You’ve probably heard the story. Fourteen young Athenians, seven boys and seven girls, are sent to Crete as tributes to King Minos. There they will be placed in a labyrinth with the fearsome Minotaur, the half-human half-bull son of Queen Pasiphae. Lost in the labyrinth, these tributes faced certain death. Until Theseus.
The handsome Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteers as tribute. When he reaches Crete, he wins the heart of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, and she gives him a thread to guide him out of the labyrinth after he achieves his plan of killing the Minotaur.
Mary Renault takes the known history of Crete, where there was a labyrinthine palace, to build an alternate version of the story, where Theseus is a bull-dancer and the Minotaur the bullish heir to the throne. But it takes a while to get to that story. The book begins with Theseus’s own beginnings, when, as a child, he learns of the dread responsibility of a king to be ready to die for his people. In Troizen, where he grew up, that responsibility was at one time taken literally, with the king offering himself for sacrifice just a few years after being crowned—the number of years varied by region. By the time Theseus was born, the custom in Troizen had changed, and kings were allowed to live longer, until they themselves decided it was time to die. But the burden of readiness remains, as Theseus’s grandfather explains:
It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god.
As a son of a king, Theseus also takes on this burden as his moira, “the finished shape of [his] fate, the line drawn round it.” And the first half of the book shows him growing into that moira as he leaves Troizen, becomes a king in Eleusis, and finally meets his own father in Athens. This portion of the book, while interesting on reflection, moves slowly and was hard for me to get a grip on. Knowing what comes later, I’m able to see some important themes develop along with the character of Theseus. There’s a lot here about how cultures shift and grow and how painful that can be, and the gender politics are worthy of some serious consideration. Theseus’s kingship in Eleusis could be read as anti-woman, with Theseus building up the spirits of the beaten-down men in this matriarchal kingdom. But his care for his people is paramount at every turn, and so his triumph felt correct. However, the events on Naxos at the end of the novel make me wonder if we’re supposed to see women’s rule as inherently destructive.
Where the book really takes off is when Theseus decides to go to Crete. Here, he accepts his moira, getting guidance directly from Poseidon. Watching how Renault twists the myth into something that feels more real is good fun. There are a few moments that felt thrown in to make the story closer to the myth—the Minotaur’s actual end is one of these. But the story as a whole felt like it could have been the original in a centuries-long game of telephone that brought us the myth we have today.
Renault erases many of the fantastical elements from the story, but she doesn’t strip away all things supernatural. Theseus seeks guidance from Poseidon at several points in the story, and he believes he receives an answer. And because he’s our first-person narrator, we’re given no reason to believe otherwise. We’re also given nothing other than his belief as evidence. Theseus also appears to have the ability to sense earthquakes, believed to be the gift of the gods. I was glad to see these elements in the story, because it made the story seem more realistic than a post-Enlightenment version of ancient Greece where only the verifiable is true.
Renault’s elaborate prose rewards slow reading, even though as the plot developed I had to remind myself to slow down so I could catch everything. This is historical fiction in the style of Dorothy Dunnett, so I expect I’ll be reading more. There’s another book about Theseus, so that may be my next, although I welcome other recommendations. Given that my favorite part of this book was the riff on the story I already knew, I wonder how I’ll like her books on pieces of history I’m less familiar with.