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.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

The King Must Die After my post on The Odyssey last Friday, I’m staying with an Ancient Greece theme again this week – but in the form of historical fiction this time.

Beginning with his childhood in Troizen, The King Must Die tells the story of Theseus, a story which I’m sure will already be familiar to many readers. Theseus lives with his mother but has never known the true identity of his father, believing him to be the god Poseidon. When he succeeds in raising a boulder to reveal his father’s sword, Theseus learns that he is actually the son of Aigeus, the King of Athens, and sets off for Athens to find him. After an eventful journey during which Theseus becomes King of Eleusis, he arrives in Athens and meets his father at last. But when King Minos of Crete demands that fourteen young people are sent to him to train as bull-dancers, Theseus makes the decision to become one of the fourteen…and finds himself facing the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of the Palace of Knossos.

Mary Renault is an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time and I became even more interested when I noticed that on the back covers of my Vintage editions of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, it says that Dunnett’s writing ‘inspires comparisons with Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian’. I’ve now read some of Patrick O’Brian’s books and enjoyed them (though not as much as Dunnett) so it seemed a good idea to try Mary Renault too. However, I’ve been hesitant because, as I explained in my Odyssey post, mythology and Ancient Greece are not subjects that really appeal to me. It was finally making it to the end of The Odyssey a few weeks ago that gave me the motivation to pick up The King Must Die at last.

I was curious to see how this book could be described as historical fiction, as a story with a plot involving Poseidon and the Minotaur sounded more like mythology to me. Having read the novel, I now understand that The King Must Die is not simply a re-telling of the Theseus myth but a more realistic recreation of his life, portraying Theseus as a real human being rather than a character from Greek mythology. Most of the essential elements of the myth are here, but they are cleverly incorporated into the historical setting and given logical, plausible explanations.

My favourite part of the book was the section describing Theseus’s adventures in Knossos as a bull-dancer, learning new skills and techniques, and bonding with the other members of his team. I also enjoyed learning about the different customs and rituals of the various cultures and communities Theseus visits on his journey, including the Hellenes, the Minyans and the Cretans. There’s a fascinating author’s note at the end of the book in which Mary Renault explains how she was able to link parts of the Theseus legend to historical fact.

While I did enjoy this book, I do feel disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as I had hoped to. There was nothing specific that I disliked about the book or that I could say didn’t work for me; I certainly couldn’t fault the quality of the writing or the amount of research that must have gone into recreating Theseus’s world. It’s probably just that, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not particularly drawn to this subject or setting. I do still want to read the second half of Theseus’s story in the sequel, The Bull from the Sea!