The King Must Die
First US edition
|Cover artist||Eric Carle|
|Publisher||Pantheon Books (US)
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Pages||352 p. (Vintage edition)338 p. (Modern edition)|
|LC Class||PR6035.E55 K56 1988|
|Followed by||The Bull from the Sea|
The King Must Die is a 1958 bildungsroman and historical novel by Mary Renault that traces the early life and adventures of Theseus, a hero in Greek mythology. Naturally, it is set in Ancient Greece: Troizen, Corinth, Eleusis, Athens, Knossos in Crete, and Naxos. Rather than retelling the myth, Renault constructs an archaeologically and anthropologically plausible story that might have developed into the myth. She captures the essentials while removing the more fantastical elements, such as monsters and the appearances of gods. The King Must Die was lauded by critics, with New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott calling it "one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times." Renault wrote a sequel, The Bull from the Sea, in 1962.
- 1 Plot introduction
- 2 Plot summary
- 3 Characters
- 4 Notes
- 5 References in other books
- 6 External links
The King Must Die is an adaption of the early life and adventures of the mythological Greek hero Theseus. Beginning with his childhood in the Greek city-state of Troizen, the plot follows him through his travels in Eleusis, where he becomes king; in Athens, where he becomes known as the son and heir of the king; and in Crete, where he learns the Cretan sport of bull-leaping. The novel ends with Theseus's return to Athens.
Book One: Troizen
The story is told by Theseus, looking back on his life from his vantage point as an adult.
The novel opens with Theseus as a six-year-old child in the household of his grandfather, King Pittheus of Troizen. His mother is a priestess; his father's identity is unknown.
Theseus recounts an early experience that made a great impact upon him and which contains some of the key themes running throughout the book. He recalls the rite of the Horse sacrifice; he is shocked and saddened when he sees the "King Horse", whom he considers a noble beast and his friend, killed in front of him as a sacrifice to the gods. However, this leads to a conversation with his grandfather the King who tells him how the King used to be sacrificed with the Horse and how even now a true king of the Hellene people, whose duty is to look after his people, may need to make the ultimate sacrifice. His grandfather discusses the role of "moira" or fate in their lives but also emphasizes that in order for a king to lead his people, he must consent to the risk of sacrifice, in order that "he can walk with the god". This becomes a recurrent theme in the story as, time and time again, Theseus is faced with the choice of choosing a safe course of action over one where he places his faith in the "god" and his skill and where he consents to what he sees as the will of the god. It is during the horse sacrifice that he first hears a surging sea-sound in his ears that he identifies as the voice of his god.
After the horse sacrifice, he serves at Poseidon's temple for the next three years. While there as a boy, he dares to jump into the Palace bull's pen and play a risky game of evading the bull before it can harm him. He leads other boys into the game; when one of these boys, Dexios, slips and falls into the pen, Theseus feels that he is responsible and risks his life to save the boy by jumping onto the head of the bull. This incident foreshadows his future sojourn in Crete as a bull dancer.
While serving at Poseidon's temple one day, he senses that something is wrong and tells Simo, a shallow and vulgar boy who has been dedicated as a slave to the temple, to be silent. He tells the boy to get out and at that moment an earthquake shakes the temple. Simo believes that Theseus is indeed Poseidon's son and Theseus is told by his grandfather that his ability to sense earthquakes is a warning sent to him by the god so that he can protect the people.
As Theseus ages, he becomes frustrated because he is shorter and lighter than most Hellenes his age. As a result, he fails at the traditional wrestling style that relies just on weight and strength, though he is an excellent archer, javelin-thrower, and runner.
One night, frustrated by this, he swims out to sea and almost drowns, but then hears the sea-surge sound in his ears which he believes to be the sign from the god; he returns to the shore of a village having a feast and is greeted as "Kouros of Poseidon" by the village beauty, who later that night becomes his first lover.
When Theseus is fourteen, his older friend Diokles is killed by cattle raiders; Theseus avenges his friend by killing the raider.
Soon after this, the Cretan ships come to Troizen to take away young boys and girls as tribute to Minos for the bull dancing in Crete. Theseus asks his grandfather why he doesn't fight the Cretans. His grandfather tells him that the Cretans control the essential sea trade routes and that they could bring 5,000 men to Troizen in a day. He sends Theseus into the hills so that he is not chosen for the bulldance.
