Sunday, August 8, 2010

Where Myth and History Meet - The King Must Die

Being a big fan of mythology and the ancient world in general it was only a matter of time before I ran into the name Mary Renault. She is famous for her historical fiction based around the life and times of Alexander the Great. I was at the library looking for some ancient Greek flavored stories and ran into her work. I ended up choosing "The King Must Die" which promised an interesting take on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Now, normally when someone drains the magic from mythology I end up disliking the results. The recent take on "The Illiad" in Wolfgang Peterson's "Troy" annoyed me to no end. But what Renault did in "The King Must Die" was much more interesting and reasoned out. She placed the story far back in the ancient timetable, around 1500 BCE. During this time the Minoan civilization ruled much of Aegean Sea. Renault places the story so that the Minoans demand sacrifice, not for a horrible monster, but for their deadly ceremony of bull leaping. This holy event requires the skills of nimble young women and man to dance around and over a charging bull. Those that are killed are done for the glory of the Earth Mother and Poseidon. This makes a certain amount of sense, and work with the myth of the Minotaur. The king, Minos also appears, but in this case Minos is a title, like Pharaoh. And all the kings of Crete are called Minos. Minotaur, or Minos' Bull is more of a nickname for the crown prince of Crete in this story, but his appearance at the end in the ceremonial bull mask makes him appear like the mythological monster we all know and love.

Aside from those historical elements, Renault works in all kinds of other ideas. Especially important is the power of Goddess worship in the ancient world. The Mother Goddess and her worshipers are in direct conflict with those who worship the Sky God. The melding that we are familiar with in Classical mythology hasn't occurred yet. The main difference between the two religions is the fact that Mother Goddess demands a yearly sacrifice of the King. If the King is not sacrificed than the harvest will fail and all manner of bad luck will occur. Those who worship the Sky God do not sacrifice their kings, but still commit blood offerings (usually animals) to the gods. Kings are held in much higher esteem. This conflict features heavily in the story, driving events in obvious and subtle ways.

The theme of the book is sacrifice. No matter what happens to characters in the story, some sacrifice must be made. If it is not, there are consequences, some of the deadly. Theseus sees his life as a King in terms of both a steward of his people (like Sky God) and a necessary sacrifice if needed (like the Mother Goddess demands). He is a fusion of these beliefs and it serves him well in his journey. However who and what he must sacrifice often dictate his choices.

Renault not only juggles these themes and ideas, but also keeps the story entertaining. As familiar as I was with the myth of Theseus, I was fascinated by the way she fused Minoan and Mycenean culture into the story. She also brings life to the mythological hero, giving him a personality that we can relate to and that works within the story. It's a great read, with plenty of conflict as well as thought provoking themes.

Have you ever read "The King Must Die"? What did you think of it? What do you think of approaching a mythological story but stripping it of the fantastic elements?

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