Monday 4 March 2019

"The King Must Die" - by Katherine Langrish

I can’t have been more than fourteen when, exploring the adult shelves in my local public library, I picked up a book called ‘The King Must Die’ – intriguing title! – opened it, and read the first paragraph:

The Citadel of Troizen, where the Palace stands, was built by giants before anyone remembers. But the Palace was built by my great-grandfather. At sunrise, if you look at it from Kalauria across the strait, the columns grow fire-red and the walls are golden. It shines bright against the dark woods on the mountainside.

I knew at once this was my sort of book.

The books we read and love in childhood often leave a lasting impression, but those we discover while navigating the awkward transition into adult life may be equally important. I remember how it felt to venture out of the children’s section of the library and wander among the labyrinthine adult stacks. So many books, so many unknown names! Uncharted waters, random landfalls. How do you choose? A title catches your eye, a spine. You pull it out, flick it open, read a little. It speaks to you or it doesn’t: often it doesn’t. You push it back, try again. It’s a little like starting up a conversation with a stranger at a party. Who is this person? Are they interesting? Dull? Dangerous? Will I fall in love? Will I find a friend? Will I run away? 

What I'd found and loved in children’s fiction was story, colour, richness, strength. At fourteen I wasn’t interested in reading about bored married couples having affairs or making brittle conversation at cocktail parties, I wanted books that opened magic casements on the foam of perilous seas – and ‘The King Must Die’ gave all of that, along with just enough of a gilding of sex and violence to make it flatteringly and unmistakeably not a book for children.  

Told in the first person, with all the immediacy of connection that provides, it is the coming-of-age story of the hero Theseus as he discovers his heritage, overcomes the robbers of the Isthmus, marries the Queen of Eleusis after killing the Year-King, takes his place as heir to King Aegeus of Athens, offers himself as one of the twelve captives paid as yearly tribute to Crete, becomes a bull dancer in the Palace of Knossos and lover of the Princess Ariadne, conquers the Minotaur and returns home to find himself King – his father having thrown himself from a cliff in grief at seeing his son’s ship approaching without the white sail that would have proclaimed Theseus still lived. It’s a wonderful mixture of myth, prehistory, and what was then pretty much up-to-date archeology, and it totally blew me away.

‘The King Must Die’ owes much to ‘The Golden Bough’, especially Chapter 24, ‘The Killing of the Divine King’ with its subdivisions of ‘Kings killed when strength fails’ and ‘Kings killed at end of fixed term’. It gave me a lasting interest in Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete. In the novel,  Theseus’s Aegean world is divided between the older religion of the great Mother, and the Sky Gods of the Hellenes. A king is the shepherd of his people, dedicated to the god, and must give his life as and when that god demands it. But Theseus rejects the fixed term reign of the Kings of Eleusis in favour of a personal dedication: he has grown up believing himself in a son/father relationship with Poseidon: he will die for his people when Poseidon asks it of him, not in mere accordance with some custom. 

Bull-leaping fresco from Knossos: Heraklion Museum

The most memorable parts of the book are those set in Crete itself, in the great palace of Knossos, where Theseus inspires the twelve girls and boys he has accompanied from Athens, who elect him their leader, to become an elite team of bulldancers: the Cranes. Renault wonderfully suggests the camaraderie and febrile tension of the bull-dancers’ quarters and training ground, where a great bull-dancer has the charisma and status of a Rudolf Nureyev or a prince. Here Theseus, still only a greenhorn, is given advice by the leading bull-dancer:

“Don’t know your odds yet?” he said. “You must keep your wits about you here. What is your name?” I told him all our names and asked his own. He said, “In the Bull Court, they call me the Corinthian.”

“Why?” I asked. “Are you the only one from Corinth?” He answered lightly, “I am now.”

I understood then his flourish and his load of jewels, and why when he talked no one broke in. Once, far away, I had wanted to be a warrior; to be a king. Now it was forgotten; only one ambition burned in me. No one I have told this to at home has understood it, not even Pirithoos, my nearest friend. As the saying is, only those the snake has bitten can tell each other how it feels. 

The Bull Leaper, an ivory figurine from the palace of Knossos

Whether or not life as a bull-dancer was truly anything like this, it's clear from the surviving artwork that the bull dance must have been a spectacular sight and the atheletes were risking their lives. Renault’s version is vividly convincing, and her Theseus is an attractive hero, light-footed, ambitious, quick to learn. 

The Great Court was empty under the moon. Tier upon tier rose the pillared balconlies, dimly glowing. Lamps flickered behind curtains of eastern stuff. The pots of lilies and of flowering lemon trees shed a sweet, heavy scent. A cat slipped from shadow to shadow, and a Cretan who looked as if his errand were the same. Then all was silent. The great horns upon the roof-coping reared up as if they would gore the stars. 