As time goes on, Theseus figures out how to compensate for his lighter build by learning to defeat his wrestling opponents through agility, using special holds and throws, some taught to him by two Egyptian boys and others formulated by his own ingenuity.
When Theseus turns seventeen, his mother takes him to the sacred Grove of Zeus in the hills and explains that his father made her swear an oath not to tell him who his father was unless he could pry up a certain heavy stone. Theseus tries again and again to lift up the stone, but fails. His failure haunts him for 2 weeks or more but, after listening to a harper tell of the mechanisms used to hoist stones for a great temple and after praying to Apollo, he realizes that he can use a lever to raise the great stone. He recovers a man's sword and sandals from beneath it. At first, Theseus is bitter that his lineage is not godly, but his irritation vanishes when his grandfather explains that Theseus is the only son and heir of King Aigeus of Athens. Theseus is to travel to Athens and join his father at once.
After being affronted by the way that Cretan merchants, whose ships control the sea route to Athens, treat the people of Troizen, Theseus decides to go to Athens via the bandit-infested land route: the Isthmus of Corinth. At the time, this seems like a foolhardy thing to do but it later turns out to be the beginning of his many victories over adversity and Theseus later reflects on how the Cretan merchants thus unknowingly set in motion a momentous series of events. On the way through the Isthmus, his sole companion, Dexios, is killed by the bandit Skiron. Theseus avenges him, which is considered the first of his great feats.
Book Two: Eleusis
In Eleusis, a matriarchical and non-Hellene society focused on worship of the Earth mother goddess (in contrast to the patriarchical Hellene society that places higher value on worship of male gods), it is the custom to kill their king each year, as a sacrifice to the Earth mother goddess.
As Theseus enters Eleusis, he is halted on the road by the 27-year-old Eleusinian Queen, who is the priestess for the mother goddess and whose sacred name is Persephone. She tells him he must wrestle her husband, Kerkyon, the year-king, in single combat, since this is the "day when the King must die". Theseus is not sure that he wants to fight Kerkyon since his goal is to reach Athens; in addition, the tradition of his Hellene society is that the king may need to sacrifice himself for his people for some particular goal or reason but that a true king knows when he is being called to do so and does so willingly. Here he is dismayed at the fact that Kerkyon has not consented to this sacrifice. Nevertheless, he believes that the Eleusinians may kill him if he refuses or the priestess may curse him and in any event he decides that fate has set this battle in his path and that he must trust in the gods.
Before they fight, Kerkyon asks Theseus "Whose son are you?" and Theseus, not wanting to reveal the identity of Aigeus, tells them that his birth came about through his mother's sacrifice to the earth goddess. This makes an impression upon the Eleusinians since they believe that the earth goddess may have sent Theseus but Kerkyon laughs for some reason known only to himself and Persephone, his wife and Queen, and then says that she won't know whom to root for. It is suggested later in the book that a prophecy had been made about such a man overthrowing the traditions in Eleusis.
For now, however, Theseus begins to wrestle Kerkyon; it turns out that Kerkyon is, like Theseus, a good wrestler and is also older and stronger than Theseus. Theseus begins to fear that he will lose. However, the Queen as priestess begins to beat upon a loud gong while the women of Eleusis chant in order to diminish the spirit of Kerkyon and help Theseus win. This is illustrative of a repeated theme in this book where an action or event occurs that is interpreted by some or all of the characters as having a supernatural element but can also be read as having a naturalistic explanation, e.g., purely as the natural consequence of the beliefs of the people. Theseus pins Kerkyon to the ground but, before he kills him, makes sure he is ready to die and asks Kerkyon to discharge Theseus of his death.
Once he kills Kerkyon, he becomes the year-king and husband of the Queen in his stead. In their first night in bed, he is shocked by the Eleusinian custom of allowing the people to watch the King and the Queen have sex together; however, his anger dissipates when he and the Queen are truly alone. He says that he learned more in that one night with her than in the three prior years with the girls of Troizen.
