Mary Renault, The King Must Die

As promised. (Although I’ve had to change up the order of things.)

Mary Renault’s The King Must Die is the first novel by Mary Renault I’ve ever read. A re-imagining of the youth of Theseus, it’s a work of stunning power and mythic scope. Renault’s imagining of gods and of sacrifice is vital, present, humane, and full of the power of divine immanence. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Renault has influenced many other writers in her time: I was put very much in mind of the tone and some of the thematic resonances – at least with reaction to divinity at work in mortal lives – of Jacqueline Carey’s first Kushiel trilogy as I read. Renault’s language and sense of rhythm is beautiful; her craft is masterful.

Her historical chronology and her ability to write female characters is not so great.

For all that The King Must Die is billed as a historical novel, it is necessary to read it as a fantasy. For once you pause to consider the impossibility of the Cretan elements existing contemporary to the mainland elements, the entire thing falls apart. The mainland – Troezen, the Corinthia, the Isthmus, Attica – has what seems to be the material culture of early Geometric/”Dark Age”/Homeric Greece, but with extra added literacy.

(While Linear B writes the Greek language, it falls out of use with the crisis and destructions at the end of the Bronze Age, and there is a gap of some three hundred years and more before Greek is written again, this time in alphabetic script. “Dark Age” Greece was illiterate. The first examples of writing in the Greek alphabet are from the cup known as the Cup of Nestor from Pithekoussai, Ischia, Italy, and the Dipylon inscription, from the area of the Kerameikos in Athens. Both of these examples date from no earlier than 750 BCE, which makes them Late Geometric in period. At this time, Euboea and Corinth were the economic powerhouses of Greece, with Athens beginning to rise in pre-eminence, and there is evidence for extensive trade with Italy, Phoenicia, and Asia Minor. Although not, contra Renault, with “Hyperborea.” Renault appears to labour under the apprehension that the stone henges were raised contemporary with the Greek “Dark Age.” Rather than being at least 1000 years older…)

I base the assumption of “roughly Geometric” as the intended time period in part from the depicted culture, both material culture and the depiction of the warbands, and in part from Renault’s depiction of Theseus as beginning the synoikismos of Athens and Attica. While Athens is one of the few sites to have evidence for continued settlement across the divide of the collapse/crisis/depopulation/migrations at the end of the Bronze Age into the Geometric period, it did not during the early and middle Geometric periods rival Euboea for economic activity, and it does not appear – to me, at least – that a movement for Attic synoikismos can really be said to take place much before the 8th century itself.

It might be possible to see the culture of the Greek mainland as plausibly Submycenaean, were it not for the fact that, as we know from the Linear B translations, the Mycenaeans spoke Greek (the work of Chadwick, Kober, and Ventris had already proven this by 1956) and Renault’s characters speak of a “Hellene” invasion as having occurred within far fewer generations than it would seem necessary to fit these into an archaeologically-possible chronology. Unless the “Hellene” invasion can be seen as coterminous with the Dorian migrations, but while Classical sources talk about the “Dorian” invasion, it’s been impossible to pin down satisfactorily. However, this wouldn’t square well with the narrative reality implied by Renault’s non-Hellene “indigenous” people, the “Shore People,” which she casts as matriarchal and practically autochthonous, and which she connects strongly to the rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries and to the worship of Demeter…

It’s confusing.

All that aside, the society of the mainland may work as plausibly Homeric, with some handwaving. But it doesn’t work at all as something that could have existed contemporary with “palace”* society on Crete, even in the Late Minoan IIIA-IIIC period, when we have evidence for Mycenaean presence at Knossos and the use of the palace site as a centre for Mycenaean-style administration in the form of Linear B tablets. Bull-leaping (the “Bull Dance,” as Renault terms it) is a significant part of The King Must Die‘s Cretan narrative, but known bull-leaping depictions don’t date from later than LM IIIB. Ca. 1200-1100 BCE, all the remaining major centres of Crete suffered destruction events, the population went into decline, and during the Subminoan period, sites are in the main characterised by their small size and defensibility.

After the Bronze Age destructions, Knossos once again grew into a significant centre in the Cretan Iron Age, but by then most of the cities of Crete laid claim to Dorian Greekness. And the Knossos palace complex was long since destroyed. So chronologically that doesn’t work too well either, unless Theseus is a time-traveller.

Historicity aside, I’m not really hot on the fact that most of the named women are either manipulative and out for power or passive and happy to be led by a man… but that seems to be Renault’s modus operandi. And in characterising “civilised” men as effete and “mincing”… Yeah.

In conclusion: a brilliantly-written Aegean ahistorical fantasy, with a bunch of problematic shit. On the whole, I’m rather glad I read it.

*Several archaeologists prefer the term “court-centred complex” to palace, since it makes fewer assumptions about the function and nature of the structures. But “palace” is the more widespread term.

Further reading on bull-leaping (.pdf):


Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes

A review over at

Broken Homes is the fourth instalment in Ben Aaronovitch’s bestselling Peter Grant series, after last year’s Whispers Under Ground. If you’re new to the joy that’s PC Peter Grant and the mysteries he investigates under the supervision of DCI Thomas Nightingale—England’s last officially practising wizard—Broken Homes is not the best place to start. Unlike Moon Over Soho or Whispers Under Ground, it doesn’t give you much time to get your feet under you before it starts setting up its dominos and knocking them down.

The knocking down is, in places, rather literal.

Sleeps With Monsters: Kari Sperring Answers Five Questions

Here at

KS: I love to read—writing is a bit more conflicted, as some days it will turn into treacle-mining—and I love to learn, so for me, SFF is all about exploration, about looking for the different, the alternative, the Other. As a reader I love to be challenged, to be made to think about the ways I’ve been taught and the things I know and to re-frame and question them. Like a lot of people around my age, my introduction to SF was via the juvenile novels of Heinlein and Andre Norton and what grabbed me was the sense of finding myself somewhere that seemed utterly new and strange. I particularly loved the Andre Norton novels in which her characters found themselves literally living the lives of aliens and to this day, I read to get outside myself.