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The King Must Die

Mary Renault

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

Book One: Chapters 3–4

Book Two: Chapter 2

Summary

Chapter 5

Ready to sail for Athens, Theseus stops a Cretan man from molesting a woman and then decides to travel by the Isthmus Road when the shipmaster extols the worthiness of the ship and claims that it justifies the high taxes Troizen pays to Crete. Reflecting back on this time, Theseus thinks that the man who bothered the woman unleashed a chain of events that laid waste to princes and kings. He wonders if perhaps kingdoms fall from the actions of such men, who die wholly ignorant of the role they have played.

Chapter 6

After a few nights of travel, Theseus and his charioteer, Dexios, a childhood friend, come to the Isthmus. Theseus states that despite all of the stories that have been told, the crossing took only a day, and he faced men and not monsters. At one point, a thief attacks Dexios and kicks him over the edge of a cliff. Theseus pushes the thief off of the same cliff. After this incident, he has no more fights, perhaps because people avoid him, and he soon clears the Isthmus. Theseus comes upon a band of young goatherds, and shares a meal and a fire with them, thinking as he falls asleep about what it means to be a king.

Book Two: Eleusis

Chapter 1

Theseus comes to Eleusis the next day and finds the queen waiting for him in the middle of the road. He realizes that Eleusis is a Minyan kingdom. Theseus greets her and learns that it is a land of the old religion, where they worship only Mother Dia. She tells him he has come on the day when "the King must die" and he realizes that their tradition is for a new king to come and replace the old one each year. The death of the old king renews their society and their lives. He meets the King, Kerkyon, and prepares to wrestle with him. When asked, Theseus claims to be 19. He does not like the ritual that he must participate in, but he sees that the King does not question it. Theseus wrestles and kills the King. Everyone mourns the King and goes to the sea to be cleansed. Theseus swims far out, feels that Poseidon is still with him, and swims back in. He convinces the people to allow him to bring his sword with him, and he goes into a cave to sleep with the Queen. At one point, light flares and voices cheer. Theseus realizes everyone must watch this ritual. He is angered, but soon forgets his rage when left alone with the Queen.

Analysis

Theseus's character shows how small actions often have large implications. If Theseus had not been insulted by the Cretans behavior towards a woman of his homeland, he would not have gone to Athens by the Isthmus Road, and Dexios would still be alive. Despite his understanding of moira and the fate that the gods have allotted him, Theseus can look back at his life and pinpoint key moments when individual actions changed the shape of the rest of his life. Renault demonstrates that no matter how we plan or try to determine in advance the course that our lives will take, many events are unforeseen and impossible to predict. These events can determine the nature of the rest of our lives. The possibility that, although at each moment we seem to have control of our lives, the outcome is entirely coincidental, suggests that life is far beyond our understanding.

In Eleusis, Theseus discovers a society that differs drastically from that of Troizen. The Minyans lived in Greece long before Theseus' ancestors arrived, and they have kept their own culture. The Hellenes at Troizen also worship Mother Dia, but in addition they honor several other gods. However, the Minyans believe only in the Mother, and their traditions are drastically different. Theseus finds the custom the King must die every year distasteful, but he notices that even the King does not question the concept. Because he has not grown up with these rituals, Theseus is free to question them. To the Minyans, however, the death of the king is an integral part of life, something so central to their way of living that it could never be questioned. Likewise Theseus would never question a sacrifice to Poseidon. The interaction of the different cultures shows the difficulty of judging one's own traditions objectively. Theseus represents someone from the outside who is capable of understanding other customs and rituals. Theseus knows that the customs of a foreign land must be shown respect, even if they seem strange, because the people believe in them deeply. It is not the actual ritual that is critical but rather the people's belief.

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