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Review Of Mary Renault’s, The King Must Die Essay, Research Paper

Justin James McCorkle

March 4th 2000

Review of Mary Renault?s The King Must Die

Mary Renault tells a wonderfully dashing tale of the classic Hero Theseus, who was said to have lived shortly before the time of the Trojan War. Although the book is very appealing to me the author did not follow the classic legends in several aspects. This can be a good technique and does bring newness to the story, however some departures changed the very fabric of the tale. In Renault?s story many details are added that give the tale much more flavor. Finally, all told Mary Renault wrote a very believable tale of Theseus, and may have even done a better job than the ancients in bringing the story to life.

Mary Renault departed from the classic story of Theseus in the following ways. Theseus, in the classic legend was the cousin of Hercules and was built very much like him, Renault writes him as a smaller man with wit to make up for his size, and not a cousin of Hercules. Theseus does ponder on Hercules several times in the story, like he is a long dead hero. This is also misleading because Theseus and Hercules lived at the same time; they were in fact friends. In Euripides when Hercules is driven mad and kills his family, he is consoled by Theseus, clearly naming them as contemporaries. In Renault?s tale several things are added which do not appear in any of the classic tales, Eleusis for example, does not appear in Theseus classic tale, but I find no fault in adding it to the tale. Renault turns the famous maze of the labyrinth into a palace, a strange twist indeed. She also explains away the Minotaur as the young prince of the palace in a bull helm. In the classic tale the Minotaur is a cursed creature who is forced to live in a great maze with no entrance and no exit. Renault follows the classic rendition in the part of the story where Theseus is sent to Crete, however after that she explains away all magical aspects of the tribute to the Minotaur and its feeding with the Bull Dance. She did keep the essential part of the tale, the killing of the Minotaur, but took away the unreal aspects of the story, i.e. the man with a bull?s head. Ariadne who in Renault?s story is the daughter Minos is taken from Crete by Theseus in all accounts because she was in love with him. She is left on Naxos in all accounts as well, but in the other two accounts of the story (Apollodorus and Ovid); she is comforted or led away by a God, suggesting that she died. The reversing of the end of the tale kind of took away the original tragic impact that I feel created the very essence of the story of young Theseus. In the original tales Theseus had told his father that upon his return he would paint the sail of a Cretetian ship white, as opposed to the black sail which flew from the ships normally upon their return to Athens to receive the tribute. Theseus, having failed to do so, arrived in the city to find out that his father had killed himself in his despair thinking that his son was dead, as opposed to killing himself for the life of his son, which makes little sense.

The wonderful amount of detail that Renault adds to the story is amazing indeed. The way she wove in little details from the originals in a believable manner made the story much more fun and added an ancient flavor that I think would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. The little episodes with the string, for example, paralleling the legend in which Theseus carried the twine into the inescapable labyrinth to give him a means to leave after killing the Minotaur, which he did in both tales as well.

Mary Renault tells such a sweeping tale of the classic Hero Theseus, that I am sure even Euripides wound have approved of it. Although the book did not follow the classic legends in several aspects, this can be forgiven in most respects do to the excellent craftsmanship of the writer. Some departures changed the very fabric of the tale, and in these few examples, such as the changing of the sail, I have to argue that the story should not have been changed. In Renault?s story the many details that have been added give the tale much more style and content in most instances. Mary Renault wrote a remarkably believable tale of ancient Athenian Hero, and in many ways did a better job than the ancients in bringing the story to life for masses.


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