him...though he is going to die for them, or so they hope, and put his life into the corn. He is the scapegoat. Looking at him, they see only the year's troubles, the crop that failed, the barren cows, the sickness. They want to kill their troubles with him, and start again.” (p.69) The ritual is self-serving, not reverent. As for the body of the victim, it will be plowed back into the earth as an offering for a successful harvest. The king does not even have a name. Each king goes by the title of Kerkyon.

Troizen is also contrasted to the advanced sophistication of the Minoans. Like Eleusis, the supreme deity is the earth goddess Dia. Each king is called “Minos.” Here, religious ritual has devolved into cruel entertainment for an effete aristocratic class. Each year neighboring communities including Athens sends youth to perform as “bull dancers” as part of their tribute. No one survives a complete year in this sport which was once performed by the Minoans themselves in honor of Poseidon. Now, the Minoans place avid wagers on whether any of the dancers will be killed. Although he admires the Minoan artistic achievements, Theseus observes that the Minoans are like children attracted to every new fashion. “All the sacred rite here had become like play, or were court trappings.” (p.250) The priestess, Ariadne, is a completely ceremonial figure and is described as if she were a costumed mannequin.

Renault animates these characters by giving them both historical plausibility and psychological resonance. The minotaur is a man of monstrous greed and corruption. Theseus hates him but not just for his arrogant insolence. He is an affront to the ethic of moira. “Any man will want power to get what he desires: glory or lands, or a woman. But the man wanted it for itself, to put down other men, to fatten his pride with eating theirs like the great spider that feeds upon the lesser.” (p.229) Misgivings that Theseus had suppressed about Ariadne coalesce during the Dionysian festival at Naxos. A moment of terrible epiphany reveals to him that she has a separate moira and motivates his decision to leave her.

As we do today, Theseus is constantly struggling with the problem of how to live his life.
Does it matter if Theseus invokes Poseidon's intervention as the cause of the landward current that prevents him from drowning? Is it unreasonable in an earthquake prone land, to attribute catastrophe to Poseidon's wrath? These explanations reflect a universal desire to impose order on a chaotic world with uncertain outcomes. Renault assumes the reader is familiar with the story of Theseus. That foreknowledge gives weight to the omens and curses that darken the book and add momentum to the story. Renault envelopes the reader completely in the ethos of the Greek world.

Characters, maps, and images: http://www.edstephan.org/Renault/king...
Profile Image for Jennifer (JC-S).
2,968 reviews203 followers
June 26, 2015
‘For a man in darkness, there is only one god to pray to.’

‘The King Must Die’ is a historical novel by Mary Renault, first published in 1958. Set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in Crete, and Naxos, it traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, one of the heroes in Greek mythology. Ms Renault’s story constructs a story around Theseus which, while not a simple retelling of the myth, could form the basis of it. The story begins in Troizen, the land of Theseus’s grandfather, King Pittheus. Theseus believes that he is the son of the sea-god Poseidon, and when he discovers that he can sense earthquakes, he considers this is proof of his heritage. When he is seventeen, after lifting a stone to recover his father’s sword, he learns that his father is Aigeus, King of Athens. He decides to travel to Athens, but along the way he unexpectedly becomes the King of Eleusis.

‘To be a king’, I thought, ‘what is it? To do justice, to go to war for one’s people, make their peace with the gods? Surely it is this.’

Theseus eventually reaches Athens, meets his father and then volunteers to become one of the fourteen bull-dancers demanded as tribute by the King of Crete. He does not know whether he will survive, or whether he will return to Athens to see his father.

‘It is a saying of the Bull Court that the longer you live there, the longer you may.’

In this book, Theseus is made real by Ms Renault’s knowledge of archaeology, culture and history. He pays homage to Poseidon, but recognises the other gods who are part of the world in which he lives. The whole book is magnificent, but I especially enjoyed Theseus’s experiences in becoming a bull-dancer. This novel and its sequel, ‘The Bull From the Sea’ (published in 1962) are two of the best works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. Theseus’s adventures are - well - legendary, but what works best in this novel is the realistic context and plausible life that Ms Renault has created for him.

‘Man born of women cannot outrun his fate. Better then not to question the Immortals, nor when they have spoken to grieve one’s heart in vain. A bound is set to our knowing, and wisdom is not to search beyond it. Men are only men.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Profile Image for Elizabeth K..
804 reviews40 followers
October 24, 2009
I've picked this up now and again over the years, but never read the whole thing. I have this precious Pocket Books paperback edition, I'm guessing circa 1960 - sadly it's very fragile and crumbly and it took quite a beating being carried around in my purse before I realized it. The blurb on the back reads as follows:

Brave, aggressive, tough, proud, and highly sexed, Theseus faces danger after danger and overcomes them all.