I stretched out my hands palm downward, and held them over the earth. “Father Poseidon, Horse Father, Lord of Bulls. I am in your hand, whenever you call me. That is agreed between us. But as you have owned me, give me this one thing first. Make me a bull-leaper."

This is lovely, atmospheric scene-painting, although as my friend and fellow History Girl Adèle Geras once pointed out to me,  Renault is wrong about the lemon trees: citrus fruit originated in Asia and did not arrive in the eastern Mediterranean until about the 5-4th century BCE.  So those flowering fruit trees might instead have been pomegranates.

But Renault is right about so much else, the horns on the roof-coping 'goring the stars', for instance. This photo of a clay model in the Heraklion Museum shows just how the great, stylised horns were set along the parapets of the palace roofs. I travelled to Crete for the first time in June 2018, and of course we went to Knossos, making sure to get there early in the morning before the crowds arrived. It was wonderful; and though criticism has been levelled at Arthur Evans’ reconstructions, I feel you’d have to be a real purist not to appreciate the way he’s given the visitor a living sense of the beauty and elegance of this magnificent palace. After all, the site is huge: there are still ruins a-plenty.

Here I am standing in front of a reconstructed part of the palace: behind the red pillars is part of another fresco depicting a huge bull with gilded horns.

Just recently in a second-hand bookshop I picked up a little book called ‘Myth or Legend?’ It's a book of the texts of twelve broadcasts given by the BBC in 1953/4:

Various speakers were to examine well-known stories like that of the Golden Bough, or Minos and the Minotaur, or King Arthur, and decide, in the light of modern historical and archeological knowledge, whether there were any truth in them. 

The one entitled ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’ was written and delivered by Charles Seltman (1886-1957) a Fellow of Queens College Cambridge and an art historian and numismatist who specialised in early Attic coins and wrote a number of books on Greek art and history. His short essay reads like a crib-sheet for ‘The King Must Die’, and I feel sure Mary Renault must have heard or read it, perhaps even been inspired by it to write her own book, which was published just two or three years later in 1958. For after a brief resume of the myth, Seltman moves on to the various discoveries at Knossos, calling particular attention to three points or items. First, to a number Cretan seal-stones carrying ‘an engraved picture of a man with a bull-mask covering his head … who may be enacting a religious dance or ceremony’. (Renault makes wonderful use of this.) Second, to the frescoes of bull-dancers in which ‘athletic youths and girls acted as Toreros and Toreras’:

Here surely is the explanation of the strange fable about the annual tribute exacted from Athens of seven youths and seven girls destined for ‘the bull of Minos’. They were not given as fodder to a monster, but trained to disport themselves in the bull-ring at Knossos to make a Cretan holiday.

Thirdly, Seltman points out, the rich palace and city of Knossos had no walls. ‘At a time when residences and townships in every other Mediterranean land or island were heavily fortified, those of Crete alone remained open and undefended.’ King Minos, in other words, ruled the waves, and might well have been capable of enforcing some kind of a tribute. When Knossos was destroyed by earthquake and fire, perhaps some subject king (Theseus himself?) from the mainland saw his chance to rebel. Seltman concludes with a passage which has surely influenced Mary Renault's book:

As witness for the suddenness of the destruction, we have only to observe what has been called the most dramatic room on any ancient site – the Throne Room – where, between painted griffins on the walls, the Throne of Minos still stands.

When this room was first revealed by the spades of the excavators, overturned jars and ritual vessels testified to confusion and panic, as if the King himself had felt obliged to perform or suffer some final secret rite for the salvation of his people. Those ancient seal-stones suggest that at times a man might hve a ritual bull-mask over his face and head. Did the King, in these final moments, wear such a mask? Was it a king disguised as a Minotaur whom Theseus slew? 

Throne Room, Knossos

Renault writes:

I saw before me a rite scrambled up out of fear and wreck: priests and priestesses in their daily clothes with some rag or scrap as symbol of sacred raiment; rich pedestals bearing lamps of common clay … The white throne of Minos stood empty between its gryphons. The daggled crowd faced the other way, to the sunken earth court…

Down in the court a man was standing, naked down from the neck; broad-bodied, thick-legged, thatched with black hair on chest and groin and shins … His trunk glistened with the chrism a shaking old man and woman smeared on him with half-palsied hands. From the neck down he was man, and base; above the neck he was beast, and noble. Calm and lordly, long-horned and curly-browed, the splendid bull-mask of Daidalos gazed out through the sorry huddle with its grave crystal eyes. 

Definitely, one to read again.

Bull's head rhyton or libation vase

Picture credits

Bull-leaping fresco from Knossos; Heraklion Museum: photo by Zde - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The Bull Leaper, ivory figurine from the palace of Knossos: photo by Wolfgang Moroder.
Clay shrine with bull horns: photo by David Gahan
Knossos: walls: photo by David Gahan
Katherine Langrish at Knossos: photo by David Gahan
Throne Room, Knossos: photo by David Gahan
Bull's head rhyton or libation vase, Heraklion Museum, wikimedia commons


Joan Lennon said...

