Mining the Genre Asteroid: Mary Renault

26 Feb

Jo Walton’s Among Others works as an interesting reading list of novels and authors that the author herself read and thought about growing up. Much of the matter of the book is her protagonist reading, and thinking about the many writers whose work she discovers. One of those writers mentioned by Mori that she discovers in the course of growing up and reading is somewhat different than the more familiar science fiction and fantasy authors in her self-created curriculum: Mary Renault.

Mary Renault was a mid-century British writer. In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won an MGM prize worth $150,000, Renault and her lifelong lover Julie Mullard immigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Starting in the 1950s, Renault turned from writing contemporary fiction, to ancient historical fiction.

The King Must Die (1958) is the second of her ancient historical fictional novels, and the first that tackles a character straight out of ancient myth and legend: Theseus. The King must Die takes a mostly historical perspective of Theseus, showing his life up to and including his fateful trip to Crete. A1TIWNZZXgL._SL1500_

The story of Theseus is often abbreviated to be just the story of going to Crete and facing the minotaur and defeating it. The full myth, however, gives Theseus a variety of adventures before he ever gets to Athens. Renault keeps this tradition by filling much of the book with Theseus’ backstory before he even takes a ship to Crete. We see his early life, including his early dislike of the naval power of Crete, and his adventures on his long journey to Athens, where his father rules. From dealing with bandits to becoming a temporary king of Eleusis (and dealing with the scheming queens and priestesses who seek to use him as a pawn), Renault’s immersive details draw the the reader through Theseus’ life story in an engaging manner.

And when he finally does go off to be sacrificed, as in the mythological story, Renault surprises us yet again by grounding Crete in a quasi historical manner. Instead of a minotaur in a maze as in the myth, Theseus instead gets entangled in the politics of the bull dancers in the court of King Minos, complete with liaisons with Ariadne in, you guessed it, the labyrinth.

The Bull from the Sea (1962) continues the story of Theseus after his return from Knossos and concerns his ascension to the Kingship of Athens and his turbulent rule. The novel focuses on Theseus’ encounters and entanglements with the Amazons, especially in the personage of Hippolyta. In addition, the novel reflects on his aging kingship and intrigues against him. Together, these all lead the novel to a somber ending to Theseus’ life story. In contrast to the youthful exuberance of the first novel, the Theseus in The Bull from the Sea is a more measured, older, but not always wiser character. It makes a most interesting counterpoint to the character as seen in the first book.

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While in the end the two novels by Renault may only be on the borders of Genre, their deep exploration of a mythological character and making sense of them stand her firmly in the pantheon of inspirations for genre writers. They have the feel of fantasy, and Theseus feels and acts like he is living in a fantastical world. There is a passage where a wound of his, with incantations and prayers, is treated with what we would recognize as the mold that contains penicillin. Theseus believes, though, he is being healed by magic, and acts accordingly. And the end matter of The Bull of the Sea suggests that Theseus’ ghost, or spirit, will and did, in an Arthurian twist, come to help save Greece at the Battle of Marathon.

I’ve been constantly surprised how many other genre writers of various stripes have delved into ancient history and myth with Renault’s work, as I did. People like Pamela Sargent, Jo Walton and S.M. Stirling have been profoundly influenced by her work.

Readers willing to follow Renault further into the world of ancient historical fiction will find even more treasures to discover. Fire From Heaven is a historical novel exploring the life of Alexander the Great up to his father’s death. (Renault also wrote a straight biography of Alexander, the Nature of Alexander). Its sequel, The Persian Boy, continues Alexander’s story, from the perspective of Bagoas, a Persian enunch who was one of Alexander the Great’s lovers. Although the movie itself is a mishmash, there are elements and characters from both of these books in Oliver Stone’s film Alexander. Funeral Games explores an area of history that doesn’t get as much play as it should — the complicated and interesting power plays and struggles following the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.

And there are even more ancient historical fictional books by Renault for readers to discover. Any genre reader interested in the boundaries between historical fiction and historical fantasy, in an ancient historical context, will do well to discover Renault’s work.

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2 Responses to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: Mary Renault”

  1. Margaret Dean February 26, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

    Renault is a favorite of mine, too. My personal favorite of her books (both the first discovered and the one I’ve reread most often) is The Mask of Apollo.

    • shaunduke February 26, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

      This is one of those instances where I realize I haven’t read someone I really should…guess this year as good as any 🙂

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