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?
Author: Mary Renault
Title: The King Must Die
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Saturday, June 02, 2007