But he soon learns that the Queen rules in Eleusis and the King has no real power. The people shower love and gifts on the King but that is because he is expected to die in one year's time. Therefore, everyone treats him like a child of no account. Since Theseus has a strong sense of destiny and belief in the importance of kingship, he soon becomes restless and frustrated after he tries to participate in governing with his Queen and is rebuffed. Therefore, he begins to plan to build a base of support amongst the Eleusinian youths who accompany him around Eleusis. He begins to take them away on hunts to build some sense of independence and camaraderie amongst them. His shows his strategic gifts by giving thought to how he can build an alliance with neighboring Megara since he does not wish to die at the end of his one-year reign. With his companions, he hunts the great she-boar Phaia. As she charges his men, for whom he feels responsible, he risks his life alone against the boar and, with his agility and quick thinking, uses the boar's strength against it to impale and kill the beast. Pylas, prince of Megara, is impressed by this feat and Theseus, never one to let an opportunity pass, then shows his political skills by persuading Pylas to ask the Queen's brother to undertake a joint war to eliminate the bandits that infest the Isthmus of Corinth.
However, killing the she-boar is sacrilege in Eleusis; on his return, Persephone locks him from their room. He climbs to the roof and jumps down onto the terrace leading to their room. The Queen angrily tells him to get out and he refuses, sending her servants out and re-locking the door. Because she berated him in front of her women, which he believes is beneath his status as king, he becomes enraged and threatens to beat her if she does not modify her behavior. They tussle together, she tries to call her guards, but he puts his hand over her mouth and she tries to bite him. They fall to the floor and the Queen's towel falls aways, which leads Theseus to think "For once in this room, it will be a man who says when". At that moment, she stabs him, aiming for his heart but misses. As he is bleeding and she is thinking of calling her guards, he tells her that "if you send me below before my time, by Zeus you shall come with me", and then he releases her. When she bursts into tears he softens, showing that he is still young and impressionable. He shows concern for her at this point even though he is bleeding. He then picks her up from the debris on the floor and carries her to bed. He naively imagines that they have made things up.
Xanthos, the brother of the Queen, agrees to go to war with Megara and further even agrees to let Theseus lead, given his experience in the Isthmus. Theseus is surprised that Xanthos did not argue the point, but, due to his youthful innocence and pride, thinks that he has won him over. He does not suspect that his wife and lover, the Queen, has asked Xanthos to take this opportunity to have Theseus killed. Persephone correctly anticipates that Theseus is trying to overthrow the established order and change the custom that the King must die.
Among the bandits is a sadist named Sinis. They serve him as he had served others. The cleansing of the Isthmus of bandits is a complete success and the two attempts by Xanthos to kill Theseus through the covert efforts of others fail. Theseus learns of the treachery of Xanthos and confronts him, challenging him to fight Theseus directly rather than seek his death through others. As they fight with spears, Theseus throws his spear and misses; Xanthos then has the advantage with a spear against the sword of Theseus. As Xanthos begins to press his advantage, Theseus sees that several Eleusinian men have throw their spears near him, showing that the men feel more loyalty to Theseus than Xanthos; Theseus he picks one up and strikes Xanthos with a mortal blow. As Xanthos dies, he is unable to understand this display of loyalty to Theseus.
Theseus retires to bed that night with his new won slave girl, Philona, who dresses his wounds. She asks him to promise to never separate her from his household. He keeps this promse and later in life, he has two sons by her, Itheus the shipmaster and Engenes, commander of the Palace Guard.
Book Three: Athens
With the excuse of wanting to be purified of Xanthos's blood at the Athenian shrine of Apollo, Theseus finally goes to Athens. But his aged father Aigeus, who fears the powerful young king (whom he quite fails to recognise as his son), would have poisoned Theseus on the urging of his lover Medea, who wants the Athenian throne for her sons. But Aigeus recognises Theseus's sword just in time, and knocks the poisoned goblet from his son's hand. Medea escapes; no one knows how. Aigeus proclaims Theseus his son and heir.
