That sound you hear is the Earth Bull:

There was a mighty crashing and roaring, shrieking voices, crashing wood. My fingers grasped an edge of paving that worked to and fro like a living thing; I was rocked and tossed about as the strong-laid floor of Daidalos broke like water and surged in waves. And deep below, the Earth Bull boomed and bellowed, louder than the shouts of terror, louder than the thunder of falling column and floor and wall.

93941Published in 1958, The King Must Die is a version of the Theseus myth, cast as realist historical fiction. You might recall that Theseus is the guy who killed the minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete. He is also known for unifying many kingdoms under the rule of Athens.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope you will go read it. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it feels well researched and deeply imagined. There are no monsters or sandaled gods, but Renault presents villains who might have turned into monsters as stories are retold, and Theseus is continually considering which gods he should honor or fear in a given situation. He also believes he can hear the voice of Neptune in a profound way, not unlike a Christian might hear the voice of God from time to time.

Renault recasts the minotaur’s labyrinth as a grand palace where youth from kingdoms subservient to Crete train to “bull dance,” which is a little like bull fighting, but without any weapons, and also involving attempting to leap onto the bull’s back. No one lives long doing this. The novel beautifully develops a subcultural world of bull dancers and their training and prejudices and squabbles.

Theseus, in the novel, is a credible, fascinating character, a natural leader who finds himself in impossible situations and then sets his mind to finding the opportunities and alliances that will help him to escape. He is fearless, but in the mode of the mystic who is willing to put his life in the hands of his god. At moments when Theseus explains how he learned certain lessons, he sounds delightfully like he is writing an ancient Greek guide to leadership.

As presented in the novel, some of the kingdoms around Athens adhered to Earth Mother religions in which a man was made king for only a limited time, perhaps a year, after which he would be killed. Even in kingdoms that had moved away from the Earth Mother, it was expected that a king should sacrifice his life when he knew the time to do so had come. Hence, the title. (And, indeed, several kings perish violently in the course of the novel.)

If you do pick up the book, be warned: the first chapter is the weakest material in the book, laboring too hard to plant events in Theseus’s youth to explain his character. But then Theseus leaves home, begins his adventures, and the book lifts off.

Things it is like: The Long ShipsD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

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Things it is not like: The Virgin’s Lustful Breeding by the Minotaur, maple blueberry scones, a St. Patrick’s Day wookie.

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Bonus fact: Word origin — a “clue” was a ball of thread, such as Theseus used to find his way out of the minotaur’s labyrinth.

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