Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

1962; 336 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Mythological Fiction.  Rating : 7*/10.

    Theseus returns to Greece a hero.  He has triumphed over the   Minotaur in Crete.  Troubadours will sing of his praises; painters will put his likeness on walls; and trinket-makers will sell little gold Theseuses on bracelets.

    Now is the time to unite Greece and govern a kingdom.  To marry for political expediency, dispense justice, and engage in the subtle arts of diplomacy and tact.  Which is all well and good for an ambitious politician.  But not for someone with adventure in his veins.

What's To Like...
    The Bull from the Sea is the sequel to The King Must Die, where Theseus famously braved the Labyrinth and fought the Minotaur.  TBFTS basically recounts the rest of Theseus' life.  It is nevertheless a stand-alone book, provided you like (and are well-versed in) Greek mythology.

    The story is presented as historical fiction, which is a clever treatment.  We know Greek mythology has all sorts of fabulous creatures such as centaurs, fauns, and satyrs.  We know they never existed.  So how and why did they work their way into in Greek lore as if they were real?  Mary Renault gives a plausible explanation here.  She takes the Theseus legend and "de-godifies" it into a series a natural events.  Yet you can see how it could easily be stretched into a larger-than-life tale.

    Theseus is a flawed hero, and that's a plus.  The women are all strong characters.  Greece dominates the eastern Mediterranean world.  And then there are the uber-kewl Amazons.  You don't want to mess with them.

Kewlest New Word...
Skewbald : having spots or patches of white on a coat of color other than black.

    "The House of Minos stood for a thousand years, because Crete had one law."
    "Yet it has fallen."
    "For want of law enough.  It stopped with the serfs and the slaves.  Men are dangerous who have nothing left to lose."  (pg. 40-41)

    Tall trees grew on her grave-mound.  The pups of our hounds' last mating had grown gray-nosed and died.  Her young Guard had sons who were learning arms.  As for me, she would hardly have known the face that mirrors showed me now, gray-bearded, darkened with salt and sun.  She had seemed to die again in all these passings.  But just now, in the chariot, I had seen the hair pale as electrum, the springing stance, the joy in swift horses, and for a moment she had lived again.  (pg. 235-236)

"Death does not master us, while the bard sings and the child remembers."   (pg. 18)
    Mary Renault does a marvelous job of bringing Ancient Greece and its legends alive and making it believable.  Yet I think The Bull from the Sea is probably for mythology-lovers only.  If you didn't like to read Edith Hamilton tales as a kid, you may find this book to be a bit of a slow-go. 

    There is some romance and some intrigue, but not a lot.  The action parts are also a bit sparse, which is more critical since this is an adventure story.  And the author misses a couple opportunities (most notably the reconquest of Crete) to spill a little blood and swash a little buckle.  OTOH, if family tragi-drama is to your taste, you may enjoy the book from start to finish.

    The ending has a nice twist; and like a Shakespearean tragedy, we end up empathizing with Theseus despite his shortcomings and ill-luck.  Mary Renault has less to work with here than in her Alexander the Great novels; but she still creates a well-written tale.  7 Stars.

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