The King Must Die


The King Must Die

infobox Book |
name = The King Must Die
title_orig =
translator =


image_caption = Cover of the 1988 paperback edition
author = Mary Renault
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Historical novel
publisher = Vintage
release_date = 1958
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (Paperback)
pages = 352 p. (Vintage edition)
isbn = ISBN 0-394-75104-3
preceded_by =
followed_by = The Bull from the Sea

"For the song by Elton John, see The King Must Die (song)"

"The King Must Die" is a 1958 Bildungsroman and historical novel by Mary Renault that traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, a hero in Greek mythology. Naturally, it is set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in Crete, and Naxos. Rather than retelling the myth, Renault constructs an archeologically plausible story that might have developed into the myth. She captures the essentials while removing the more fantastical elements, such as monsters and the appearances of gods. "The King Must Die" was lauded by critics, with New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott calling it "one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times." Renault wrote a sequel, "The Bull from the Sea", in 1962.

Plot introduction

"The King Must Die" is an adaption of the early life and adventures of the mythological Greek hero Theseus. Beginning with his childhood in the Greek city-state of Troizen, the plot follows him through his travels in Eleusis, where he becomes king; in Athens, where he becomes known as the son and heir of the king; and in Crete, where he learns the Cretan sport of bull-leaping. The novel ends with Theseus's return to Athens.

Plot summary

Book One: Troizen

The novel opens with Theseus as a six-year-old child in the household of his grandfather, King Pittheus of Troizen. His mother is a priestess; his father's identity is unknown. Theseus believes that the sea god Poseidon fathered him, and serves at Poseidon's temple. There he discovers that he can sense earthquakes before they happen.

When Theseus is fourteen, he kills his first man and beds his first girl. But as Theseus ages, he becomes frustrated because he is so much shorter and lighter than most Hellenes his age. As a result, he is a poor wrestler, though an excellent archer, javelin-thrower, and runner. To compensate for his light build, he learns to defeat his wrestling opponents by using special holds and throws, some taught to him by two Egyptian boys and others formulated by his own inginuity.

When Theseus turns seventeen, his mother takes him to the sacred Grove of Zeus in the hills and explains that, if he pries up a certain stone, she will tell him who his father really is. Theseus tries to use brute force to lift up the stone, and fails miserably. After praying to Apollo, he has a brainwave. He uses a lever to raise the great stone, and removes a sword and a man's sandals from beneath it. At first, Theseus is bitter that his lineage is not godly, but his irritation vanishes when his grandfather explains that Theseus is the only son and heir of King Aigeus of Athens. Theseus is to travel to Athens and join his father at once.

After being affronted by Cretan merchants whose ships control the sea route to Athens, Theseus decides to go to Athens via the bandit-infested land route: the Isthmus of Corinth. On the way, his sole companion, Dexios, is killed by the bandit Skiron. Theseus avenges him.

Book Two: Eleusis

In Eleusis, Theseus is halted on the road and forced to fight King Kerkyon in single combat. It is the custom of the Eleusinians to make a stranger kill their king each year, as a sacrifice to the Earth mother goddess. Theseus kills Kerkyon and becomes king. He also weds the 27-year-old Eleusinian Queen, Persephone, whom he finds extremely skilled in sex. But because he is young and expected to die in one year's time, everyone treats him like a child of no account. So he soon becomes restless and frustrated.

With his bodyguard of Eleusinian youths, Theseus successfully hunts the great she-boar Phaia. He becomes friendly with Pylas, Prince of the neighbouring kingdom of Megara, and arranges for their two states to jointly attack and eliminate the bandits that infest the Isthmus of Corinth. The war is a complete success, but Persephone, rightly suspecting that Theseus is trying to become more powerful than she, has her brother Xanthos try to assassinate Theseus. Theseus kills Xanthos in single combat.

Book Three: Athens

With the excuse of wanting to be purified of Xanthos's blood at the Athenian shrine of Apollo, Theseus finally goes to Athens. But his aged father Aigeus, who fears the powerful young king (whom he quite fails to recognise as his son), would have poisoned Theseus on the urging of his lover Medea, who wants the Athenian throne for her sons. But Aigeus recognises Theseus's sword just in time, and knocks the poisoned goblet from his son's hand. Medea escapes; no one knows how. Aigeus proclaims Theseus his son and heir.

When Theseus returns to Eleusis, he finds that Queen Persephone has raised the army against him. When Theseus's oration persuades the army to support him, Persephone stages a suicide attempt by letting one of her sacred snakes (from the mother-goddess rituals she presides over as priestess-queen) bite her. After Theseus gives her leave to go to a shrine to die, one of the court's women reveals to him that she is functionally immune to the snake-bites (immunity being necessary to ensure survival of priestesses) by way of calculated doses of diluted venom - and will not die, but is using the effects of the bite as a ruse to facilitate her flight from Theseus' justice.

When a Cretan ship comes to collect a yearly tribute of seven boys and seven girls from Athens, Theseus offers himself in one boy's place. He insists, despite his father's pleas, claiming that it is what his patron god Poseidon has asked him to do. Theseus becomes a Cretan slave.

