This is a reread from a book I read in college for a Mythology class. Going in, I was thinking about skipping it and moving right to the sequel, which I will read before too long, but I decided to revisit this one and I am really glad I did. I didn’t misremember anything from this one, but I basically excised 40% of the book in my memory. What we have here is a mid-century British psychological-realist revisioning of the Theseus (and the Minotaur) myth, with no paranormal, mythical, or magical elements. Some elements are still a little far-fetched, but it’s all in the service of finding rational explanations for the fantastical elements of the myths. So for example, Theseus, a youth of 19, being able to be larger warriors in one-on-one combat is explained through a practiced dexterity and wrestling skill using leverage rather than strength to send opponents to the ground, something that has only become more and more understandable in the last 30 years of post-BJJ sports.
But what I was missing and forgetting was the long introduction which finds Theseus a minor royal youth to a mother impregnated by a foreign king, looking for purpose and identity, and seeking it abroad. He stumbles upon a kingdom that has a year-king tradition, in which the king, a vaunted and celebrated position, is not more sacred that a fatted calf to be sacrifice in the killing arena. When this kingdom is overthrown by his true birthright kingdom, he collapses this tradition and enfolds it into the broader kingdom, a practice that continues through the novel. I won’t go more into the plot because it’s a rich novel and worth checking out.
But the final note is that Mary Renault is looking for a way to narrate and understand ritual as much as anything and seek to understand how ritual becomes myth. In addition, she’s really interested in non-democratic, non-capitalistic forms of life where, basically there’s different and alternate ways to live.