His adventures will take you into a world of primitive orgies, sparkling jewels and gleaming bodies -- and with Theseus you will live through the hot fights and swift passionate loves of pagan times.

Now I ask you, with a blurb THAT GOOD, does it even matter what the book is like? The hoot of the thing is that it's quite chaste, all the highly sexed parts are off-screen, and the closest we come to gleaming bodies is a long passage that talks about being up all night, diving like dolphins into the depths. I think that's a metaphor.

Grade: A+, and that's before I even read the actual story. Swift, passionate loves of pagan times!
Recommended: Oh, why not? It's probably not as good if you don't have this exact edition, however. Even if you've already read it and liked it, I guarantee you would like it more if you had this funky little gem with the title in the 1960s bold font that proclaims THE KING MUST DIE - mentally, I always add !!!!!1! every time I look at it, for emphasis.
Profile Image for Charles.
181 reviews
April 12, 2021
Seeing that I love Madeline Miller's novels and that Mary Renault is also known for having written Greek mythology-based fiction of outstanding quality, I set out to compare the two. Madeline Miller remains my favorite, hands down.

There is formidable brain power on display in The King Must Die. Now brains are nice, to be sure, in fact I wouldn't have it otherwise, but where's the heart, here? This book offers one of the most unfortunate (though certainly not talentless) first-person narratives I've ever encountered. Our man Theseus comes across as completely self-centered, entitled and erratic; some kind of big child, or suburban douche. No qualms about the writing per se, in fact Renault's vocabulary is top-notch and the whole book was visibly well-researched, but her storytelling skills leave me completely cold. All of the epic locations, people, objects and pieces of lore brought into play by Mary Renault throughout this novel are rich with legend and call to your sense of wonder, but then as Captain Obnoxious introduces them at length to you, always in relation to himself, of course, he somehow manages to rob them of their magic. Sigh. I don't think men in power have to be so impossibly abrasive; smart as this was, to me it quickly amounted to a kind of surreal caricature, though a very serious one, with full intellectual weapons deployed, not to mention academic meticulosity.

On the plus side, my curiosity is now sated. Done.
Profile Image for Linda Riebel.
Author 7 books4 followers
April 23, 2012
If you have not discovered Mary Renault’s historical novels, you are in for a treat, and I envy you your discovery. The King Must Die, her first, is a masterpiece of evocation. In ancient Greece, the mythical (or was he?) Theseus becomes a brave hero who penetrates the infamous labyrinth of Crete, where the Minotaur lurks, awaiting his annual portion of Athenian boys and girls to devour. There is much more in the way of plot, but that’s not the main part of Renault’s magic. She so fully conjures up a long-gone world, so that you ARE there. The sounds, smells, buildings, customs, come to life. One impressive feat of reimagining is the way the author gives her characters a historical backdrop of their own – the previous races and tribes of humans who lived there before them. (We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that human history was new 2,500 years ago). Another is her success in using the myths that have come down to us: some she makes part of the characters’ belief system, and some she cleverly explains away as normal events misremembered by later people. Two warnings: lots of sexism and killing of animals. I suppose the historical novelist is in a dilemma: to create a lost world, she must bring its beliefs to life, and in that, Renault succeeds brilliantly.
Profile Image for Emily.
706 reviews2,043 followers
August 4, 2021
"It is when we stretch out our hands to our moira that we receive the sign of the god."

This book is astonishingly good and so satisfying. It is the yardstick for all mythology retellings. The Theseus myth becomes a real narrative story, with the magical parts contemporized in interesting ways and centered in historical understanding of the Mediterranean.

Whenever I read a book like this, I think about A Distant Mirror. The fourteenth century is so far away from us in understanding that civilization is fundamentally different. I'm reminded of this when I read good historical fiction set in the past, and particularly historical fiction that is set so long ago. Theseus is a person, of course, and he has great loves and family relationships and friendships and dreams, all of which connect to us in the present. But this society is just so alien to what we know, and Renault's gift is creating a hero and a narrative that can speak to the human element while firmly grounding the book in the unknowable and magical past.

