A Modern Reflection of the Life of Theseus and Poseidon

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Mary Renault’s The King Must Die is a narrative of the early life and times of the Greek mythological hero Theseus spun into a fast paced and exciting story. Written in reflection style by the hero in later life, the story is told in the first person by Theseus. Renault used legend and historical fact as well as modern day ideals, beliefs and values to write a story that’s psychologically as well as historically realistic. In doing this, she successfully brings Ancient Greece alive and creates a fictional story about the hero which could have been the basis for the ancient myth.

In this tale of bravery and maturation and development, Theseus is portrayed as the greatest Athenian hero. Everything he does throughout the story is in honor of the Gods. In the beginning of the story, he believes himself the son of a god (Poseidon). While he was in service to Poseidon at his temple, and being bullied by another youth, he is asked who his father is. “With a bold front and sinking belly, he answered, ‘Poseidon. That is why I am here.’” (20). He certainly believes in the supernatural, and that he has an exceptional relationship with Poseidon, God of the Sea. In fact, he believes that everything that happens to him including early death, if asked of him, is Poseidon’s will. Throughout this hero’s tale, he shows great bravery and endurance. He goes on many quests and defeats many powerful beings despite the odds against him in many cases. He is driven by both fate and faith. In his mind, his entire existence is determined by the Gods from above and below that guide his life’s path. He earns his fame and the loyalty of his people defeating numerous foes, including Minotaurus.

Renault includes many details from classical myth in her writing, however, she adds details to the story which leave the reader with questions about mythological events and characters. For example, in regards to Theseus’ parentage, he may or may not be the son of Poseidon, but Poseidon speaks to him. When Theseus dove into the sea after Asterion’s ring, he “heard a roaring in his ears, like waves beating on a shingle. ‘You boasted of me, Theseus,’ said the voice of the sea ‘but did you pray to me?’” (188). We find out earlier in the story that he is, in fact, the son of the very powerful and fearsome king of Athens, however, the reason he hears Poseidon is never fully explained. Another unexplained aspect of the tale is Theseus’ ability to foresee earthquakes (23, 293). We may interpret the earthquake warning as a natural thing and the times he heard the sea-surge in his ears as just his own blood thundering, but no reason is given for either in the story. Near the end of the story, the reader is again left wondering when Theseus and Ariadne are on the island of Dia and Theseus leaves Ariadne there after promising her father that he would always take care of her. Theseus says, “But she opened her palm, and then I saw what she was holding. I turned and leaned upon an olive tree, and almost threw up the heart from my body.” (323). Renault does not tell what was in Ariadne’s hand, but leaves the reader to assume it was some part of the King of Naxos who was sacrificed earlier that day, perhaps his heart or some other part of him. Though there are many instances of unexplained circumstances or endings, what we are able to understand is that to Theseus, the gods are real. Not only does he hear Poseidon, he gets aid from Apollo because of the sacrifices he makes to him. He lives in a world of luck (good for him), fate, magic, and most of all destiny.

Renault also weaves prophecies into her tale to explain customs of the time period and why certain events happen. There are a number of prophecies in the book. One example is that the myrtle grove will hatch the cuckoo’s chick. When Theseus comes to Eleusis on the day when the current Eleusian king must die, he unknowingly proclaims himself the child of the myrtle grove (68), and of course, he is the cuckoo’s chick and overturns the custom. Then there’s the prophecy Medea makes, poetically expressed, “You will cross water to dance in blood. You will be King of the victims. You will tread the maze through fire, and you will tread it through darkness. Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus. The Earth Bull, and the Man Bull, and the Bull from the Sea” (130). All of which comes true in every detail. Then there’s the omen of marrying the sea which custom tells us determines who will be the king of Crete. This and all of the other omens and prophecies in the story come true. Even the fake customary prophecies Ariadne makes in Crete are fulfilled.

Renault interchanges fantasy and myth throughout the story in a way that holds the audience captive. She does this by using myth to create the story she is telling, however, she only uses the parts she wants to. She keeps things like the labyrinth and the thread but makes the minotaur human instead of half-man half-bull beast. She tells a story of a hero who does not have a God-complex, rather one who is honorable with a strong sense of duty and selflessness. Theseus might not always be sympathetic, but he feels real. He’s a young man trying to find his place in the world, and Renault shows us both Theseus’ shortcomings and strengths even though she tells the story through a first-person narration. It is this constant combination of myth and archaeological fact that makes the world of ancient Greece come alive for the audience.

Mary Renault uses her profound understanding of ancient Greek culture and history to offer rational explanations of the Greek myths. She achieves this by combining myth with archeological fact while incorporating aspects of her audience’s modern ideals, value and culture. The historical aspect to this story is very realistic and true to its age and time. The combination of fascinating characters and an action-packed, thrilling tale with historical credibility truly did enhance my interest in and understanding of ancient Greek mythology and culture.

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