I’ve just re-read The King Must Die by Mary Renault for the first time in, what? 35? 40 years? For a long time it was a book I re-read with astounding regularity, along with her other books set in ancient Greece. Revisiting a book after so long is always a test of faith, but I am glad to say that it withstood the test.
Except, of course, that it was a different book I read. Or at least I assume it was. I don’t think the teenager who first fell in love with the novel could possibly have seen in it the things the older me is now seeing.
I can see it as a thrilling story with an engaging central character and a wonderfully exotic setting (I suspect it was this novel that first fired my love of Greece). All of that is still the case. And it is a very boyish tale. Theseus, the central character, is still not 19 as the novel closes, and he has had all manner of rip-roaring adventures in which he invariably wins the day thanks to a combination of cleverness, athletic skill and nerve. What teenage boy wouldn’t identify with him? Not only that, but he has sex with an awful lot of women while he’s about it. Oh, and it is a novel about the masculine supplanting the feminine: the gods assuming greater authority than the goddesses, the rule of queens being replaced by the rule of kings.
But how much more I see in it now. I hope that the younger me would have recognised the repeated motif of the killing of the king, from the opening scene in which the King Horse is sacrificed to the climactic scene in the ruins of Knossos when the newly-annointed Minotaur is killed by Theseus. But would I have noticed the importance of consent in all these deaths? When the victim agrees to the sacrifice it is a good death and the realm prospers; when the consent of the victim is not sought, it is a bad death and the realm must suffer.
I presume that I would have noticed most if not all of the subtle ways in which Renault found a naturalistic explanation for all the elements of the myth she incorporated into her story. This has become a commonplace of much of the romantic retellings of myth since then, but I think it was still very uncommon when Renault was writing in the 1950s. Certainly, I consider her work the yardstick against which all of these later efforts have to be measured, and against which the vast majority of them fail. But would I have noticed how she endeavours to remain true to the spirit of the time. These are not modern characters dressed in fancy costume and cast back to a colourful earlier time. Though she doesn’t quite capture the rawness that comes across in something like Kentauros by Gregory Feeley, still you get a strong sense that these were people with a very different belief system than our own, and a belief system that shapes their lives in ways we can barely comprehend. In the scenes set on Crete in particular you get a real sense of a system that has grown decadent, where the absolute truth of their worship is no longer quite believed, yet in which fragments of the old ways have a habit of surfacing to powerful effect. The scene on the dock when Theseus first arrives on Crete, in which Asterion (the Minotaur) throws a ring overboard in a parodic but still half-believed version of the ancient wedding to the sea, and then Theseus retrieves the ring but promptly throws it overboard once more in a way that is both more real and therefore more symbolic of the wedding, is a pitch-perfect example of this.
But there was one thing I noticed on this re-reading that could not have had any great significance for me when I read it before, other than a neat little connection. In the first part of the novel a bard visits their home in Troizon, and during his stay tells of going to the land of the Hyperboreans: ‘That year they built the second circle round his great sanctuary. I sang the work-song, when they raised the standing stones.’ The bard is unnamed, but this time as I read it I recalled that one of the legends associated with Merlin is that he built Stonehenge. Has Merlin come into this novel?
And if so, could we find a starting point for Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex in this novel? Certainly I would be astounded if Holdstock had not read Mary Renault. And here we find a linking of Merlin with ancient Greece, and later, on Crete, the ancient technology of Daidalos comes into the story. In fact, the more I think about it, the more echoes I find from one to the other. Hm, maybe something to pursue?