The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

Published in 1962, this is the second of Mary Renault’s two novels telling the story of Theseus. It’s been a few years since I read the first book, The King Must Die, and I was worried that I’d waited too long to read this one, but actually, although it does pick up where the first book left off, it wasn’t necessary to remember every little detail because The Bull from the Sea also works as a complete novel in its own right.

It begins with Theseus and his fellow bull-dancers returning to Athens from Crete, having defeated the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing Theseus to be dead, his father Aegeus has committed suicide, leaving Theseus to become the new king of Athens in his place. After his eventful time in Crete, Theseus finds it difficult to settle back into daily life, even with his new duties as king to occupy him. His restlessness soon leads him into a series of adventures with his friend Pirithoos, the pirate king of the Lapiths, and one of these journeys ends in a meeting with Hippolyta, the Amazon queen.

Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta and after challenging her to single combat and winning, he takes her back with him to Athens. A close and loving relationship develops between them, but Hippolyta can never become his wife – his people would not accept her as their queen, but in any case he is already promised in marriage to Phaedra, a princess of Crete. The fates of Hippolyta, Phaedra and the sons they bear Theseus are played out over the remainder of the novel.

Unlike The King Must Die which focused on only a few years in Theseus’ life, The Bull from the Sea covers a much longer period and as it’s not a particularly thick book, this means that several of the episodes in Theseus’ story are not explored in as much detail. His role in taming the bull of Marathon, for example, is dealt with relatively quickly without going into a lot of depth. Much more time is spent on his relationships with Hippolyta and Phaedra and their sons Hippolytos and Akamas, which was good because this was the part of the novel I found the most interesting. Having recently read For the Immortal by Emily Hauser which tells Hippolyta’s story from a feminine perspective, Mary Renault’s portrayal of her relationship with Theseus couldn’t be more different!

It’s the fact that different authors can take such different approaches to the same myths and legends that makes Ancient Greece so fascinating to read about. There is never just one version that everyone agrees on; so much is left open to interpretation. Mary Renault gives logical, realistic explanations for the various aspects of the myths rather than fantastical ones. I was intrigued by her representation of the Kentaurs (centaurs), for example, not as the half human/half horse creatures we would normally think of, but as a sort of ancient and primitive community of people who live in the wild and form close bonds with their horses.

It seems that most people prefer The King Must Die to this book, but I think I actually enjoyed this one more. This is probably because when I read the first novel in 2013 I had previously read very little about Ancient Greece and didn’t find the subject particularly appealing. Since then I’ve been dipping into the period more and more often and becoming more familiar with some of the myths, which could be why I found this book easier to get into and follow. I will be reading more by Mary Renault and am looking forward to starting her Alexander trilogy soon. I already have the first two books, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, ready and waiting on my shelf.

14 thoughts on “The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

  1. Café Society says:

    I am thinking of including The King Must Die in the choices for next year’s Summer School because I’m fairly sure that a good number of the people who attend will have read it in their youth. I had forgotten about the sequel. I wonder if there’s room for both?

    • Helen says:

      I think either or both of these books would be good choices for the Summer School. Maybe if people read and enjoyed The King Must Die they would want to read this one as well anyway, to get the other half of Theseus’ story.

  2. Carmen says:

    I already scheduled The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea to read next year. I hope I don’t end up changing most of the list, like I usually do, as I’m looking forward to reading both. I also have the Alexander trilogy in my Kindle, but that will have to wait. I find this resurgence of late in the retelling of ancient myths, a great trend and an interesting one as mythology is one of my passions. Next year I’m also planning to read The Song of Achilles.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never felt particularly drawn to Greek mythology, but I am beginning to find it more interesting the more I read about it. I enjoyed both of the Theseus books and also The Song of Achilles, so I hope you do have time to read them all next year. I’m impressed that you’re already scheduling next year’s reading!

  3. whatmeread says:

    Although I read most of Renault’s Greek mythology novels years ago, I have three of them sitting waiting for me, the Alexander the Great ones! I am curious to see if I will enjoy them as much as I did a long time ago. I remember that the Theseus novels made a bigger impression on me.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you find that you still enjoy the Alexander novels. I’m looking forward to them and will be interested to see how they compare to the Theseus ones.

    • Helen says:

      I really enjoyed For the Immortal, but Theseus doesn’t come across very well at all in that book. I preferred Mary Renault’s portrayal of their relationship.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I think this is the best book I have read so far by Mary Renault. I liked it so much! I like your review as well. I also plan to start the Alexander trilogy soon.

  5. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I loved both books in my youth but the Mary Renault par excellence for me is The Charioteer, the most moving and brilliant portrayal of homosexual love in the war years at a time when it was illegal. But that is a minor aspect. It remains an iconic book for me with memorable and empathic characters.

    • Helen says:

      I love the sound of The Charioteer, Elizabeth, and I would definitely like to read it at some point. As I already have copies of the Alexander books I will be reading those first, then I’ll explore Mary Renault’s other books.

  6. Lark says:

    My favorite Theseus story/myth growing up was always the one with the maze, and Ariadne and Theseus defeating the minotaur, but I’m less familiar with this part of his story. I’m glad to know this novel can stand alone. I think I’d like to read about his life after the minotaur. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      The minotaur myth was all I really associated with Theseus before I read these two books, but there is a lot more to his story than that. I enjoyed both books, but particularly this one, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot from them.

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