The King Must Die: Blurs the lines between myth, history and religion

The King Must Die by Mary Renault speculative fiction book reviewsThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

“The voices sank and rose, sank and rose higher. It was like the north wind when it blows screaming through mountain gorges; like the keening of a thousand widows in a burning town; like the cry of she-wolves to the moon. And under it, over it, through our blood and skulls and entrails, the bellow of a gong.”

Mary Renault weaves a tale so mythic in scope, that the story itself is only outshone by her fabulous prose. Renault takes the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and works her narrative like Hephaestus works meta:; into a credible story that textures the myth with a realistic vision of its origin.

Theseus is the mythic founder of Athens who killed the Minotaur in the process of ending the Cretan demand for human tribute once every nine years. The King Must Die (1958) is the first in a two-part series from Renault that recounts the Theseusian myth.

The mythic themes provide the outline for Renault’s story. Medea, the mistress of Theseus’ (human) father, spits this curse, which touches on the well-known elements of the Theseus myth:

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.

The King Must Die is flush with gods and goddesses, though not in a true physical sense, but they persist within the psyche of the Greek people (note: there was no ‘Greece’ in this period, but for the sake of saving space, I’ll generalize). Theseus believes fully in their existence and his fate that’s tied to their whims.


Within this context, the ‘historical’ aspect to this ‘historical’ fiction/fantasy is very realistic and true to its age and time. The misogyny is appropriate in the world and age of Theseus and is often chivalric in its own way. The battlefield amongst male and female gods is a significant theme and Theseus travels between societies who sometimes favor the gods and others who favor the goddesses.

Is Theseus human? Is he a god? Or did he spawn from something in between? He certainly believes in the supernatural, and that he has an exceptional relationship with Poseidon, God of the Sea. He is driven by fate and faith. His entire existence is colored by the mythical hands from above (and below) that guide his life’s path.

He is crushed when Ariadne, the daughter of Crete’s King Minos, reader of oracles and Theseus’ love, shockingly relates the planning involved in her reading of oracles, “We have ninety clerks working in the Palace alone. It would be a chase every month, if no one knew what the oracles were going to be.” Ariadne’s pragmatic revelation creates a crack in Theseus’ faith … one, though, that he’s able to keep from spreading.

Beyond a vague awareness of the Minotaur, I was not familiar with the ancient Greek tales of Theseus. I absolutely love Renault’s ability to color in the outlines of the mythology and paint a realistic take on the legend. Renault’s language is a bit of a challenge, but the satisfaction of the prose and storytelling in The King Must Die outweighs the hardship.

Published in 1958. The story of the mythical hero Theseus, slayer of monsters, abductor of princesses and king of Athens. He emerges from these pages as a clearly defined personality; brave, aggressive and quick. The core of the story is Theseus’ Cretan adventure.

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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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  1. Sounds awesome! Thanks for letting me know about it.

  2. Paul Connelly /

    I always group this book with Amber Princess by Henry Treece and The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison as historical novels that make you feel how alien the mindset of people living in past eras might have been. And this is the best-written of the three.

    It’a uncommon to get that sense of how differently people might have experienced the world in past times–too often we get people with all the sensibilities and opinions of the current generation plunked into a historical setting, where at best only the costumes and place names are historically plausible.

    • Paul – thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I’ll have to check out the others you reference. They haven’t been on my radar.

      And good insight. She brings a particularly ‘foreign’ perspective in the character’s voices, while creating a viable alternative to the mythology.

      We’ve just added the ‘reader rating’ feature. If you’re interested, please add yours.

  3. I read this one many years ago as a youngster. Shortly after having made my way through Bullfinch’s Mythology. Renault made a great impression upon me and I was moved to seek out her other books. Well worth a read.

    • Becky – have you read Renault’s Alexander books?

      • Yes I have, though long enough ago that what I retain is largely general impressions. The one I had not read is Funeral Games and I have that around here somewhere, awaiting the right mood.

        I was an adolescent, eating books. The characters and their circumstances appealed to me and it was all a great adventure. That it had some relation to actual history made it all the more interesting. I did not lose sight of the books being fiction but Renault’s stories intrigued me as possible interpretations, filling in the human factor. I expect it is no surprise that I went on to study archaeology.

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