The story follows the contours of the myth that we all know, but with some realistic twists. In this version, Theseus is the son of Aigeus of Athens and a princess of Troizen, and is raised as a prince in Troizen before making his way to Athens. Once he's recognized by his father, he lives in Athens for a time before joining in his people's required tribute and becoming a bull-dancer in Crete. The Cretans take the smallest and most agile youths from around the Mediterranean to throw into the bull-dance, where they entertain the nobles before inevitably dying within a year (very ancient Hunger Games). Theseus meets Ariadne, the princess of Crete, and must travel within the enormous Cretan palace, the Labyrinth, to tryst with her. Eventually Theseus starts a rebellion, which happens simultaneously with an enormous earthquake, and he kills Minos's stepson, known as the Minotaur, before the Athenians escape to home.

Because Theseus is the grandson of the king of Troizen and later finds himself king of Eleusis and then Athens, the central theme of kingship is prominent: what it is to be a king, what it is to lead, and how kings and gods determine their fates. There's a key tension between the Shore People and the Hellenes, who occupy the same parts of Greece but have different core beliefs and customs. Both believe that the king's death has an innate, spiritual power. The Eleusinians hold to the Shore People's way - at least until Theseus gets there - and the king dies every year by the hand of the new king, giving his life to the people. Theseus's grandfather in Troizen talks about the king's sacred death as part of the compact that the king makes to his people. When fate calls (the king's moira), the king sacrifices himself for his people.

And there's the matter of the gods who rule. From a young age, Theseus is dedicated to Poseidon, who he believes might be his father (sometimes literally, sometimes spiritually), and not to the Goddess that the Shore People follow. What this means in practice is that Theseus roams around the countryside disrupting matriarchal ruling structures and becoming the standardbearer for male power, which is in itself a somewhat unfortunate theme but true to who Theseus is. It's not that Theseus objects to the king's sacrifice, and he spends much of the book searching for his moira and to understand the god's will. But that god is not the Goddess, and in his own way he is an agent of change. He is suited to and born to a particular kind of kingship. The king must die.

I loved all the tension between the different peoples in the book. Theseus begins in Troizen, where he has to grow into a man to be reckoned with (not in size, but in wit and ability). From there he goes to Athens and realizes how small Troizen is, and then to Crete, which is truly the center of the world. You start venturing outwards and understanding how vast the world really is, which adds to Theseus's inner dilemmas: is he sure of his own rightness, and of his own moira? Crete is particularly fascinating to read about because it is so cultured, which offends Theseus's pure sense of piety. Ultimately, is Theseus right? It's the clash between the new and the old, but also civilization and tribal understanding, the idea that the king truly must die and you cannot fake the ritual.

I also really loved the rich detail and Theseus's love for the bull-dance. He bonds the Athenians together and they excel. I would have read an entire novel about the bull-dancers. Every piece of the story in Crete ties so seamlessly into the myth that it feels real, with the added mystical elements (Minos's bull mask, the path to Ariadne, Poseidon's earthquake warning).

This book is very good. It removes modern sensibility and, in its place, presents a truly imaginative story. If you enjoy retellings or myths, I cannot recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Jane.
1,564 reviews177 followers
October 16, 2015
Brilliant retelling of the story of Theseus! I started this novel more as a duty than as enjoyment, but was soon plunged into the world of Bronze Age Greece. I can see why this novel has survived all these years and why Renault is a classic. However I have to ask myself, were this novel published in 2015 for the first time, would it be as popular as it was when first published in 1958?

In Troizen, Theseus finds out he is heir to the king of Athens, by his strength in lifting a sword [similar motif as King Arthur!]. He travels there through Eleusis. The inhabitants are worshippers of a Mother Goddess, and are a matrilineal society. When in Athens, he is recognized as heir by King Aegius and cursed by the priestess Medea, who tries to poison him.

Her chilling words:
"You will cross water to dance in blood. You will be King of the victims. You will tread the maze through fire, and you will tread it through darkness. Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus: The Earth Bull, the Man Bull, and the Bull from the Sea."

Her prophecy begins to be fulfilled when he becomes part of tribute to Crete; he travels there with a band of young people from Athens and Eleusis. He becomes a bull-dancer and leader of the little group. the "Cranes". While there, the Earth Bull is aroused resulting in a severe earthquake. After he kills the Minotaur, he and many other bull-dancers escape Crete to Naxos. Ariadne is left there--not abandoned cruelly as the original myth has it, but the culture there is close to the Cretan. The young people journey homeward, dropping off bull-dancers at their homes on the way.

