Skip over navigation

The King Must Die

Mary Renault

Book Five: Chapter 2, Author's Note, and The Legend of Theseus

Book Five: Chapter 1

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Chapter 2

They reach Delos the next morning, and rejoice to be so close to home. They bathe in a sacred lake, and Theseus asks a priest about the harper whom he has heard at Troizen. He learns that the harper was killed in his native Thrace, and the stories and songs about him are many after his death. They sail on the next day, and see a fire burning far in the distance. Theseus knows it is the beacon his father had put up, and he remembers Aigeus's request that he paint his sail with white. But Theseus is conflicted, because he cannot be sure what his father meant. Aigeus had said that the god would have a message for him with the painted sail, and Theseus thinks that if he paints it then his father will read it as a sign to sacrifice himself to the god. Theseus wades into the water and asks Poseidon for a sign. The god responds, and Theseus knows that he should not paint the sails. He says that he never anticipated that his father would die. He is sure the god did not lead him incorrectly. He believes that perhaps, since his father jumped from a balcony high up, he was called by the god; otherwise he could have fallen on his sword or taken poison. Either way, Theseus knows that there is a limit to his knowledge and feels that sometimes it is better not to question the fate the gods have set out for him.

Author's Note

Renault suggests, by examining the legend of Theseus as well as historical evidence, that the story has a basis in fact. Ruins of Knossos Palace have been found, with pictures depicting the bull-dance and the "bull-headed Minotaur." She evaluates parts of the story that seem particularly unlikely, such as the poisoning of Theseus by Aigeus, and points out that they are indeed quite possible. The inconsistencies in the legend, she suggests, are easily sorted out. Renault believes she is the first to suggest that Theseus had the "Earthquake-aura," something that many animals have. Such an ability would be so valuable as to have been considered a gift from the gods.

The Legend of Theseus

King Aigeus of Athens was led, while drunk, to lay with the daughter of King Pittheus, and later that night Poseidon also lay with her. At sixteen, already very large and strong, Theseus lifts the stone and claims the sword and sandals that are his birthright. He travels through the Isthmus Road, killing bandits and monsters. In Megara he kills the giant sow Phaia and in Eleusis he kills Kerkyon, who wrestles and kills all who would pass by. He reveals himself in Athens, and goes to Crete to kill the Minotaur, the terrible beast born of Minos' wife and a bull, who lived in the Labyrinth, a maze conceived by Daidalos to hide Minos' shame. Minos throws a ring into the sea when Theseus arrives and Theseus finds it and a golden crown, causing Ariadne to fall in love with him. She gives him a ball of thread to find his way in the Labyrinth and a sword. He kills the Minotaur and escapes, leaving Ariadne on Naxos, where Dionysos falls in love with her. Theseus achieved many great deeds as King of Athens, including the abduction of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. They fall in love, and she dies in battle by his side after giving him a son, Hippolytos. Theseus marries Phaedra, Minos' youngest daughter, and she falls in love with Hippolytos. When the youth refuses her, she hangs herself and accuses him of rape in a letter. Theseus believes the letter and calls on Poseidon for vengeance. A tidal wave kills his son and afterwards Theseus learns the truth. Theseus loses his luck, is imprisoned in the underworld, returns to find Athens in turmoil, curses the city and dies at Skyros, on his way to Crete.

Analysis

At the end of the novel, Theseus seems to have lost the certainty that he had as a youth. He knows only that we cannot know everything, and that it is not good to question some things. Ironically, in his youth he often questioned the things that were set before him, even if they seemed to come from a god, and he would ask Poseidon whether or not something was truly a part of his moira. But it seems that by the end of the book he has had his share of misfortune, and the knowledge that things do not always turn out alright makes Theseus decide that not only can he not understand his fate, it is better not to question it. If the older Theseus seems more reserved than he was in the days of his youth, perhaps it is because he lived a life of tremendous action and adventure when he was young and only when he was older did he learn that life is not always simple. When he is forced to leave Ariadne it is one of the first times that Theseus is faced with a no-win situation. He cannot take her with him, as he risks offending the gods. At the same time, leaving Ariadne forced him to break the promise he made to Minos just before he sacrificed him.

In the Author's Note, Renault suggests what at first seems quite extraordinary—that the Theseus legend may be based on a true story. The story she tells in her novel is amazing, but not totally inconceivable. Moreover, as Renault points out, much of the setting for the story is real, and the ruins at Knossos suggest the possibility that the myth as we know it is an actual occurrence that has been distorted through the ages. Her book attempts to resolve some of the inconsistencies that have appeared in the legend, and it does so in a credible manner. Although the gods are invoked countless times throughout Theseus' narrative, there is no instance in which some natural cause cannot replace the act of a god. Theseus himself states throughout the book several times that he fought not monsters but men on his travels. It is easy to see how within his own lifetime, if he existed, the stories would have grown. The actions that Theseus performs during the novel would not have been impossible for a man to perform, though it would have taken someone of tremendous strength, courage, and charisma. But the magnitude of the changes that were effected by his actions makes them seem even larger. The altering of age-old customs and the introduction of new gods into Eleusis is one example of an act that, while not so difficult for Theseus, would have spread across the land and likely have been made into something more than it was. Renault makes no claim that her retelling of the story represents what actually happened, but the very fact that she can take the historical evidence that survives today and recreate a narrative that not only seems plausible but also fits in every way with the legend that has been passed down from antiquity seems to suggest that the story of Theseus is more than a myth.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us