The King Must Die by Mary Renault is a re-telling of the Greek myth of Theseus. Renault begins with Theseus’ early childhood and concludes with his killing of the Minotaur in Crete.
Although Renault does an admirable job of fleshing out the historical setting and situating the myth in a realistic, historical context, her story-telling abilities did not live up to expectations. The first part of the novel was flat and plodding. The pace did pick up with Theseus’ arrival in Crete with the descriptions of life in the Bull Court, the Bull Dance, the earthquake, and the killing of the Minotaur.
The novel suffered from two main problems. The first lies in Renault’s writing style. Some of her sentences were unnecessarily cumbersome, wordy, and convoluted. The book was first published in 1958, so the muddled syntax may be attributed to its date of publication since writing styles have changed since then. However, books published even a few centuries before this did not suffer from the same problem. See, for example, the following sentence:
“All this I saw before he deigned to look at me; this and the way he stood; like a painting done on a wall of a princely victor, whom words do not touch, nor time and change, nor tears, nor anger; but he will stand so in his ease and pride, uncaring, till war or earthquake shakes down the wall.”
The same message could have been conveyed clearly, concisely, and without all that extra verbiage and pretentious language. And then there were sentences that left one scratching one’s head:
“If a man could prevent knowledge before he has it, I would not have known.”
The second problem lies in the handling of Theseus as the first person point of view narrator. The issue is not because Theseus exhibits an over-sexed masculinity and is a misogynist since that is probably an accurate reflection of the male culture of the time. It isn’t even because he is an unreliable narrator since unreliable narrators can reveal the inner workings of their minds in a manner that engages the reader and sustains our attention. It’s just that Theseus was not an interesting or engaging character. He was flat out boring.
Reynault’s lackluster portrayal of Theseus coupled with her writing style of unnecessarily convoluted syntax and unorthodox use of punctuation for no apparent reason detracted from what would otherwise have been an interesting re-telling of the myth.