The book was much better than I thought it would be. It has not aged, in my opinion. I liked the author's taking elements from the myth, such as the Minotaur, the Labyrinth and Theseus's leaving Ariadne on Naxos and using them in her story in new, logical, completely unexpected ways. Her language was nothing short of marvelous. To me, there was a perfect balance of description and dialogue. I plan to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.
Profile Image for Yamin Eaindray.
139 reviews14 followers
September 24, 2018
3.5 stars.

Let me start off by saying that I have not even read The Iliad yet and I am ashamed. I made the mistake of buying a beautiful, leather bound edition of The Odyssey and two hundred pages in, I realized that I was reading the follow up of The Iliad. I knew what happened in it so I assumed, "Oh, perhaps they're going to go back to the Trojan war events throughout this one..." but I grew doubtful and searched it up. Yeah, I'm pretty stupid.

I was familiar with the legend of Theseus (well, the main bits) but I was surprised to read something different. At the very end of the book, there is a summary of the actual legend and I was like "Ah, that's what I remember!" Of course, some parts stayed true, such as Theseus slaying the Kerkyon and Medea deceiving King Agieus then fleeing. What Mary Renault wrote portrayed Theseus as a hero. He was actually a likable character, and I don't know if I like that. I don't mind that he's being shown in a different light; Greek mythology retellings have the right to change it up a little, but his character was...un-Greek like. Based on the short summary on the back, he's far from a righteous person and throughout reading Renault's work, he's written to be a motivational and selfless leader. Renault twisted his deeds to look like he had done them with a heavy, regretful heart, but we all know he's a complete douche for abandoning Ariadne on Naxos. Not cool, dude, especially after she helped you. But if Renault had really wanted to show (or should I say create) a different, good side to Theseus, I guess I can deal with that. The actual legend is more complicated and well, screwed up.

I don't really know how to review this! I love the writing, the descriptions and the flow of words were very nice to read. The plot is informative, interesting, and engaging in some parts but it didn't keep me gasping for more. The ending slowed down for me a little bit so I spent more time there but overall, I enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,710 reviews295 followers
December 24, 2016
I am always excited to find a new author to admire. Of course, Mary Renault is not new to the world. She was born in London in 1905 and died in 1983, having built for herself a reputation for vivid historical novels, many of them set in Ancient Greece. She was named by J F Kennedy as his favorite author. I have meant to read her for years and am so pleased to have found a wonderful writer with a great deal of scholarship and intelligence backing up her fiction.

The King Must Die is the first of two novels covering the life of Theseus, a legendary hero of ancient Athens. Mary Renault takes quite some literary license with the legend, the major one being that Theseus was not of heroic size but was of short stature. She explains the archeological evidence for this in her Author's Note, painting him as "a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous, touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny."

Theseus tells his own story and it is as wild and full of adventure as you would expect from a man who may have had Poseidon for a father and who killed the famous Minotaur, that half bull/half man who fed on human flesh. She makes this complex character come to life, carefully depicting the ways he learned to use his mind as well as his courage and strength to overcome enemies and obstacles.

A few years ago I managed to get through Will Durant's The Life of Greece. I loved having Theseus fleshed out as it were and the daily world of ancient Athens and Crete made real. I already have the second volume, The Bull From the Sea, on my shelf. I look forward to reading her other novels about Plato, Alexander and more.
December 7, 2009
The King Must Die is the tale of Theseus told as if it were realistic, historical fiction. It is a retelling of the classic myth about Theseus’ adventures and most notably, his fight with the Minotaur on the island of Crete. However, the author introduces more plausible accounts for the instances throughout the myth. I really enjoyed how the author tells this story, but maybe that was because of my bias and soft-spot for all historical fiction. However, I did enjoy the idea of creating plausible events that could have grown and became glorified into a myth, and I thought the idea was very well executed here. I recommend this book to anybody interested in Greek mythology and the tale of Theseus, or anybody looking for something fun or relaxing to read. It’s very well written and the story is entertaining.
Also, there’s a summary of the myths regarding Theseus at the end of this book. So you might want to read that first so you can appreciate the way Renault reworks them into her own story.
Profile Image for Robert Case.
Author 5 books49 followers
May 1, 2017
This is the story of Theseus, a prince of Athens who allied his country with its Spartan neighbors and then traveled to Crete to challenge the minotaur. The author, Mary Renault, stays true to the legend, introducing her heroic main character as a young, insecure boy and following him through teenage trials and into adulthood. She breathes life into his character, showing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a charismatic man, one with the humility of a true hero.
Renault's Theseus relies on his intuition as well as his brawn and brains. This youthful king is willing to acknowledge the guidance of a supreme power - the Olympian gods - and to follow it wherever it leads. The book lives into this twentieth first century because it is more than a seamless blend of sword play and bodice ripping. Renault writes with a deep understanding of the Hellene culture and a candid appreciation for the natural beauty of human sexuality in its many forms. I highly recommend this book to Grecophiles, travelers, and readers who appreciate the timeless current of history.
Profile Image for Natasa.
1,203 reviews
July 30, 2019
This is an excellent book, a well-deserved classic of historical fiction. It is so cleverly written, that you forget you are not actually in ancient Greece. The book also offers a fascinating insight into the evolving religious beliefs of Bronze Age Grecian culture.
Profile Image for Ozymandias.
432 reviews138 followers
June 27, 2021
Mary Renault is one of the most famous novelists who wrote of Ancient Greece and her works are all classics. This can make them a little hard to judge. What Renault brought to the ancient world was a sense of character. She accepted the world on its own terms (or what she saw as its own terms) and presented that viewpoint strongly to a modern audience complete with psychologically complex characters.

