Breathing Life into Mythical Greece
Article first published in Writing Magazine in May 1995
Copyright Carol Townend
Mary Renault only visited Greece twice, yet eight of the novels she is best remembered for are set in Ancient Greece. They are the foundation of her reputation as a historical novelist. Renault breathed life into a mythic period of history, and her starting point was always a huge amount of research. Renault read Plato and Aristotle. She pondered on the philosophy of Socrates. She studied Greek myths and legends, drawing on Frazer’s Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ Greek Myths for inspiration concerning the ‘mother goddess’ that was at the root of her two Theseus books.
Yet detailed research alone is not enough to explain Renault’s brilliant portrayal of a lost world. Her portrayal is so convincing that some of her fans have claimed that Renault must have been a reincarnation of someone who had lived in those far off days. Setting this claim aside, it has to be admitted that Renault’s reconstruction of a vanished way of life does seem uncannily realistic. Her writing is clear and cool. Her style is spare and at times archaic (‘three and twenty’ for example). Many of her sentences are short and strong, purged of adjectives. Here, at the beginning of The King Must Die, the first of her Theseus books, Renault does some scene setting, drawing her readers into the Citadel of Troizen, so they can come to understand as well as she does the cast of mind and attitudes of her main character, Theseus.
Theseus narrates the story in the first person, and the book opens when he is still a child. Theseus’ mother, Chief Priestess of the Mother Dia and a king’s daughter, is dressing for a feast day, and we watch through her son’s eyes. Theseus does not mention his mother’s nakedness coyly, but so matter of factly that one realises that in Troizen there is nothing unusual in a young woman going about bare-breasted: She was just out ofher bath, and they were dropping a petticoat over her head. The seven-tiered flounces, sewn with gold drops and pendants, clinked and glittered as she shook them out. . . Her breasts were as smooth as milk, and the tips so rosy that she never painted them, though she was still wearing them bare, not being, at that time, much above three and twenty. They took her hair out of the crimping plates (it was darker than mine, about the colour of polished bronze) and began to comb it.
Meanwhile the House Barons assemble in the Great Hall: exchanging news and chaff and striking poses for the women. And Eurytos the charioteer was up already, standing still as an image in his short white tunic and leather greaves, his long hair bound in a club...
The word image in still as an image is particularly effective, as the reader is expecting the phrase to be finished with the clichéd still as a statue. ‘Image’ sets us firmly in the ancient world, as does the fact that the charioteer’s hair is bound in a ‘club’.
Renault goes on to demonstrate that the world Theseus has been brought up in is a male dominated one; a world where a woman can be cherished as his Royal priestess mother is cherished, but a world where a woman can also be booty, whose fate it is to be snatched up by the strongest warriors or won as a prize by the best athlete: Diokles. . . had on his gold snake arm-ring with crystal eyes, and his hair was bound with a purple ribbon. My grandfather had won his mother at Pylos, second prize in the chariot race, and had always valued her highly; she was the best embroideress in the Palace.
It is the apparently simple touch of making Diokles’ mother the second prize that drives home to the reader the position of most women in Troizen, that and the fact that Diokles’ mother was also prized for her embroidery. She is a commodity.
Theseus inhabits a world where the forces of nature are seen as characters, the Gods. The Gods never sleep, and they watch humankind from their home on Mount Olympus. In Troizen the ‘ever-living Zeus’ blasts tall oaks by hurling thunder-bolts at them. By the time one has read a couple of dozen pages of the novel, and come to the sacred oak grove, one knows what it feels like to think: the dryads who live there stare harder into one’s back than anywhere else. One can feel dryad eyes boring into one, just as Theseus can.
Mary Renault has been accused of not allowing her female characters the independence and freedom that she achieved in her own life. This was not because Renault did not support the feminist movement; it had far more to do with her desire to depict the ancient world as accurately as possible. This was more important to her than banging a drum for a feminist, or any other, cause.