Book Four: Crete

On the ship to Crete, the captain tells Theseus that he and the others will be bull-dancers in the great Cretan palace of Knossos. They will be put into an arena and made to dance around a bull and leap his horns while avoiding being trampled or gored. Theseus forms the other thirteen Athenian and Eleusinian boys and girls into a team they name the Cranes (led by himself), and they swear eternal friendship, loyalty and chastity to each other.

At landfall in Crete, the Cranes are purchased by Asterion, the heir of King Minos, though not his son. Asterion's title is the Minotauros (or Minotaur), but he is an ordinary man, dark and thick-set, not a bull-headed monster as myth has it. The Cranes are taken to the palace at Knossos, called the Labyrinth because it is so vast and complex. There Theseus first beholds Ariadne Goddess-on-Earth, the beautiful young daughter of the King and the supposed earthly incarnation of the mother goddess, and falls in love with her.

After a period of training and performing of the bull-dance, the Cranes become the best team of bull-dancers in Crete. In time, Ariadne and Theseus become lovers. Ariadne reveals a closely guarded secret: King Minos is a leper, and he is dying. Asterion, the Minotauros, deliberately infected the King in order to speed his rise to power. Theseus and his followers begin to steal and cache weapons.

One night, Ariadne leads Theseus through the labyrinthine palace to the chambers of King Minos. Theseus talks to the wise old leper, who hides his face behind a gold mask shaped like a bull's head, complete with horns. Minos questions Theseus and is impressed by him. Minos explains that Asterion, whom he hates, wants to marry Ariadne once he becomes king. Intending to frame Asterion for the deed, Minos has Theseus behead him with the sacrificial axe, Labrys.

Their plan is ruined when Asterion hides Minos's body and gives out that the King has sailed away to Sicily. Asterion is not suspicious of Theseus, but he needs money to bribe courtiers and the army to support his bid for the throne. He places huge bets against Theseus in the day's bull dance, and maddens the bull with drugs. The bull dies as a result of the effect of the drugs, and Theseus barely survives.

That evening, Theseus senses a massive earthquake impending. Realising that their quarters will collapse, he launches the revolt. Joined by the other bull-dancers, the Cranes arm themselves, kill the guards, and escape from the palace. Theseus rescues Ariadne as the palace collapses.

Ariadne and Theseus raise the peasantry of Crete in revolt. The rebels battle Asterion's troops in the ruins of the palace. Theseus fights the Minotauros in single combat and beheads him with the axe Labrys.

Book Five: Naxos

Nearly all the bull-dancers, plus Ariadne, whom Theseus intends to marry, take a ship and sail for Greece. At the island of Naxos, they disembark in time for the bacchanalian festivities in honour of Mother Dia. Theseus is utterly appalled to find Ariadne drunk, senseless, and soaked from head to foot with blood - apparently human blood from sacrifices. Sickened, he takes the ship and sails off with the others, leaving her behind.

Theseus drops anchor at the island of Delos. It is exactly one year since he left Athens. Remembering that his father asked him to raise a white sail on his ship should be return alive, Theseus prays to his patron god Poseidon for guidance. Theseus feels that Poseidon bids him not to raise the white sail. Theseus keeps the black one aloft, and Aigeus in his grief commits suicide by leaping from a tower into the Aegean Sea. Theseus fatalistically muses that it is best not to question what the gods have ordained, for "men are only men."

Characters

Humans

Theseus: The protagonist. A Hellene king and son of a king who compensates for his small, light build with agility and ingenuity. King of Eleusis and son of King Aigeus of Athens, he is a born leader who always tries to improve individuals, groups, and conditions that he encounters. Though only seventeen for most of the novel, he is also a skilled warrior, hunter, bull-dancer, and lover. Though "a man for women," he tolerates homosexuality on the part of his companions.

Ariadne: The beautiful young daughter of King Minos, revered as a goddess incarnate by the Cretans. Gentle and timid at first, she falls in love with Theseus and helps him escape Crete. She is of Minyan extraction, dark and small. Appalled by her bloody role in the sacrifice of the king of Naxos, Theseus abandons her on that island.

Asterion: The Minotauros. Heir to King Minos of Crete, though known to be the offspring of Minos' queen and an Assyrian bull-dancer, he is ruthless and ambitious, desiring the Cretan throne and not scrupling about his methods for achieving it. He takes after his father, being short, stocky, and dark. Asterion regards Theseus as a horse, not a human, and buys him out of liking for his mettle.

Aigeus: The King of Athens and Theseus's father. A valiant and virile man in his younger days, he is in his fifties and cynical by the time Theseus meets him. His people are troublesome, his nobles powerful, and he is worn out from decades of endeavoring to keep the peace and retain his authority. Theseus respects Aigeus but cannot admire him, for he is over-cautious.

