Saturday, June 02, 2007

Book Review: The King Must Die by Mary Renault

Grade: B
This one's for Artemesia. I actually didn't know her at all in her Slate days, but the glimpses of her work that I've seen since have impressed me greatly. She frequently combines bits of classic mythology and modern science in a heartfelt, adult voice that is good enough to unite the deep cosmic and the intensely personal natures of these ideas. I've got no link for you, but maybe she'll be kind enough to append a fitting verse.

Mary Renault seemed an appropriate representation for some aspects of Artemesia's subject and style. Other than a similar Classical take, Renault, writing hero stories in the 1950s, was very much a woman working in a man's world, much like the two historical Artemisias. Renault wrote to "solve" mythology, letting the history* behind the stories inspire her. The King Must Die takes place a solid millennium before Artemisia of Halicarnassus made a name. It's a retelling of the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.

What Renault is most deeply concerned with here is creating a plausible historical interpretation for the myth. She does a good job of toning down the more extravagant aspects (the story of the Minotaur is presented as a political upheaval), and of adding a convincing verisimilitude. She places Theseus in bronze age Greece, roughly 1400 B.C., as the Mycenaean (she uses the word "Hellene" with an apology) cultures edged the Minoan (and Minoan-influenced) civilization out of the Aegean, and as the city of Athens grew prominent among its neighbors. It was a time of religious and political change, drifting from fertility cults and a matriarchal society to the more familiar Greek pantheon and male-dominated autocracies. Renault's version of mother-worship is a conflation of the Demeter/Persephone myth and the goddess worship of the older Aegean societies; the male gods are growing in influence, but in her version, they remain close to their more modern personalities.

[I will add that one goddess is conspicuously absent. Even if Theseus was favored by male gods, Poseidon particularly, the city of Athens had its own special goddess cult too, much as the Athenians had their own special patron hero. (What a bunch of smug exceptionalists they were.) Athena should have been a factor by this time, and if Zeus and Poseidon can grab some more modern aspects, then what the hell? One site I read mentioned some theories in which Athena evolved from the earlier mother-goddess religion. In this book, Theseus promises a shrine to the minor sea goddess Peleia upon his return to Athens. Maybe Renault is getting at it.]

Theseus, of course, is an agent of this religious and political upheaval, and while Renault (as she notes) tries to write a feasible character portrait of the man(Napoleonic prick), it doesn't really take. It's too easy to take his impulsiveness and lust in stride with the times, and the author does not manage to get around his essential hero stature. To become the patriarch, he has to reject his role as a sacrifice to the Mother, which custom Renault paints at various times as barbaric and horrible. As though an absolute monarch is less so. Moreover, she portrays Theseus's piety as superior to the decadent and increasingly secular nobility of goddess-worshipping Crete. I'd have enjoyed the book more if there were a more honest--an angrier--conflict between the systems. I'm biased: if one must consent to an authoritative state ornament, then caging and periodic sacrifice seems just the thing for him.

Although Renault's historical portrait is very good, I found her writing less so. A stronger voice might have gotten more out of that theme, might have found deeper levels of character. I stalled frequently on the prose too, whose clumsy archaisms recalled more boys knights' stories than they did Homer, lacking only (and thankfully) the thees and dosts. I'm still rating it above average though. The author gets some real points for innovating here, for avoiding the subsequent 50 years of derivative and inferior takes on old myths.

Keifus (But I've certainly had enough of them for now. Up next, some classic satires.)

*My iconoclasm just gets worse, doesn't it, Clio? Which muse would be right for you?

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Artemesia said...


Let me say firstly that this is a brilliant book review. The way you have detailed and dovetailed the history and myth that are in this book is very impressive. The tribal and internecine wars in the story of Theseus give us a taste of the local territorialism that existed before City-States became part of their greater nation..And, the territorial ethnic/partisan religious madness that we still have on this planet. (Crete, Turkey, The Balkans, Iraq, Israel, etc.)

You hit the nail on the head with me..This week I had picked up Renault’s ‘Fire From Heaven’ about Alexander in the beginnings of his great march of conquest. I like to return to books I read years previously to see where my mind is now and what I overlooked then. In your cons after the pros about ‘The King Must Die,’ you write of Renault’s lacks in style and use of words..her penchant for the archaic. Also, how she perceives and describes character.

She was not as erudite and sophisticated as Robert Graves . Graves was born in 1885, Renault in 1905..but Renault died in 1983, Graves died in 1985 at 100. Renault didn’t create (recreate) characters as complex as Graves as he did in his, ‘I Claudius.’ Or have the dash that Graves had at times reminiscent of Petronius’ ‘Satyricon.’

Renault, like Somerset Maugham, was thought to be unattractive in her case, and ugly in his by their mothers. Renault had to fight for the education that she got being a female
in that post Victorian family. She was tall, thought unfeminine by her mother and found her ideal in princes, knights and heroes. In her novels, the young women are often
Kate Moss types..transluscent skinned semi-waifs, fragile and beautiful. The men, either god-like in beauty, handsome, or roughly masculine like King Philip, Alexander's’ father.
I am exaggerating, but often..a blue vein pulses on the temple of …

Nevertheless, she has created memorable characters, and her,’ The Persian Boy,’ brought sympathy and understanding to the plight of a slave who was loyal to Alexander even after Alexander’s death. This book gave Renault a following among gay readers for her unabashed and outspoken use of gay characters. In that she was a pioneer. Her life companion was a woman she met while in Nursing School, and that was where she began to write seriously.