In The King Must Die Theseus leaves his homeland and is crowned king in the city of Eleusis. Eleusis is a matriarchal society whose tradition is that their king is killed after one year’s reign in order to ensure the continuing fertility of the land. When Theseus first arrives in Eleusis, he finds to his horror that here it is the men who are second class citizens. The reader, having seen the male oriented way of life at Troizen where Theseus was brought up, can understand his shock and confusion, they share something of his revulsion. The reader wonders when and how Theseus will act to change traditions in Eleusis.
If Renault had not devoted the first section of the book to explaining Troizen and its mores carefully, the impact of the second, woman-dominated section of the book, and the reader’s understanding of Theseus and his plans to overthrow the regime, would have been severely limited.
Renault immersed herself in her period, making no attempt to dress her characters with modern views and attitudes to make them acceptable to twentieth century readers. It was a cruel, bloodthirsty world and she does not flinch from depicting it. In Eleusis, Theseus has to fight the outgoing king, who has reigned for a year and must die. Theseus feels no hatred towards the doomed king, and does not ‘want to be his executioner, but this is mortal combat — kill or be killed. Theseus carries out his unwanted task efficiently and without emotion, but as humanely as he can, given the circumstances: One could not save him. I put my knee in his backbone. Keeping him pinned, for he was not a man to give an inch to, I hooked my arms round his head, and pulled it back till I felt the neckbone straining. . . I jerked his head back hard and fast, and heard the snap of the neckbone.
Renault has been hailed as a cham pio of homosexual love. It is a thread which runs through many of her books, and is one which Renault tackled as openly and honestly as she tackled the position of women in ancient Greece. She is simply concerned to write the truth as she sees it. In The Persian Boy, Renault’s tender description of the way Alexander and Bagoas become lovers is very moving. Bagoas is teaching Alexander Persian, he aches for Alexander, but is terrified of making the first move. Bagoas is narrating, again in the first person: Presently he said, ‘You must tell me when I say the Persian wrongly. Don't be afraid to correct me, or I shall never learn.' I took a step towards him. My hair had fallen forwards over my shoulder He put up his hand and touched it. . I said softly, ‘My lord knows well that he only has to ask.’ Eros had gathered his net in the strong grip of a god, and pulled in his catch no longer to be defied. The hand that touched my hair slid under it; he said, ‘You are here under my protection. ‘ At this, without respect for the sacred person ofa king, I put both arms round his neck. That was the end of his pretences.
Such a short extract cannot hope to convey all the emotion that Renault built up in the preceding pages, but it does give a hint of her skill as a writer, and of her understanding of human nature. How did Renault achieve such a high level of realism in these novels? The biography of Mary Renault by David Sweetman (Pimlico) gives some clues.
Sweetman quotes Renault as saying ‘that the chief pleasure of writing historical novels lies in the continuing tension between the particular — what is individual to the person, the society, the time — and what is universal, and the constant interplay of one through the other.’ Renault thinks herself into the skins of her characters. She is able to do this because she knows her period inside out, and is not afraid to write realistically about customs and religious rites which seem alien and brutal by twentieth century standards.
As a final example, here is an extract from Fire From Heaven. Renault is describing the famous Athenian orator, Demosthenes, and sums his personal life up in a couple of sentences: There was no one at whose side he had locked shields in battle. And when he wanted love, it cost two drachmas. Renault could have said, Demosthenes was lonely and friendless, but the specific mention of the locked shields and love costing two drachmas gives the reader local colour and insight into Demosthenes’ character. It is also telling about the nature of Greek society at the time — a warrior society where loyalties and friendships were forged on the battlefield — where for all his fame as an orator, the puny Demosthenes was an outsider.
Renault has combined the wealth of knowledge gleaned from her research into historical detail, with her knowledge of universal human nature. Her deft blending of the two gives her work its uncanny, intuitive realism.
Writing Magazine May 1995
By Mary Renault
The Last of the Wine
The Praise Singer
The Theseus Legend:
The King Must Die
The Bull from the Sea
The Mask of Apollo
The Alexander Trilogy
Fire from Heaven
The Persian Boy
Article first published in Writing Magazine, May 1995
Copyright Carol Townend