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The King Must Die

Mary Renault

Book One: Chapters 3–4

Book One: Chapters 1–2

Book One: Chapters 5–6 and Book Two: Chapter 1

Summary

Chapter 3

After Poseidon's sign, Theseus never doubts that he will grow tall. However, four years later, he is still short, and although he is good at almost everything, he cannot wrestle. Theseus's uncle Diokles tells him to be content with what he can do and leave wrestling to larger boys. When he is fourteen, Theseus lets himself drift far out into the sea. Soon he realizes he cannot get back to shore and then, as he goes under, he hears the sea in his ears and he moves gently back towards shore. When he gets back on land, Theseus comes upon a village in the midst of a dance, and he spends that night with the village beauty. Soon after, the men of the kingdom go to war to fight cattle raiders. Theseus accompanies them without permission. His uncle Diokles is killed, and Theseus avenges him. Then ships from Crete come to take boys and girls as tribute and Theseus is sent up into the mountains until they leave.

Sixteen years old and still small, Theseus learns how to wrestle against larger boys by using their weight against them. He pauses his tale to point out that everyone wrestles in the Athenian style now. He wonders who will umpire at his funeral games, since his son, who is dead, cannot. He returns to describing his childhood. Men come to watch Theseus wrestle. On the day he turns seventeen, his mother tells him that she must show him something. She takes him to the holy Grove of Zeus and says that proof of his father's identity is under a rock. She says that Theseus's father made her promise not to tell unless Theseus lifted the rock himself. Though he tries, Theseus cannot lift the rock. Theseus falls into a depression that lasts several days. He is only lifted by the song that a great harper sings at court.

Chapter 4

The next morning, Theseus has an inspired idea and manages to move the rock using a wooden lever. Underneath, he finds a beautiful sword and moldy sandals. He is angry because he believes that these objects prove that his father was mortal. Theseus goes to his mother, who explains that his father is Aigeus, King of Athens. His grandfather tells him that Aigeus showed up when his mother had been dedicated to Mother Dia in order to save the land from drought and disease, and that she was to lay with the first man who came upon her. Instead of waiting for a boat to go to where she was, Aigeus swam across the water, and she mistook him for Poseidon. But, as his grandfather tells him, the ways of the gods are mysterious, and it is strange that Theseus' father would swim the strait.

Analysis

Though he tells he story of his life chronologically, Theseus sometimes pauses to reflect on the past from the perspective of an old man. Those breaks in the chronological narrative show us the eventual development of his character and foreshadow many events in his life. We learn that his son died and that he has lived to be an old man. Theseus is outdated, and as an old man he is not as in touch with the ways of the world as he was in the days of his youth. The story that he tells, however, is filled with ups and downs. First he despairs because he cannot wrestle well. Then he receives a sign from Poseidon and feels confident. And when Diokles dies in battle, Theseus proves himself a warrior by avenging him. He learns how to wrestle against larger boys, but is unable to move the stone. Finally, he moves the stone but learns that his father was a mortal man, though a king. Every positive event that Theseus experiences is contrasted by a negative one.

Though he continually overcomes great obstacles and demonstrates tremendous abilities, Theseus always meets more difficult challenges. Theseus could have taken his uncle's advice and been content with his abilities apart from wrestling. His refusal to give up shows that he is a tenacious character. He tries to succeed at everything, and although this can incur a great cost, it is precisely that attitude that makes him so successful. But no success in life puts an end to the difficulties that one might face, and so Theseus must always figure out solutions to new problems. Theseus represents in some ways the ideal of mind over matter. Although his royal blood sets him apart, he lacks the physical size that is considered necessary to make great wrestlers or fighters. Yet Theseus finds ways to make do with what he has, using his mind together with his body to do things that the body alone cannot do. His tremendous will to succeed and his quick mind allow him to use his body to succeed at doing things that others would not be able to do.

Theseus learns that he is the son of a mortal man, King Aigeus of Athens. However, as his grandfather explains to him, no man understands the ways of the gods. It seems possible that Poseidon took possession of Aigeus and conceived Theseus. The gods are never removed from life. They are everywhere. Although they cause great things like droughts and earthquakes, they are also at work in small events. The lives of people are intertwined with the gods. Incredible actions occur all of the time, and the gods are the vehicles through which the outcomes are achieved. Thus, a middle-aged king's decision to swim across a strait in the dark of night may be due to the intervention of a god. Theseus hears the sea in his ears when Poseidon comes to him, but those are also at moments where he calls upon his deepest reserves to perform some action that tries his strength or will. Thus someone such as Theseus, who lives with great passion and pushes himself to the utmost, will feel intervention from the gods frequently. The gods, then, can stand for what we do not understand, and those who are at ease and live in harmony with what they do not understand could be seen to have the gods' blessing.

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