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The King Must Die, Mary Renault, Random House, 1958, 338 pp
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 two novels covering the life of Theseus, a legendary hero of ancient Athens. Mary Renault takes quite some literary license with the legend, the major one being that Theseus was not of heroic size but was of short stature. She explains the archeological evidence for this in her Author's Note, painting him as "a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous, touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny."
Theseus tells his own story and it is as wild and full of adventure as you would expect from a man who may have had Poseidon for a father and who killed the famous Minotaur, that half bull/half man who fed on human flesh. She makes this complex character come to life, carefully depicting the ways he learned to use his mind as well as his courage and strength to overcome enemies and obstacles.
A few years ago I managed to get through Will Durant's The Life of Greece. I loved having Theseus fleshed out as it were and the daily world of ancient Athens and Crete made real. I already have the second volume, The Bull From the Sea, on my shelf. I look forward to reading her other novels about Plato, Alexander and more.
I want to thank Helen and her She Reads Novels blog for having a part in leading me to finally reading Mary Renault.