It has been far too long since I reread The King Must Die - thanks for this excellent reminder, Katherine!

Mike Hall said...

Thank you for this, it brings back many old memories. My father was a member of two re-print book clubs when I was young (anyone remember these long vanished institutions?) and i read all the books he received. The King Must Die was re-printed in 1959 so I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it's stuck with me ever since.

This, and its sequel (which came out from the same club 4 years later) were one of the reasons that our first foreign holiday after we married was in Crete and we had a great time touring the ruins. We of course came back with a picture of those same red pillars. My wife remembers the holiday fondly even though she had just fallen pregnant and now likes to claim that she threw up on every ancient monument on the island.

Susan Price said...

SNAP! -- Kath, I read 'The King Must Die' at almost exactly the same age, found it in the library in almost the same way and felt about it much the same way too. Loved it! And went on to read pretty much all of Renault's other books. She was a terrific writer.

Glad to see you made it to Knossos. Was the traffic on the way there as bad tempered and crushed as it was when we went?

And Mike - the book clubs! I still have a load of books that were bought by my parents from book clubs.

Ann Turnbull said...

Oh, now I must read that book again! I think I was still in my teens when I first read it, and the next time was much later, before we went to Knossos on holiday, around 1988. I do agree with you, Katherine, about the reconstructions of the buildings - I loved them. And I loved the sheer energy and power and bright colours of the story. It's irresistible.

Leslie Wilson said...

For me, too, it was soo exciting, though I still find 'The Bull from the Sea' unbearably sad. I was troubled, though, by the identification of women's religion with savagery and blood-lust in both books. Renault was botheringly anti-women, dismissive of any suffering not physical. Yes, I know Theseus loved Hippolyta, but it was the army of women who came to take her back and killed her in the end. However, some time soon I shall re-read. I too loved visiting Knossos, though the restorations are rather cementy and brash. But still. Actually, it was the whole atmosphere of Crete I loved, and Mallia is well worth a visit, with its old bits of pots lying about. There's also an ancient town on a hillside in Eastern Crete overlooking the sea, which we visited, and a Roman settlement up in the hills which was wonderful among the spring flowers, asphodels and ornithogallums, gladiolus byzantinus and many more. However, western Crete is defo rather overrun, or was when we went 30 years ago, and on a subsequent visit we went to the Akrotiri instead.

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree, Leslie, still find it hard to re-read 'The Bull From the Sea' and in fact have always found it little odd that Renault abandoned writing about contemporary gay women - in The Friendly Young Ladies' for example - in her early novels, to write about gay men in historical fiction. My theory is: she found it liberating to write about gay men in the 'safe' historical context of classical Greece (and Alexander) and may perhaps have rejected women's roles in toto given her own experiences of mid 20th century expectations of women.

Katherine Langrish said...

In the opening chapter of 'The Bull From The Sea' there's also, if you recall, the poignancy of the deaths of the two girl bulldancers who dress in their Cretan finery to take on the loosed bull, after their Athenian families have rejected them for their perceived Cretan devianc, "There is no place like the Bull Court - no pride," says one of them as she dies. It's the more tragic because contemporay readers would or should have recognised that these young women, lovers, would have been equally likely to have been rejected by their English families. It IS hard to read...

Marjorie said...

I haven't read any Mary Renault for years, and happened to just have re-read 'The Mask of Apollo' and started reading 'the King must die' just before I saw this post.!

One day I hope to get to visit Knossos myself but until then, thank you for this!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I first read this book when I was about twelve. I’d heard about on the radio, bought a copy as a birthday gift...and fobbed off the friend concerned with a box of chocolates and kept the book. My book is falling apart from all the times I have read it, so I bought it in ebook and read it again... I agree, The Bull From The Sea is just too sad for me to reread right now.

Have you read Wendy Orr’s children’s book, Dragonfly Song? Not quite the classic this book is, though it has won some awards, but a very fine novel. It’s not about Theseus, but bull dancing. The heroine is a girl suffering from elective mutism after a tragedy, who has been treated dreadfully in the kitchens of the Lady’s Hall. When the Cretans come calling for their annual tribute, she figures that a year as a bull dancer, in danger, is likely to be better than what she has to put up with, and goes, replacing a chosen girl who was killed in an accident.

Thing is, Wendy Orr’s idea of how the bull dancing might work is rather different from Mary Renault’s. There are no specific teams training together as teams, as in The King Must Die, and they don’t have their own bull, because each bull dance finishes with the sacrifice of the bull. And she makes the point that tame bulls are more dangerous than wild ones, because they are likely to know what to expect. This author knows a bit about bull behaviour because she and her husband spent twenty years raiding dairy cattle here in Australia!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Raising, not raiding! 🙂

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks Sue! I don't know it - I'll have to look out for it.