Friday, May 6, 2011

Adventure classics -- A man and his minotaur

The King Must Die
by Mary Renault
As every writer of historical fiction knows, a fruitful line of research can turn up unexpected stories.  While visiting Greece to research her first historical novel, English-born South African novelist Mary Renault took a hurried visit to Crete and Sir Arthur Evans’s reconstruction of the palace known as the House of the Axe.  As her biographer David Sweetman states, “. . .there was nothing in her experience to match the sensation she felt as she wandered through the top-lit inner chambers, down the painted stairwells . . . to that dark chamber where Minos’s scallop-backed throne waits. . . .  If ever a book insisted on being written, it was The King Must Die.”

The story possibilities so intrigued Renault that she detoured from her usual interest in protagonists who were homosexual (she abhorred the term “gay”) to write her reimagining of the story of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, legendary king of Athens, and unabashed heterosexual.  The King Must Die opens with the future hero’s boyhood as the son of the princess of Troizen.  “As for my father,” young Theseus recalls, “it was said in the Palace that I had been fathered by a god.  By the time I was five, I had perceived that some people doubted this.  But my mother never spoke of it; and I cannot remember a time when I should have cared to ask her.”

In search of his father, the young man spends nearly the first half of the book swashbuckling his way to Athens.  But the greatest part of his tale is still to come.  Taking his place among the young people sent as tribute to the Cretan overlord of Greece, he becomes a bull dancer in the palace of king in Knossos.  There he meets Princess Ariadne and her younger sister Phaedra, and incurs the wrath of the king’s heir – styled “Minotauros.”  During an earthquake, as the palace tumbles around their heads Theseus and the Minotauros battle their way into immortal myth.

Even those who already know the story will find Renault’s meticulous reconstruction of an ancient world and her interpretation of the legend of Theseus seductive.  Perhaps Renault herself was seduced by Theseus’s personality, making him the only example of a happily heterosexual character in her writings.

(Next week:  From prehistory to ancient history with I, Claudius, by Robert Graves.)

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