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The King Must Die

(Theseus #1)

really liked it 4.00  ·  Rating details ·  7,485 ratings  ·  609 reviews
In myth, Theseus was the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur in Crete. What the founder-hero might have been in real life is another question, brilliantly explored in 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 ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published February 12th 1988 by Vintage (first published 1958)
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Susan Marcus I was surprised but not disappointed, As I read the work, I was wondering about Asterion's role as well as the different introduction and use of Ariad…moreI was surprised but not disappointed, As I read the work, I was wondering about Asterion's role as well as the different introduction and use of Ariadne's thread. The ending made sense. What disturbed me was Renault's depiction of Asterion as a 'dark' man, obese, squat, and rapacious. (less)

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Dec 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 th ...more
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
"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 myt
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
Spencer Orey
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.
Well this was a disappointment. I love me some good retelling/historical fiction and this is a beloved classic of the genre, so I expected to love it.
My main issue was with our hero, Theseus. The whole story is a hero's journey but the hero was so dull. And his first person narration only made it more obvious. I never felt him truly desiring anything: glory, riches, love. He went on this journey just because he was told to. Prophecy, destiny, you see.
Prose is masterful but the story was never-
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
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Feb 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: Assigned in High School
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 stra
Clif Hostetler
Jun 21, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novel
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 prayer ...more
Feb 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Iset by: No one
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 ...more
Mar 03, 2018 marked it as did-not-finish  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
Sorry, folks, I'm giving up on this book at page 296. Normally if I've gotten this far into a book, I'll carry on until the end, but I cannot bring myself to read the final 100 pages.

The first half of this book falls flat. There is no interest, no engaging plot, no character building. It just drags on without seeming to have any purpose. I will give the book the positive that the plot picks up a bit about halfway through, when Theseus becomes a bull dancer in Crete. I thought that perhaps I coul
May 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: Robert
Shelves: fiction, history
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 s ...more
Jennifer (JC-S)
Aug 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-reading
‘For a man in darkness, there is only one god to pray to.’

‘The King Must Die’ is a historical novel by Mary Renault, first published in 1958. Set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in Crete, and Naxos, it traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, one of the heroes in Greek mythology. Ms Renault’s story constructs a story around Theseus which, while not a simple retelling of the myth, could form the basis of it. The story begins in Troizen, the land of Theseus’s
Elizabeth K.
Oct 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2007-new-reads
I've picked this up now and again over the years, but never read the whole thing. I have this precious Pocket Books paperback edition, I'm guessing circa 1960 - sadly it's very fragile and crumbly and it took quite a beating being carried around in my purse before I realized it. The blurb on the back reads as follows:

Brave, aggressive, tough, proud, and highly sexed, Theseus faces danger after danger and overcomes them all.

His adventures will take you into a world of primitive orgies, sparkling
Linda Riebel
Apr 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
If you have not discovered Mary Renault’s historical novels, you are in for a treat, and I envy you your discovery. The King Must Die, her first, is a masterpiece of evocation. In ancient Greece, the mythical (or was he?) Theseus becomes a brave hero who penetrates the infamous labyrinth of Crete, where the Minotaur lurks, awaiting his annual portion of Athenian boys and girls to devour. There is much more in the way of plot, but that’s not the main part of Renault’s magic. She so fully conjures ...more
Dec 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
The King Must Die is the tale of Theseus told as if it were realistic, historical fiction. It is a retelling of the classic myth about Theseus’ adventures and most notably, his fight with the Minotaur on the island of Crete. However, the author introduces more plausible accounts for the instances throughout the myth. I really enjoyed how the author tells this story, but maybe that was because of my bias and soft-spot for all historical fiction. However, I did enjoy the idea of creating plausibl ...more
Brilliant retelling of the story of Theseus! I started this novel more as a duty than as enjoyment, but was soon plunged into the world of Bronze Age Greece. I can see why this novel has survived all these years and why Renault is a classic. However I have to ask myself, were this novel published in 2015 for the first time, would it be as popular as it was when first published in 1958?

In Troizen, Theseus finds out he is heir to the king of Athens, by his strength in lifting a sword [similar mot
I am always excited to find a new author to admire. Of course, Mary Renault is not new to the world. She was born in London in 1905 and died in 1983, having built for herself a reputation for vivid historical novels, many of them set in Ancient Greece. She was named by J F Kennedy as his favorite author. I have meant to read her for years and am so pleased to have found a wonderful writer with a great deal of scholarship and intelligence backing up her fiction.

