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The King Must Die [Download] ➺ The King Must Die Author Mary Renault – In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the childdevouring Minotaur in Crete What the founderhero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in The King Must Die Drawing on mode In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the childdevouring Minotaur in Crete What the founderhero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in The King PDF/EPUB or The King Must Die Drawing on modern scholarship and archaeological findings at Knossos, Mary Renault’s Theseus is an utterly lifelike figure—a king of immense charisma, whose boundless strivings flow from strength and weakness—but also one steered by implacable prophecyThe story follows Theseus’s adventures from Troizen to Eleusis, where the death in the book’s title is to take place, and from Athens to Crete, where he learns to jump bulls and is named king of the victims Richly imbued with the spirit of its time, this is a pageturner as well as a daring act of imagination.

10 thoughts on “The King Must Die

  1. Terry Terry says:

    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

  2. Martin Martin says:

    Theseus - the man behind the legend
    The boy-bull dancer against the Minotaur

    image: description

    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.”

    image: description

    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.

    image: description

    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.

    image: description

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


  3. Darwin8u Darwin8u says:

    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.

  4. Wanda Wanda says:

    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.

  5. Spencer Orey Spencer Orey says:

    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.

  6. Nicky Nicky says:

    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.

  7. Lisa (Harmonybites) Lisa (Harmonybites) says:

    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.

  8. Clif Hostetler Clif Hostetler says:

    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. (view spoiler)[The young people to be sent are selected in a public lottery which I couldn't help but notice was similar to the plot to the book and movie, The Hunger Games. The fact that Theseus is subsequently instrumental in putting an end to this subservience to a stronger alien power also echos the plots of Catching Fire and Mockingjay (hide spoiler)]

  9. Iset Iset says:

    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.

  10. Ms.pegasus Ms.pegasus says:

    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:

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