The King Must Die by Mary Renault

The King Must Die After my post on The Odyssey last Friday, I’m staying with an Ancient Greece theme again this week – but in the form of historical fiction this time.

Beginning with his childhood in Troizen, The King Must Die tells the story of Theseus, a story which I’m sure will already be familiar to many readers. Theseus lives with his mother but has never known the true identity of his father, believing him to be the god Poseidon. When he succeeds in raising a boulder to reveal his father’s sword, Theseus learns that he is actually the son of Aigeus, the King of Athens, and sets off for Athens to find him. After an eventful journey during which Theseus becomes King of Eleusis, he arrives in Athens and meets his father at last. But when King Minos of Crete demands that fourteen young people are sent to him to train as bull-dancers, Theseus makes the decision to become one of the fourteen…and finds himself facing the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos.

Mary Renault is an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and I became even more interested when I noticed that on the back covers of my Vintage editions of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, it says that Dunnett’s writing ‘inspires comparisons with Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian’. I’ve now read some of Patrick O’Brian’s books and enjoyed them (though not as much as Dunnett) so it seemed a good idea to try Mary Renault too. However, I’ve been hesitant because, as I explained in my Odyssey post, mythology and Ancient Greece are not subjects that really appeal to me. It was finally making it to the end of The Odyssey a few weeks ago that gave me the motivation to pick up The King Must Die at last.

I was curious to see how this book could be described as historical fiction, as a story with a plot involving Poseidon and the Minotaur sounded more like mythology to me. Having read the novel, I now understand that The King Must Die is not simply a re-telling of the Theseus myth but a more realistic recreation of his life, portraying Theseus as a real human being rather than a character from Greek mythology. Most of the essential elements of the myth are here, but they are cleverly incorporated into the historical setting and given logical, plausible explanations.

My favourite part of the book was the section describing Theseus’s adventures in Knossos as a bull-dancer, learning new skills and techniques, and bonding with the other members of his team. I also enjoyed learning about the different customs and rituals of the various cultures and communities Theseus visits on his journey, including the Hellenes, the Minyans and the Cretans. There’s a fascinating author’s note at the end of the book in which Mary Renault explains how she was able to link parts of the Theseus legend to historical fact.

While I did enjoy this book, I do feel disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to. There was nothing specific that I disliked about the book or that I could say didn’t work for me; I certainly couldn’t fault the quality of the writing or the amount of research that must have gone into recreating Theseus’s world. It’s probably just that, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not particularly drawn to this subject or setting. I do still want to read the second half of Theseus’s story in the sequel, The Bull from the Sea!

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17 thoughts on “The King Must Die by Mary Renault”

  1. I’ve been wondering about this book for ages. I’m not that interested in ancient Greece, but I still have the copy – complete with bookmark – that my mother took with her to hospital when her daughter was on the way.

  2. I have never read Mary Renault, though it seems like I’ve always seen her books in libraries and bookstores. I used to be a bit obsessed with Greek mythology in my teens, but I’ve lost that fascination.

    1. Yes, me too – I was much more interested in Greek mythology when I was younger than I am now. I think this is possibly a book I would have loved more if I’d read it as a teenager.

  3. This is probably my favourite Renault book, although it faces a serious challenge from Fire from Heaven – it’s definitely past time to reread some of her work. Funnily enough, I had it in mind to experiment with a Renault reread next year, so once again you seem to have read my thoughts. 🙂 What is so fabulous about this book in particular, as you say, is the way that she interprets myth and folklore in a very rational way. Her explanation of the whole Labyrinth-Minotaur myth as an expression of the Cretan bull-cult is brilliant and, like you, I think the bit in Knossos is probably my favourite section. For anyone who thinks they’ll be put off because they don’t like mythology: there are no myths here. This is an exploration of what might have happened to spark off the stories that turned into myths. Fascinating stuff.

    I’ve read almost everything by Renault, although it was all much too long ago… I remember the sequel, The Bull from the Sea, being good but not quite as astounding as this book. Her Alexander trilogy is an absolute classic of historical fiction, although once you’ve read it you will never again be able to watch Oliver Stone’s film of Alexander without getting the feeling that something was horribly wasted along the way (well, assuming you can watch it without that feeling at the moment!).

    I’ve said this many times before but for me Renault is only very slightly below Dunnett in my pantheon of historical-fiction authors. She’s not only an exquisite writer but also a formidable scholar. Oh, I really am going to have to do that reread…

    1. I love the sound of the Alexander trilogy. I wonder if I should maybe have started with those instead of this one. Although I did enjoy this book I was hoping it would become an instant favourite, but unfortunately that didn’t happen and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason.

      I hope you find time for your reread next year!

  4. My favorite of Mary Renault’s books is “The Persian Boy”, the second in her Alexander trilogy. It can be read on its own, I think, but works better if you read “Fire From Heaven” first.

    1. I’ll look forward to reading The Persian Boy, but I’ll take your advice and start with Fire From Heaven. I do like to read a series in the correct order if possible!

  5. I read these two books when I was a teenager and haven’t thought since then of going back to Renault’s work. However, there has been a lot of publicity recently about her more contemporary novel, ‘The Charioteer’, which I think must have just been re-issued. I might add that to my Christmas pile.

    1. Yes, The Charioteer has just been republished as a Virago Modern Classic, I think. It sounds interesting, though very different from her Theseus books!

  6. My favorite Renault book alternates between The Persian Boy (one of the finest, if atypical, love stories I have ever read) and The Mask Of Apollo, where the protagonist is an actor in the time of Dionysos, Tyrant of Syracuse, and in the years just before Alexander of Macedon was born. Depends on which I have re-read more recently.

    The Charioteer, a more modern work (WWII England) and her first, The Last of the Wine, set in Socratic Athens, are both good, but slightly “clunkier” than some of her other writing. I also enjoy The Praise Singer, set in post-Homeric times. Less drama; more happy ending; but likewise not as exciting as some.

    I agree that the best part of The King Must Die is the bull dancing portion, though there are other parts that are beautifully done in their simplicity (and a few places that STILL make me very angry). The Bull from the Sea, worth reading so you know the rest of the story, and containing a wonderful love story, is still not quite as good. Also, be aware that the story IS a tragedy, Greek-style. Do NOT expect a happy ending, because there isn’t one; only tragic, fitting necessity.

    1. All of the books you’ve mentioned sound intriguing. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try her work, but it’s good to know that I have so many great books to look forward to. I definitely want to read The Bull from the Sea at some point, so I’ll be prepared for a tragic ending. Thanks for the warning!

  7. I bought a copy of The Bull from the Sea at a thrift store, not knowing that it was a sequel. I would love to read The King Must Die just so I can then read my thrift store find! I didn’t think I liked ancient Greece, either, until I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. She really made it all come alive for me and now I feel more interested than ever.

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