There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.
One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.
Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.
Renault tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).
In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy. Although Renault was influenced by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.
In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments: ‘It is perhaps odd that Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero. The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’
‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.
This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.
While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series. It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she sympathized with Theseus (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.
I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.
Renault tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult. Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.
This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’ in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.
In this series, only masculine woman (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy. There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.
To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women, such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother. I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.
The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’ particularly, the reader is assumed to b e quite happy in cheering Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs; Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).
In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.
However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.
Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.
Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.
I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.
However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.
On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.
Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel, ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.
Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.
Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.
Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then. Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.
The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.
Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.
But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.