When Theseus returns to Eleusis, he finds that Queen Persephone has raised the army against him. When Theseus's oration persuades the army to support him, Persephone stages a suicide attempt by letting one of her sacred snakes (used in the mother-goddess rituals she presides over as priestess-queen) bite her. After Theseus gives her leave to go to a shrine to die, one of the court's women reveals to him that she is functionally immune to the snake-bites (immunity being necessary to ensure survival of priestesses) by way of calculated doses of diluted venom - and will not die, but is using the effects of the bite as a ruse to facilitate her flight from Theseus' justice.
When a Cretan ship comes to collect a yearly tribute of seven boys and seven girls from Athens, Theseus offers himself in one boy's place. He insists, despite his father's pleas, claiming that it is what his patron god Poseidon has asked him to do. Theseus becomes a Cretan slave.
Book Four: Crete
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (September 2010)|
The boat makes for Crete, and Theseus is content with the idea that he is to be sacrificed to Poseidon. When a fight occurs between an Eleusinian and Athenian boy, Theseus stops it and realizes he must do something. He becomes king of the victims, and makes them swear an oath that they will be together, not Minyans or Hellenes, but one group. They call themselves the Cranes. One of the girls, Helike, is a tumbler, and can dance very well.
Bull dancers train for three months in Knossos Palace before they go and get their bull. Then the bull has to catch them; they are not sacrificed to him. The bull-dance began as a sacrifice to Poseidon, whom they believe lives beneath the Palace and causes earthquakes when he is angry. Over the ages the bull-dance developed into an art form, and those who survive the dance teach their art to the newer ones. They go in teams in front of the bull and sometimes, with a good team, the bull tires before someone is killed. In older days noble Cretan youths did it themselves for honor, but those days are gone, and they bring in slaves now. They learn that teams of fourteen dance, but are not usually kept together. To show that they are a team, they perform the Crane dance when they come into port. A crowd of Cretans is there, and larger, fairer people who are from the Palace. The court of King Minos is of Hellene descent and speaks Greek.
Among the courtiers is a large man who is greatly respected, so that one of the Cranes speculates that he might be the King, but Theseus says that he isn't kingly before realizing that they'll understand what he says. The large man slaps Theseus, and then slaps him again after receiving a curt answer to a question. The man throws a gold ring in the water and tells him to find it if he is Poseidon's son. Theseus prays to Poseidon, finds the ring, and comes up with it. The man asks for it back, but then Theseus says it was offered to Poseidon and throws it back in. The man is Asterion, son of Minos.
They see Knossos Palace, the hugely impressive House of the Axe. The walls of Crete are the seas that the King's ships control. The Cretans call the palace the Labyrinth, and the Cranes see the King in a brief ceremony.
In a room with a huge statue of the Mother, a priestess accepts tokens from the nobles, who point to members of the group. She is "Ariadne the Holy One, the Goddess-on-Earth." She cleanses Theseus, because he has shed the blood of kinsmen. Theseus desires her and has to keep himself calm.
A man named Aktor comes to take them into the bull court and is told to train them as a team. One boy, clearly the leader of them all, called the Corinthian, sizes up the Cranes and talks to them. They learn that they are the first team to be kept together and that only the King had ever dedicated an entire team before Asterion did it.
The bull-dancers all live and eat together. The boys are allowed to roam the Palace at night, while the girls are kept securely in a separate dorm. Although he never sleeps with the girls of the Bull Court, Theseus learns it is not hard for a bull-dancer to get a woman. Other dancers are in homosexual relationships with each other.
They practice using the Bull of Daedalus, named after its original designer. The bronze horns were supposedly his own handiwork. The bull-leapers are respected athletes, for they grasp the bull's horns and fly off them when his head rears and are caught by other dancers when they land. Each member of the team is critical to the life of everyone else. The Cretan bulls have been bred for the dance, and the intelligent and quick ones are used for sacrifice. The ones in the dance are slower, but still dangerous. But they cannot be harmed, for the god lives inside them.
At the bull dance performance, everyone addresses Ariadne as the Goddess, saying "We salute you, we who are going to die." The Corinthian tries to help another dancer who is disliked by her own team. They would not help her, but the Corinthian does and is killed for it. Theseus makes the Cranes swear a new oath to hold the life of each as precious as their own. A boy gives him a bracelet that the Corinthian wanted him to have.