Persephone: The 27-year-old queen of Eleusis, whom no one is permitted to name. Beautiful, sexually skilled, and devoted to the earth goddess, she marries Theseus after he kills her previous husband. But he turns out to be more than she bargained for, empowering himself and the downtrodden men of Eleusis. Three times she attempts to kill him or have him killed, and commits suicide when she fails.

Amyntor: An Eleusinian bull-dancer, Theseus's right-hand among the Cranes in Crete. A big, black-haired, hawk-nosed teenager, he is too heavy for bull-leaping, so he serves to catch the leaper as he or she descends. Theseus trusts and loves him better than any other person.

Pittheus: The King of Troizen and Theseus's grandfather. He is a good king, for he is wise, just, and devoted to his people's welfare. Theseus looks up to him, despite the occasional reproof or thrashing the old king deals him.

Aithra: The 33-year-old high priestess of Troizen, Theseus's mother, and Pittheus's daughter. Theseus reciprocates her deep love for him.

Medea: King Aigeus's lover, she wants the Athenian throne for her two sons and persuades Aigeus to poison Theseus. When her plot fails, she pronounces a curse on Theseus and vanishes from Athens.

Xanthos: The cold-hearted, red-haired, pale-faced brother of Queen Persephone of Eleusis, and the chief general of the Eleusinians. On his sister's orders, he tries to have Theseus assassinated. Theseus then kills him in single combat.

Pylas: The prince of Megara. Theseus meets him on the boar hunt in the hills between Eleusis and Megara. Only a few years older than Theseus, he nevertheless respects the other's prowess and intelligence, and joins him to assault the bandit strongholds in the Isthmus.

The Corinthian: The best bull-dancer in Crete -- until he lays down his life in the ring for a comrade soon after the Cranes arrive. Theseus idealizes him because he is such a consummate bull-dancer.

Chryse, Helike, Melantho, Thebe, Nephele, Rhene, Pylia: The seven female Cranes.

Iros, Hippon, Menesthes, Telamon, Phormion: The five male Cranes (apart from Theseus and Amyntor).

Lukos: The middle-aged captain of the ship on which Theseus and the Cranes travel to Crete. He is kindly and polite.

Kerkyon: The 20-year-old, strongly-built year-king of Eleusis. The name 'Kerkyon' is given to all year-kings: his real name is not given. Theseus kills him in a wrestling match.

Thalestris: A skilled Amazonian bull-dancer and valiant warrior.

Simo: A small boy who mocks Theseus's fatherlessness in Troizen.

Gods

Poseidon: Theseus's great patron god. He rules the seas and causes earthquakes.

Apollo: Theseus's other patron god. He inspires sudden bursts of insight.

Zeus: The supreme god. He is not relevant in the novel.

Mother Dia: Gaia, goddess of fertility and the earth, worshiped most by the Eleusinians and Cretans.

Notes

The Title

The Minyans of Eleusis have a custom of sacrificing their king to Mother Dia each year. In Theseus's seventeenth year, he fights King Kerkyon according to custom, and kills him. When Theseus hesitates, the Eleusinian queen tells him, "The king must die."

Minyan Vs. Hellene

Much of the plot is woven around conflicts between the Minyans, the short, dark, matriarchal descendants of the earliest Greeks (or possibly the pre-Greek peoples that inhabited Hellas) and the Hellenes, the tall, blond, patriarchal people who long ago immigrated into Greece and slew, drove out or subjugated many of the Minyans. While the Hellenes worship the traditional Greek pantheon of gods -- Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, etc -- the Minyans principally worship Mother Dia. Theseus, a Hellene in all save height, candidly admits that he cannot understand Minyan weltanschauung.

Minyans practise matriarchy: their queens wield all temporal and religious power and are succeeded by their eldest daughters. The kings consort are able warriors who assume military command, but hold no permanent power and are traditionally killed after a year's reign. It is alluded in the book that some Minyan kingdoms continue this tradition, while others perform it once every Metonic "year" and others have come to observe the custom only ceremonially, by hanging effigies of the king consort from trees sacred to Mother Dia. The book narrates the transition from this matriarchal model to the patriarchal kingship and society followed by the Hellenes.

Homosexuality

Mary Renault is well known for her positive depiction of homosexuality, and although this trait is not as important in "The King Must Die" as in her other novels, it is still present. Although Theseus is strictly heterosexual, he tolerates those of his companions who are gay or lesbian. Renault depicts these minor characters as generally decent folk, though often (as in the cases of Iros, Hippon, and some Cretans and Eleusinians) as frivolous. Thalestris, a lesbian Amazon, is especially positively portrayed.

Gods and Goddesses

None of the gods or goddesses referred to in the novel actually make appearances. Nevertheless, deities form essential parts of the characters' lives. Theseus merely infers that Poseidon or Apollo are inspiring or helping him, or interprets the voice of his heart as the voice of a god. Worship of Mother Dia also inspires the sacrifices of the Eleusinian king, and people always pray to the gods for relief from famine, disease, or danger.

Links

* Wikipedia: Fiction set in Ancient Greece
* Sparknotes: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/kingmustdie/


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