Skip over navigation

The King Must Die

Mary Renault

Book Two: Chapter 2

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

Book Two: Chapter 3

Summary

Theseus goes to live at the Palace and soon finds that everyone loves the new king. The people of the land treat him well, and he has a personal guard, called the Companions. Theseus at first is interested only in his nights, which he spends with the Queen. He learns that he is also to be called Kerkyon, the name that all kings of Eleusis take. Theseus also learns that the King has nothing to do with the army; Xanthos, the Queen's brother, is in charge of the troops. He begins to think about the differences between Earthlings and Hellenes. Theseus considers that he was never asked to consent to his moira in Eleusis but rather was chosen. He decides to change the culture of Eleusis. He begins to train the Companions for battle. When they point out that he should not train them, because the King should not do dangerous things, Theseus says that no one will stop him.

It is bad luck in Eleusis for the King to die before the year is over, but Theseus dislikes inactivity. Men in Eleusis have no power, and the Companions are intrigued by the possibility that with Theseus they can do things they otherwise could not. The Queen scolds Theseus for his actions, and Theseus becomes angry. He decides to do something grand, and one of the companions tells him that the great she-boar, Phaia, is roaming the nearby border hills. He wants to make friends with Pylas, the son of King Nisos of Megara, since the Megarians are allies of Athens, and the boar gives Theseus an idea. He waits until he hears that Pylas is hunting Phaia and then gathers the Companions to go off on the hunt.

Although Phaia is enormous, Theseus puts the butt of his spear against a rock and manages to slay a she-boar. He is scraped and bruised, but Pylas, who has seen the fight, brings him some oil for his wounds. The two feast and drink together with their men. Theseus suggests that they camp for the night and learns from the companions that the king never sleeps out of the Palace. He decides to break the custom and manages to suggest to Pylas that they sweep the Isthmus Road clean of thieves. They agree that it might be a good idea, and Pylas points out that Theseus may start changing the customs in Eleusis. He returns with the Companions, and the people cheer when they arrive, but Theseus finds the door to his room locked. Angry, he goes to the roof and climbs down, finding the Queen in her bath. She tells him to leave and wait, but Theseus does not. She gets angry, and rushes out of the bath insulting and attacking him. Theseus holds her off, though she cuts him with a knife, and finally she relents. A few days afterward heralds come from Megara enlisting the help of the Eleusinians in clearing the Isthmus. Xanthos, whom Theseus does not trust, can find no reason to object to the terms, and they prepare for war.

Analysis

These chapters show Theseus laying the ground for political maneuvering. Though not yet eighteen years old, Theseus demonstrates great skill in politics. He uses the hunting of the boar as an excuse to befriend Pylas, heir to the neighboring throne. Theseus not only gains friendship but also manages to convince Pylas that together their kingdoms could clean up the Isthmus Road. Theseus knows that Pylas likes his idea and will suggest it to his father but he himself says nothing of it. He waits until the Megarian heralds come to propose the terms to Eleusis. Theseus is aware of the King's traditionally limited role, and he is willing to gain power through subtle means. Theseus manages to engineer a war without the Eleusinians knowing any better and sets it up so that the terms would appeal to Xanthos. Theseus manipulates situations to suit his purposes, and is able to achieve the ends he desires without revealing his intentions. He believes that strength and bravery are not sufficient qualifications for a king; a king must also have cunning and foresight. In fact, Theseus' ability to think quickly and utilize his surroundings as best as possible allowed him to kill Phaia. Had he not braced his spear against the rock, he surely would have been killed.

The quest to hunt Phaia is a transgression of Eleusinian custom, and the fact that Theseus and the Companions stay out all night is an even greater break with tradition. However, although Theseus respects the Eleusinian belief in Mother Dia, there is no reason that he must blindly follow in the footsteps of all kings before him. The traditional role of the King does not suit Theseus because he does not plan on dying at the end of the year. Moreover, it is not a transgression for him to go against custom because his belief system requires him to consent to his moira. An Eleusinian could never do the things that Theseus does because as soon as he became King he would have considered his role already prescribed. The King lives easily and happily, inspiring the people, sleeps with the Queen, and dies at the end of the year. But because Theseus does not want to die at the end of the year, there is no reason that he must do what other kings have done in the past. The fact that the Companions are willing to go along with his plans shows that even within Eleusis there are certain customs that some would like to see changed. It is an extremely matriarchal society, one in which the men have almost no power at all. Theseus offers the possibility of change, and the Companions therefore eagerly follow him. Because the Companions have started to reconsider the role of men in Eleusis, the tradition is no longer as sacred.

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