This setting is the earliest of any of her books and concerns Bronze Age (Mycenaean) Greece – specifically the legend of Theseus of Athens and the Minotaur. Renault has taken this myth and provided a rational explanation for it – the Minotaur (lit. Bull of Minos) is the title of the Cretan crown prince. The labyrinth is the elaborate palace at Knossos. The sacrifice of youths to the half-man/half-bull minotaur has become a form of human sacrifice based on bull dancing as seen on the walls of Akrotiri and elsewhere. And while religion remains a core part of the story (Theseus can “hear” his father Poseidon) the logic of the book does not suffer if you assume the essential untruth of divine interventions.

Renault made a terrible scholar. Her biography of Alexander is full of the worst kind of wishful thinking and credulous justifications. Her historical note here is more of the same, accepting the basic truth of myths as recollections of genuine events only slightly distorted over time. This isn’t how oral traditions work at all, as anyone who’s ever played a game of telephone can tell you. The eruption of Thera is also treated far too lightly. The sea for several miles around would be unpassable through pumice, and the eruption column would be visible from Knossos and leave a lot more damage than it does here. And the less said about the very Aryan blond-haired/blue-eyed Greeks (remnants of the racial theories from earlier in the century) invading from the north the better.

But fortunately, she’s not writing history but historical fiction. And this mixed Mycenaean/Homeric Greece has been made to feel plausible in every way. It’s very different from her works set in later periods. While she predates a lot of later Greek elements (Athenian institutions and the Delphic maxim “know thyself” most notably) this Greece is filled with petty kings and unquestioned aristocrats in an untamed land that rarely answers to anyone. Crete is different. While ruled by Greeks, the Cretans are decadent and highly organized. In fact, they seem to belong more to the later Roman or Byzantine world (as seen from the 1950s) than to Ancient Greece. They live an easy peace, don’t believe in the gods, and spend their life gambling on the bull dances (think gladiatorial combat). This is not a serious reconstruction of these civilizations (in fairness we had very little idea of what these civilizations were in the 1950s as Linear B had just been translated) but it is a believable world.

I appreciated this book more than I loved it. The setting simply isn’t as interesting to me as the late Greek poleis were. The reconstructed attitudes and folk beliefs of the Greeks felt very real, and the world itself is internally consistent. It’s just not one I find exciting. Renault’s work ages pretty well. It will serve well as a young adult coming of age novel, even today. The history less so, but that’s the nature of archaeological research. This book tells a good yarn.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
1,095 reviews351 followers
September 9, 2019
The King Must Die, Mary Renault, 1958, 338pp.

The Theseus legend has many unreal elements, such as the Minotaur. BUT—what if all such elements are just embellishments on something that actually happened? That's Mary Renault's take. This is the story that might actually have happened, that gave rise to the fantastic legend.

We see a world giving over from rule-by-women to rule-by-men. We see that rule-by-women was NOT necessarily better than rule-by-men! "Thank the gods /women/ aren't in charge anymore!" is often the feeling.

By contrast, Evangeline Walton's Theseus book, /The Sword Is Forged/, left me with the strong feeling that the Equal Rights Amendment was a very good idea, first time I read it, in the 1970s.

