The Bull from the Sea (1962): Mary Renault


Published four years after The King Must Die, this book picks up the thread of Theseus’ story once again. Having brought down the ancient Cretan house of Minos, he comes home to Athens flushed with glory, accompanied by his loyal team of bull-leapers, the Cranes. But the joy fades quickly: Theseus is greeted by news of his father’s premature death; and, for all the Cranes, the Athens they return to seems smaller and more provincial than the city they left.

With a year of Cretan polish behind them, they too have changed and they find that their family, friends and lovers might as well be strangers. They long to be able to step back into the relationships they left behind, but things have changed forever. No one except their fellow Cranes can comprehend the thrill of life in the bull-ring and the dazzling achievement of having survived. They may be conquering heroes, but that means they must suffer the fate of heroes, in being set apart from all they loved before.

It’s a rather sober, melancholic way to open a book, but it’s very apt because The Bull from the Sea is all about longing for unattainable things. As king in Athens, Theseus yearns for the days when he had the freedom to wander wherever his feet took him. He’ll never truly have that liberty again, but he plays at it in episodic raids with his friend Pirithoos, the charismatic pirate king of the Lapiths. Later, he finds himself longing for the freedom to choose a queen who would be the companion of his soul as well as his state: the magnificent Hippolyta, leader of the warrior cult of the Moon Maiden. And yet she can be his lover, but never his wife or his queen, because that honour belongs to another: Minos’ little daughter Phaedra, who lingers in Crete dreaming of her promised marriage to Theseus. Little does she know she has become simply a pawn in a game of political expedience, or that she will never truly be able to command her husband’s heart. If you know your myths, you’ll know that Phaedra later develops another, much more destructive desire for something she can’t possess, with searingly tragic consequences.

While The King Must Die focused on just a few years in great detail, The Bull from the Sea sets itself the challenge of covering the rest of Theseus’ life in what is, by historical-novel standards, a rather modest number of pages. As a result, the book feels rather disjointed and episodic, skipping from one event to the next like counting beads on a string, rather than having the strong narrative unity of the first novel, in which the same themes recurred in different stages of Theseus’ youth. Another thing that’s noticeable, when you move straight on to this after the first book, is that the integration of other myths no longer works so well either. Primarily I think that’s because it’s less subtle here. Although Theseus does have a myth cycle of his own after the Labyrinth, Renault also uses him very much as a pair of eyes through which to see other famous figures.

As I noted on Goodreads, by page 77 we’d covered the Bull of Marathon, but also Lapiths, centaurs and Oedipus; while after twenty more pages we’d also come across Jason, the Golden Fleece (in a manner of speaking) and the Amazons. Other myths came on stage, took their bow and moved on like a series of guests on a chat show. Mind you, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it: it was like taking the scenic route through mythology; but it doesn’t make for a smooth, focused narrative to rival that of the first book. And I must confess that I was rather galled in the final chapters, where Renault teasingly denies us the chance to ‘meet’ the young Achilles: the one mythological character whom I’d have really loved to see her deal with at close range.

Even if the narrative itself isn’t as successful as the first book, there are still plenty of interesting things going on behind the scenes, as Renault tries to ground her fictional explanations in academic theory. There were two areas that I found particularly fascinating. First, the culture clash between matriarchal Goddess-worship and the patriarchal Hellenic system, which continues to be a central theme. Renault uses this as a way to rationalise the issues surrounding Theseus’ relationship with Hippolyta and the chastity of Hippolytus. The reason that Theseus worries about Hippolytus’ suitability as his heir isn’t just his abnormal chastity: it’s more that he fears Hippolytus’ devotion to the Goddess, and worries about the religious changes he might make if he becomes king. As ever, the struggle for religious identity is almost more significant than the fight for political identity.

The second mythological explanation that intrigued me was Renault’s interpretation of the Kentaurs. (I’d love to know what other people think of this.) Should we understand them as just members of a very reclusive, ‘primitive’ culture, or does Renault actually mean to suggest that they’re some kind of earlier evolutionary survival, protected by the isolated pockets and clefts of the Greek landscape? Tantalising. And of course, with my myth-spotting hat on, I had great fun figuring out who Old Handy was meant to be and (spoiler) felt very smug when I discovered that Chiron means ‘hand’ in Greek.

Ultimately I don’t think that I could really fail to enjoy anything by Renault. She’s very much like Dunnett in that, even when not firing on all cylinders, she’s a darn sight more impressive than many authors at full power. Naturally, if you’ve read The King Must Die then you have to carry on and read the sequel; and, even though it doesn’t flow quite as smoothly and the plot seems to meander a bit, this is still a book that – by any author – would have me tripping over myself with excitement. Renault’s only problem is that she’s too good, so I have to raise the bar a little bit… But I think my next book by her is going to be Fire From Heaven, which  will take me back into ravishment territory once again.

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