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The King Must Die

Mary Renault

Contents

Themes

Themes

Leadership

Theseus is a great leader. In war he is brave and daring, but he does not risk the lives of his soldiers unnecessarily. In peace he tries to act in the best interests of the people. Good leadership brings loyalty, and the loyalty that he inspires in the Companions saves his life in his battle with Xanthos. Minos in Crete has lost touch with the gods and his people, and as he lives, Asterion gains power. At the end of his life, Minos helps Theseus and again becomes worthy of his title as king. Asterion rules without a legitimate title, and is not responsible to anyone. He does not pay heed to the gods or to other men but simply desires power. Aigeus is a good leader, but also exemplifies the difficulty of remaining a good leader. Many years spent trying to rule properly can wear someone out, and there is always more to do. But the book suggests that a good leader always tries, and is even willing to sacrifice himself for the people, if necessary.

Justice

Theseus believes that justice must be carried out, and the voice of Poseidon tells him the right thing to do. Justice is important because the gods will punish injustices. Although Theseus kills many people in his journeys and upsets many customs, he never does so without reasons. For example, in Eleusis he changes the traditional matrimonial rule and gives men some power. The queen tries to have him killed because she fears his intervention, but, as he tells her, he would never stop worship of Mother Dia. Theseus weighs all of his decisions, and when he does not know what to do he calls to Poseidon for help. When Theseus asks the gods for a sign, he searches his soul and mind to know the right thing to do. When Poseidon tells him that he must go to Crete, Theseus goes, notwithstanding his reluctance. Although it likely means he will die, he goes with a light heart, because he believes his action is just.

Belief

Theseus's belief that he is the son of Poseidon causes him to try to be worthy of the god. Many different types of belief appear in the novel. The Minyans belief that the Mother is supreme, and they have a whole host of rituals in her honor. The Hellenes, on the other hand, believe in Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and the other gods in addition to the Mother. These societies therefore appear very different, but the function of belief is the same in all of them. It is the belief in their deities that brings meaning to the people's lives. They believe that their rituals can cleanse them from wrongdoing, renew the land, or aid them in need, and therefore when the rituals are performed they feel calm and reassured. Sometimes the different beliefs clash, such as in Eleusis, when the Queen tries to kill Theseus because he would change the rituals. But Theseus does not really upset the belief of the people, he simply alters where they put that belief, and in doing so shifts the entire hierarchy of the kingdom. Belief is critical to Theseus, because he believes that Poseidon speaks to him. In times of crisis Theseus prays to the god for guidance, and he thinks that he gets a message from the god. Afterward, Theseus is always content with the choice he makes and does not question his decision. Theseus does not even really consider his decisions to be his own—he simply lays out the options and lets the god decide.

Honor

Theseus values his honor more than he values his life. When Asterion insults him and treats him like a slave, Theseus wishes nothing more than to have revenge upon him. But Asterion is not an honorable man. He wishes for power, and does not consider honor to be worth anything. Because none of them have any honor, they will not stand up to Asterion. The novel shows the different outcomes for the honorable and dishonorable. Those who do not have honor will value their lives and their wealth above all else, and therefore run the risk of becoming slaves. However, those who have honor will always be free. Even Asterion, though he is most powerful of the nobles, is a slave to power.

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