During the story, a cataclysmic eruption blasts away a large part of an island north of Crete. The eruption of Thera (Santorini) may have been in 1642 BCE. There is ash in the Greenland ice from on or about that date, that may have come from there.

/The King Must Die/ is part one of Mary Renault's two-part life of Theseus. It ends while Theseus is still quite a young man.

The King Must Die contents:
Book 1 Troizen p. 1
Book 2 Eleusis p. 91
Book 3 Athens p. 111
Book 4 Crete p. 167
Book 5 Naxos p. 309
Author's Note p. 333
The Legend of Theseus p. 336
Select Bibliography p. 339

(Aboard the large Cretan ship) we saw pirate camps, but none after us. We were bigger game than they had teeth for. (p. 169, Book 4 Crete, chapter 1)

The Cretan palace at Knossos had no defensive walls. Minos's walls were on the waters, which his ships commanded. (p. 191, Book 4 Crete, chapter 3)

Earth-shaker Poseidon is husband of the Mother Goddess. (p. 295, Book 4 Crete, chapter 10)

The native Cretans had known heavy labor and slight esteem, under the rule of the proud house of Minos. (p. 296, Book 4 Crete, chapter 10)

We bull-dancers had been torn away from our lives, to die for the sport of the painted Labyrinth. (p. 297, Book 4 Crete, chapter 10)

The prince had made my standing mean, and hurt my pride in myself when it was my whole estate. It is what any man will have blood for, who is half a man. (p. 299, Book 4 Crete, chapter 10)

Man born of woman cannot outrun his fate. Better then not to question the Immortals, nor when they have spoken to grieve one's heart in vain. A bound is set to our knowing, and wisdom is not to search beyond it. Men are only men. (last paragraph in the book, p. 332, Book 5 Naxos, chapter 2)

The labyrinthine Palace of Knossos has sacred axes, pictures of youths and girls performing the bull dance, and seal carvings of the bull-headed Minotaur. The most fantastic-seeming part of the tale having been linked to fact, it's tempting to guess where else a fairy-tale gloss may have disguised what actually happened. (p. 333, Author's Note)

Select Bibliography:
Plutarch, Life of Theseus
J. Chadwick, The Earliest Greeks
Profile Image for Ann Schwader.
Author 82 books92 followers
September 5, 2014
This lyrical retelling of the legend of Theseus manages to add a sense of realism (circa 1958 archaeological evidence) without sacrificing the essential magic of ancient Greece. The gods may or may not manifest themselves; but they are fully real to the characters, and they behave as such, often with far-reaching consequences.

Renault does not give the reader modern sensibilities in ancient clothing, but truly ancient ways of thinking -- which can be disturbing at times. Theseus’s perception of women is the most notable case of this, though Medea and the pre-Classic Goddess cults are also active in his world. For archaeology and ancient history enthusiasts, Renault includes an Author’s Note explaining her approach to Theseus’s story, a short but useful bibliography, and a solid version of the legend itself.

I took far too long getting through this book, because there is so much to savor – and the prose, though sparely elegant, is very rich. Renault does know how to keep the pages turning during a bull-dance or a battle, however! I’ve already got The Bull From the Sea (this book’s immediate sequel) loaded on my Kindle.

One side note: Hunger Games fans who haven’t read this book yet should treat themselves as soon as possible. Theseus and his Athenian companions were the original Tributes, and their adventures in Crete are some of the most entertaining in the novel.

Profile Image for Christin.
223 reviews22 followers
July 6, 2013
I love her, I can't help it.

I thought it was very clever how all the fantastic elements of the myth got explained to be more realisitc and still make sense. I read this whole thing pretty fast but I really tore through the end to see how Theseus would leave Ariadne (thousand year old myths don't get spoiler alerts) without being a total moron. Like, "I think I'm forgetting something. OH! It's the girl! Doh!" The way it was explained (ok, that is a spoiler) only mae him slightly douchey, which is pretty par for the course, no?

So glad I finally read this. I was putting it off since I figured there would be no m-m at all and yes, Theseus is straight as an arrow but there's plenty of HoYAY to go around. For the boys and the girls. Fun for the whole family!
Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
March 19, 2013
I've just come across this. I read this book years ago as it was one of my father's books. I must try and get a copy of it.

Ah Theseus!
1,273 reviews42 followers
March 11, 2020
Before there was Circe, there was Mary Renault finessing Greek mythology and it was good.
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