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The King Must Die

Mary Renault

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Mary Renault in London in 1905 as Mary Challans. She was the daughter of a doctor and her family was relatively prosperous. Renault attended boarding school in Bristol and then went to Oxford to study English. After receiving a degree in English from Oxford in 1928, Renault decided that she was not interested in academia. She studied nursing at Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, and received a degree in nursing in 1936. Renault worked as a nurse during World War II, and she began to write novels. She published under the pseudonym Renault because she was a lesbian writer who wrote about very sexual themes. In 1948, along with her lifelong partner, Julie Mullard, Renault moved to South Africa, and she never returned to England. The Charioteer, the last of her six novels, was published in 1955. Afterward, Renault began to write historical novels, the first of which, The Last of the Wine, was published in 1956. Although The Charioteer is considered by many to be her best book, the stories that she wrote about ancient civilizations are her most popular works. The King Must Die, the most famous of these books, was published in 1958, and its sequel, The Bull from the Sea, came out in 1962. The Mask of Apollo followed in 1966 and then Renault published her trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great: Fire from Heaven (1970), The Persian Boy (1973), and Funeral Games (1981). Renault died in 1983, considered both a great writer and a leading figure in the sexual revolution for her daring portrayals of all forms of sexuality within her works.

The King Must Die is based upon the myth of Theseus. Renault includes a brief version of this story at the end of the book. As she explains, the possibility that Theseus was an actual historical figure is not as remote as it may seem at first. Many aspects of the legend are clearly blown out of proportion, and the book is an attempt to set the legend within the realm of possibility. Renault herself explains how many of the seeming internal inconsistencies within the myth can be easily explained away, and the historical record brings up other evidence suggesting not only that Knossos Palace in Crete existed, but also that the bull-dance was a time-honored tradition. Around 1900, there were many excavations of Minoan Crete that produced a wealth of discoveries. It is now believed that palaces were built in several major centers in Crete, including Knossos, around 1900 B.C. These areas flourished and kings gathered power and then around 1700 the palaces were destroyed by a disaster, likely an earthquake. Knossos Palace was then rebuilt on a grand scale. The Mother Goddess was the main deity worshipped, and there is evidence that bull's heads were sacred symbols as well as double-sided axes. The volcanic eruption at Santorini 250 years later destroyed the palaces again, although Knossos was rebuilt for a new dynasty. The evidence therefore suggests that Theseus, if he lived, would have led his daring escape from Crete around 1450 B.C.

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