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The King Must Die

Mary Renault

Book Three: Chapters 1–2

Book Two: Chapter 3

Book Three: Chapter 3

Summary

Book Three: Athens

Chapter 1

Theseus returns to Eleusis, and talks with the Queen. Her anger surprises him. She seems less concerned that he killed her brother than with his role as king. He tells her he will go to Athens to be cleaned of the blood of her brother because they have both a shrine of Apollo and a temple of the Mother. She informs him that Athens is under a curse from the mother because Aigeus's grandfather killed the king in Eleusis and raped the queen. Theseus insists that he will go, and as soon as possible. Angrily she tells him to do so and be prepared for the consequences. He writes to Aigeus and later receives a response that he would be welcome. Theseus learns from the courier that times are difficult in Athens. The king has no sons, his relatives fight him for the kingdom, and each year he must give fourteen bull-dancers to Crete. The courier says that there are rumors that the King will make the Priestess his Queen and bring back the old religion. Theseus leaves, and makes the two-hour trip to Athens with two servants and the girl he took in the war. He is welcomed into the Palace, a huge fortress high up on the hillside, well protected from enemies.

Theseus meets Aigeus and the Lady Medea, the Priestess he heard about. They talk briefly and the King invites him upstairs to share some wine. Theseus wants to tell his father who he is, but the time never seems right. He says he is nineteen, then remembers he is speaking to his father and starts to correct himself, but Medea comes in with the wine. Aigeus pauses briefly, and in an awkward moment Theseus picks up the wine to drink. Suddenly it is knocked from his hand—his father had seen the sword at his side. Theseus realizes he must explain, but then a dog comes in and begins to lap at the wine but Aigeus pulls it back, and Medea shakes her head at him. Theseus understands that the wine was poisoned. His father weeps, and Theseus looks around him, feeling that it is his moira to rule in Athens. Aigeus has Medea brought forward, and as they talk Theseus learns that Aigeus was to have killed the young King of Eleusis in order to be free of the Mother's curse. He learns that his wife, the Queen, was a part of the plot. Medea escapes from them, but first she curses Theseus and tells him that he will kill the son who is "the fruit of his dearest love."

Chapter 2

Theseus and his father plan for war with his enemies, the Pallantids, and he is cleansed in the shrine of Apollo. He insists on returning to Eleusis before making war, despite his father's protests. At the border, he meets the Companions, and tells them that he has not given Eleusis to Athens in return for becoming Aigeus' heir. He explains the truth, regains the favor of the Companions and the army, and returns to the Palace, despite the fact that the Queen cursed any who come back with him. He finds the Queen next to death, bitten by the House Snake of the Goddess. They talk about what she did and he gives her leave to sail to Corinth to die there. He learns that she was pregnant but took medicine to kill the boy inside her, which was good, she says, because his son is cursed. Theseus changes things around, placing men in positions of power they had not previously held. A few days later, when his father writes that it is time for war, Theseus writes back to say they will be a thousand strong.

Analysis

Theseus is almost killed by his father, and he learns that the powers at work against him are strong. His father could have freed himself of the Mother's curse only by killing his own son, something that he would not do. However, Medea curses Theseus, and the knowledge that he will kill his own son concerns him. The curse seems to have weighed heavily upon Aigeus, and Medea's prediction for Theseus is terrible, especially given the fact that earlier he mentioned that his son is dead. In the novel, curses are enigmatic, for, although Medea's curse seems powerful, the Queen was thwarted in her attempt to kill Theseus, and her curse meant little to Theseus or the Companions. One possible explanation is that such curses gain the power that is give to them. In the Greek literary tradition, a curse is not something that can simply be left alone. Something must be done in order to remedy it, and it must be something of magnitude comparable to what brought on the curse. Theseus' life would have paid off the curse, but once Aigeus refuses to kill his son the curse passes on to Theseus, who is told he will lose his own son. Thus guilt is not the determining factor but rather blood is what is important, for to be born into a cursed family means that one will inherit such a curse.

Theseus understands his moira is as well as what the fate of his son will be. He senses that Athens is where he was meant to rule, and knows that his life will revolve around the city, but his knowledge of the future does not stop there. Medea tells him something he would not have cared to hear. Perhaps it is not good to have any knowledge of the future. Theseus' moira is determined by the gods, and in his case he believes that Poseidon directs his future. Yet at the same time the curse upon his family comes from the gods. So the remainder of his life will be simply a playing out of the fate that the gods have set forth for him. He is free to live his life but always within the chains that have been set upon him. Theseus does not view his moira as something that binds him but rather as something he must embrace.

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