There’s something about English women, archeology, ancient history and the exotic..
Born around the same time as Renault, there was Dorothy Eady who became known as Omm Seti. Egyptology was her bent and today, she is buried somewhere in the desert probably not far from Seti’s pyramid. If you can get hold of her biography, she is truth stranger than fiction. From a review of ‘In The Pharoah’s Shadow,’ by Anthony Sattin:

His research also led him to another remarkable Englishwomen, Dorothy Eady, later to be known as Umm Seti. Born in 1904, while still a child Umm Seti developed a strong belief that she had lived a previous life in Ancient Egypt, and was regularily visited in her dreams by the Pharaoh Seti 1, her lover in this previous incarnation. At the age of 30 she married an Egyptian, moved to Egypt, and had a child whom she called Seti.
Although the marriage ended in divorce and her husband won custody of their child, she stayed in Egypt and devoted her life to Egyptology. As extraordinary as her claims of a previous incarnation might seem, her work was, nevertheless, highly regarded by her peers

Both Artemisias are inspiring women of mind and action. I find women of previous ages who were true to their core examples that..IT can be done. One doesn’t have to opt for safety over truth, one’s truth. By nature I have been a ‘risk’ taker so those who were better at it than I will always be inspirations..that they were real and not fictions brings more depth to this life.

Maybe you think you should be smarter (previous things you have written), but as a writer of book reviews, I think you’re in the top 1%. Intellectual pattern perception seems to be a forte of yours. Maybe you need to find the right basket to put your eggs in (LOL).
Thank you for the honor, respect and care you brought to Renault on my behalf. You have made me part of something very special with this review. Also, your putting the book in my icon is a wonderful touch..When it comes to books, I never leave home without one.
Thank you Keifus.

Keifus said...

Glad I managed to catch it (and you) right, then. Thanks for the background too.

I agree about Renault's success at generating a historical context, and I'm inclined to judge her favorably on that alone (as it was what she was obviously after). As far as it being something I want to read, well, more depth in those areas would have been nice, but hey. [And some characters here made an impression. The flawed governors of Minos ("the minotaur") and Athens (Aigius) were more interesting than the hero himself.]

I thought about adding a point about homosexuality here, but it didn't seem significant enough here for this novel. My take was that she was trying hard to include an accepting word or two and make it seem off-hand. (Her times, I guess.)

Any insight about the absence of the Athena cult in these novels? I know she wasn't part of the original legend, but still... I sort of get a kick out of the Athenians: the dumb but good-hearted Herakles was good enough for the rest of the penninsula, but they need a hero with brains. Likewise their patron goddess (I imagine without good information that she probably morphed from the Athenian mother, to embody all the ways those citizens loved themselves.) I wonder too if it's better to say that our own nation of smug exceptionalists adopted Athens, or if it's more that American self-love is one stop on the evolution of western thought.

LentenStuffe said...

A magnificent homage to one of Slate's truly unacknowledged giants. A new poem from Artemesia is always a significant event, and always has the exact balance you mentioned. Diotima Modes has posted one of Artemesia's more recent poems on her blog, and it's well worth the visit.

Good job, yet again, and thanks.

Artemesia said...

I also noticed the absense of Athena when I read The King Must Die. Renault is unparalled in her research and adaption of myth in her books about that time in lost aeons. As you write, that more than justifies her standing as a novelist on ancient history/themes. '

I mentioned the homosexuality in case other readers came to your Blog here..just adding to your summations of her work.

About Athena..Renault's absense of Athena reminded me of that supposed gap in DaVinci's Last Supper that Dan Brown used to justify a missing chalice as the embodiment of the missing Feminine at the heart of Brown's DaVinci Code..
where he belabors the Church for demeaning/dismissing the central importance of Mary Magdalene among Jesus' deciples.

Can Athene be Renaults Anima? Too sacred to her to mention? The attributes of Athene are very much Renault's. Biased towards the heroes, not a matriarch by action or temprament, a goddess of intellect, invention and strategy. Is Athene 'She who must not be touched' in Renault's work?

I wonder.

Keifus said...

Well, that's certainly an interesting and clever speculation. I like it (but then your invocation of Dan Brown kind of cuts both ways...on purpose?).

Lenten: yup, it's good stuff.

Galatea said...


What a great piece of writing you presented! And I’ll take Artemesia’s word that it is an excellent review, because I have not read the book.

I love what you did with her icon! It looks like you even moved the eyes and raised an eyebrow!

As usual (pretty much), I’m late showing up to comment, but the plus side to that is reading all the comments directly after your piece which I found interesting as well. BTW (for any on-lookers), one of her poems is on the (temporarily open) Pierce Penniless blog…

Again, your writing is so fine! I really enjoyed this visit.

~ Galatea

P.S I finally left a comment here for you.

Keifus said...

Hi Galatea, I'm glad anyone shows up at all, and I'm glad you enjoyed the visit, thanks. (I take it you're not a Beatles fan.)

I moved the eyes and the arm (and drew a hand--poor resolution was my friend there). I've downloaded some better software since.


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