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Review: The Bull from the Sea, by Mary Renault
Vintage/Random, 1990. 343 pp. $16

Toward the end of his life, the hero warrior-king Theseus tries to come to terms with the destruction of what he loves most. At first, he asks a string of what-ifs, only to dismiss them: “Fate and will, will and fate, like earth and sky bringing forth the grain together; and which the bread tastes of, no man knows.”

What a striking metaphor, elegant in its simplicity, much like this novel itself. And what a brave, resigned outlook, one to which many might aspire when their turn comes, but which it takes a special character to embrace. To me, this is what makes Theseus a hero, not the storied deeds or countless adventures. Rather than blame the gods or other men for what has happened, he grasps the essence of himself and accepts the responsibility for it. Would that we had leaders who could do the same.

Theseus slaying the Minotaur (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

Theseus slaying the Minotaur (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

The story picks up from The King Must Die, Renault’s prior tale of Theseus’ adventures on Crete, where he led his cohort of Athenian youth to survive the bull ring of King Minos–an unheard-of achievement–and help topple the bloody king from the throne. Tragedy marks the young prince’s triumphant return to Athens, however, for his father has thrown himself from a cliff, believing the son to have died. The ensuing narrative follows King Theseus as he attempts to unite Attica through war and diplomacy, goes a-roving for plunder, brings back an Amazon bride, Hippolyta, and sets in motion a string of consequences that fulfill his destiny.

Readers who know the myths will find a familiar plot, but it’s how Renault tells the story that matters. Theseus is the most renowned warrior of his time, and he receives his due in these pages, but the author chooses to focus on the reasons he goes to war so often, all of which have to do with his character. The king has made a deep study of power, sensing when to ignore or deflect an insult, when to meet a threat head-on, and when to thwart it indirectly by massaging egos and building alliances. His life becomes a political manifesto on the virtues of forbearance and of faith in the rule of law (part of his legacy is that he supports the weak against unjust, excessive burdens, which arouses anger among the aristocracy).

But he’s also a man of his time, and violence is the means to adventure and pursuit of wealth. Theseus is one of those who believes that the great never sit still when they could be out chasing something, and therein lies his trouble and his glory. As he says after befriending King Pirithoos of the Lapiths, whose lust for piracy leads Theseus to take risks for good and ill,

I knew, as one sometimes may, that I had met a daimon of my fate. Whether he came for good or ill to me, I could not tell; nor, it may be, could a god have told me plainly. But good in himself he was, as a lion is good for beauty and for valor though he eats one’s herds. He roars at the spears upon the dike-top, while the torchlight strikes forth fire from his golden eyes; and one’s heart must love him, whether one will or no.

It’s that acceptance of the dual nature of humankind, in himself and others, that makes Theseus so compelling for me. As a king with priestly functions, he seldom forgets that despite his power, he’s a mote in the universe, and when he does, he quickly realizes that the gods rebuke such hubris with a vengeance. Even a legendary ruler and warrior may strive for humility.

There are other authors who write engaging fiction about the ancient world. But Mary Renault is still my favorite, arguably a writer who put historical fiction on the literary map fifty years ago.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from an independent bookstore.