The King Must Die is the first of
Robert Case
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is the story of Theseus, a prince of Athens who allied his country with its Spartan neighbors and then traveled to Crete to challenge the minotaur. The author, Mary Renault, stays true to the legend, introducing her heroic main character as a young, insecure boy and following him through teenage trials and into adulthood. She breathes life into his character, showing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a charismatic man, one with the humility of a true hero.
Renault's Theseus relies o
Yamin Eaindray
Sep 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: greek mythology fans
3.5 stars.

Let me start off by saying that I have not even read The Iliad yet and I am ashamed. I made the mistake of buying a beautiful, leather bound edition of The Odyssey and two hundred pages in, I realized that I was reading the follow up of The Iliad. I knew what happened in it so I assumed, "Oh, perhaps they're going to go back to the Trojan war events throughout this one..." but I grew doubtful and searched it up. Yeah, I'm pretty stupid.

I was familiar with the legend of Theseus (well, t
Ann Schwader
Aug 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This lyrical retelling of the legend of Theseus manages to add a sense of realism (circa 1958 archaeological evidence) without sacrificing the essential magic of ancient Greece. The gods may or may not manifest themselves; but they are fully real to the characters, and they behave as such, often with far-reaching consequences.

Renault does not give the reader modern sensibilities in ancient clothing, but truly ancient ways of thinking -- which can be disturbing at times. Theseus’s perception of w
Oct 06, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Seeing that I love Madeline Miller's novels and that Mary Renault is also known for having written Greek mythology-based fiction of outstanding quality, I set out to compare the two. Madeline Miller remains my favorite, hands down.

There is formidable brain power on display in The King Must Die. Now brains are nice, to be sure, in fact I wouldn't have it otherwise, but where's the heart, here? This book offers one of the most unfortunate (though certainly not talentless) first-person narratives I
I love her, I can't help it.

I thought it was very clever how all the fantastic elements of the myth got explained to be more realisitc and still make sense. I read this whole thing pretty fast but I really tore through the end to see how Theseus would leave Ariadne (thousand year old myths don't get spoiler alerts) without being a total moron. Like, "I think I'm forgetting something. OH! It's the girl! Doh!" The way it was explained (ok, that is a spoiler) only mae him slightly douchey, which i
Lynne King
Mar 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
I've just come across this. I read this book years ago as it was one of my father's books. I must try and get a copy of it.

Ah Theseus!
Sep 22, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I have read a couple of Renault's novels before, and must admit that I was a touch disappointed. I had heard that her work set within Ancient Greek was marvellous, however, and when I discovered that Hilary Mantel is also an advocate of her work, I wanted to give her another go. I decided to choose a book which I already owned, The King Must Die, for a reading project, which is the first in a series about Theseus.

First published in 1958, the gorgeous new Virago reprint (#684) has an introduction
Thomas Ray
The King Must Die, Mary Renault, 1958, 338pp.

The Theseus legend has many unreal elements, such as the Minotaur. BUT—what if all such elements are just embellishments on something that actually happened? That's Mary Renault's take. This is the story that might actually have happened, that gave rise to the fantastic legend.

We see a world giving over from rule-by-women to rule-by-men. We see that rule-by-women was NOT necessarily better than rule-by-men! "Thank the gods /women/ aren't in charge any
Mar 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, fiction
Before there was Circe, there was Mary Renault finessing Greek mythology and it was good.
Sotiris Karaiskos
More of a historical novel that tries to show the reality behind the myth than a narrative of the myth itself. In fact, the author chooses to remove many of the mythical facts, add her ideas and demystify key parts of the myth using archaeological data and Robert Graves' theories of matriarchy in pre-Hellenic Greece. These theories are a key pillar of the book, with the mythical hero confronted with matriarchal notions that the author believes explain many of his adventures. When the story leads ...more
Bob Mayer
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A classic novel that takes a myth and a reality and produces a plausible story of an individual who is brought to life by Ms. Renault.
Jason Golomb

“The voices sank and rose, sank and rose higher. It was like the north wind when it blows screaming through mountain gorges; like the keening of a thousand widows in a burning town; like the cry of she-wolves to the moon. And under it, over it, through our blood and skulls and entrails, the bellow of a the gong.”
- from Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die"

Mary Renault weaves a tale so mythic in scope, that the story itself is only outshone by her fabulous prose. Beyond a vague awareness of the Mino
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Mary Renault was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander

Other books in the series

Theseus (2 books)
  • The Bull from the Sea (Theseus, #2)

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