Nikki 's Reviews > The King Must Die

The King Must Die by Mary Renault
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May 28, 2010

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bookshelves: historical-fiction-alternatehistory, greek-roman
Read on January 24, 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.
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Reading Progress

01/23/2011 page 156
44.0% "Theseus bothers me, crowing about how he managed to break female power in Eleusis. Womenz r ebil lolol?"
01/24/2011 page 215
61.0% "On more familiar ground, now that Theseus is in Crete. This is all less familiar than I'd expect: either Mary Renault is creating stuff, or my classics is rustier than I thought."
01/24/2011 page 264
75.0% "Ah, now I'm beginning to see how Mary Renault has done it. Very clever, really."
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Comments (showing 1-12)




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Lucinda Elliot Hey, Nikki, I felt just the same, and it is nice to meet another who does, as so many give this glowing reviews. I thought Theseus' threatening to kill his father's 'war prize' for having a wandering eye mean, and his wish to rape and threat to beat Persephone unpleasant, and when he went on to overthrow female rule steam came out of my ears...
All this was as nothing to his cowardly murder of poor Phaedra in 'The Bull from the Sea', for which he never expresses the slightest regret.


message 11: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma Glaisher Are we supposed to like him? Renault is conjuring up a very distant time, with very different values and views. I've no idea if it is correct, but I find it convincing. Interestingly, Mary herself had little time for women, in spite of being a lesbian! And she adored gay men (but would never have used the word 'gay').


Nikki Sure, maybe, but I don't have to enjoy reading about a nasty misogynist in a book where all the women are rendered powerless, whether it's accurate or intentional or not.


Emma Glaisher Of course you don't. But it's Renault's interpretation of the legend, an idea of what the 'real life' events could have been. I think the women are being rendered powerless in reaction to the female-dominated society the Hellenes are replacing (not sure if current scholarship still supports this, but that's not really relevant).

I can quite understand how you found it disturbing, though. I agree, it is! Anyway, thanks for responding!


message 8: by Lucinda (last edited Jun 22, 2016 12:44PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lucinda Elliot Emmm and Nikki - sorry to but in here, but in response to Emma's remark about Theseus and the attack on matriarchy, there's two books I thought powerfully written, 'Ariadne' and 'Phaedra' by June Rachuy Brindel, a US author, which I read recently and if she's intrigued by the attack on matriarchy she might find them interesting.Sorry, couldn't resist joining in on this, reading a lot of stuff about the attack on matriarchies recently (ie an article 'Knocking Down Straw Dolls' in refuation to that Eller's book about the 'Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory' that patriarchal men seem to promote).
Nikki, still loving your reviews!


message 7: by E2c (new) - rated it 5 stars

E2c Ok, where to start... Renault was writing a novel about myth and legend, not actua recordedl history. Ghere is about 1% truth here to 99% invention (and most of the latter is *not* Renault's, but see below).

The "truth" part mostly comes from art and archaology, and Classical Greek versiins of the core myths + dramas by Euripides, Aeschylus, etc. The palace at Knossos is based on actual ruins (albeit on a microscopic scale compared to the palace she described), the bull-leaper murals are real, and so is Ariadne's goddess get-up. (You can see the prototype figurine online, or in any art history survey textbook).

The matriarchal, earth goddess civilization being swept aside by patriarchal societies and their "sky gods" comes primarily from the work of 2 men:

- Sir James Fraser, in The Golden Bow

- poet/novelist Robert Graves' *entirely* fictitious "scholarship" in his books The White Goddess and The Greek Myths.

People of Renault's era believed in both Fraser and Graves (both wrote about things that go nicely eith Jungian archetypes), and which have continuing influence today, through Joseph Campbell, the whole "mythopoeic" movement (for men, women, and in literature), as well as in many strands of neo-paganism.

I'll leave you with this thought: I cannot understand why Renault used these ideas, but the only thing I can come up with is, maybe, that she might have been dealing with a ton of self-hatred. I don't think all the female characters here are awful: Ariadne is pretty much captive to her beliefs, and I like Renault's treatment of her abandonment on Naxos far better than any other I've read (in which Theseus comes off as a Don Juan who tosses women after he seduces them). He genuinely does not want her to know that she took part in human sacrifice as a bacchante (see The Bacchae, by Euripides, for yhe full horror of what they allegedly did).

I'm not trying to defend her views, only to put them i context. Graves largely came up with them by looking at ancient art and reading myths. His mistake was a bad one: canonizing his own perdonsl interpretations as the result of scholarship, and further claiming that his truth was The Truth.

I just finished re-reading after not having touchec the book since I was in college. While all the stuff about women jars, it's an even more compelling novel than I had remembered. The characters live and breathe, and the 1st person narration is what does the trick. So: 5 stars for the characters and re-working of some plot elements, but 0 for leaning on Graves.


message 6: by E2c (new) - rated it 5 stars

E2c Apologies for typos; phone keyboard + no "edit" function for comments.


message 5: by E2c (new) - rated it 5 stars

E2c One more thing: the volcanic eruption and earthquakes were real, too.


Nikki I, uh, have a GCSE and A Level in Classics and two degrees in literature. I didn't need any of that explained to me, and I'm not sure why you thought I did...


message 3: by E2c (new) - rated it 5 stars

E2c Nikki wrote: "I, uh, have a GCSE and A Level in Classics and two degrees in literature. I didn't need any of that explained to me, and I'm not sure why you thought I did..."

I think "regardless of how accurate" was one of the things behind my comment. It wasn't intended to belittle you. I'm at a loss here.


Nikki That phrasing referred to the common cry re: misogynistic books: "But that's what it was like back then!"


message 1: by E2c (new) - rated it 5 stars

E2c Well, she managed to be pretty misogynistic while hewing to Graves' Mother Goddess theories, so...


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