They go get their bull in the pasture, and name him Herakles. They learn that Asterion is not really the King's son but the Queen's, by a bull-leaper, and the King has treated him poorly so there is no love between them.
Theseus becomes consumed by the bull dance, feeling that being a bull-leaper is all one could ever ask for in life. The team survives for three months without a single member dying, which is unheard of.
Theseus receives a summons to a party given by Asterion, where he is patronized and treated like a prize horse instead of a person. Asterion makes even Theseus' honor an object of amusement. The other lords are kinder to him. They no longer think much of the gods and their honor does not mean much to them. Adultery means little to them, and they hold no grudges. The Cretan nobles are weary of life the way it is, because things have been so easy for them. Another sign that Crete is falling into decadence is their art. Cretans are the best potters in the world, but they have gotten bored with the beauty of their pottery and begin constructing crude things, simply because they are new.
One day he is taken to meet ten-year-old Phaedra, the King's daughter, who says she is in love with him. He tells her that if he lives he will be a king, and says she can marry him then. (This is an unconscious prophecy as it actually will happen later in their lives.) Theseus dreams of conquering Crete and knows that the native Cretans would help him. Helike's brother shows up as a traveling performer, whose secret purpose in coming is to make offerings for his sister in the next life. Theseus explains that she is still alive and tells the boy to give a message to Aigeus, saying that Crete is ripe for the plucking. With the Cranes he begins to plan an uprising.
Theseus is taken by an old woman to a trapdoor in the Labyrinth. Underneath he finds a passageway, and she instructs him to follow a thread that is tied to a column. Theseus walks along, with jars of grain all around him, and eventually sees a store of old weapons. He notes the spot and continues to follow the thread. He comes out underneath the large statue of the Goddess. There he meets Ariadne, who has perceived his kingly qualities starting with the incident at the harbor, and is in love with him. He sleeps with her and returns to the Bull Court before morning. They spend their nights together, and she tells him that her father, Minos, is sick with leprosy and that Asterion is responsible. Asterion has been gathering power while the king wastes away so that none will dare oppose him when Minos dies. Many are loyal to Asterion, and he rules already as king in everything but name. This state of affairs horrifies Theseus, because a ruler needs to be dedicated to the gods in order to properly lead the people. Cretan tradition requires a new Minos to throw a ring into the sea, "marrying" it. Asterion tried to do so, but Theseus unknowingly thwarted him and then threw the ring himself.
Theseus tells the Cranes what he knows, without mentioning Ariadne, and he begins moving the old weapons to an easily accessible spot. The Cranes have been together for three seasons, and they do their best to keep fresh and ready all the time. Ariadne takes Theseus to speak with King Minos, following threads through the underground maze. Minos wishes him to marry Ariadne, and Theseus agrees. Minos does not believe in the gods. He warns that Asterion wants to marry Ariadne in order to keep his power, for the Cretans respect the Goddess. Theseus tells the King of his plan to get help from his father, although in his heart, Theseus does not think ships will come. He tells Minos that Poseidon will send a sign.
Ariadne makes up ahead of time what she will prophesy in her oracles; she can no longer hear the voices of the gods. With a trustworthy noble and other bull dancers, Theseus plans a revolt. They begin to bring arms into the Bull Court. Spring comes, and soon the winds from the south begin to blow, and they know that this means there will be no help from any foreign ships. Perimos' son, Alektryon, plans on picking a fight with a member of Asterion's guard because the household would all attend the funeral and they could attack then.
The next day, Alektryon comes to get Theseus in the Bull Court, and tells him to go see the King. Minos wants Theseus to kill him, with the ax Labrys, the ancient guardian of the house. Theseus sacrifices the King, after promising to care for Ariadne, and then returns to the Bull Court and sleeps.
Theseus tells Amyntor that the King is dying, but he is surprised that no noise has been made about the dead king yet. When they have their bull dance that day, Herakles has seemingly gone mad and almost kills Theseus before falling dead. With the King dead, Asterion needed more money to buy troops to take power, so he drugged the bull and bet on Theseus to die, at great odds. They swear they will have vengeance. Theseus feels strange before falling asleep, later finding out that he slept right through an earthquake.
Theseus feels strange again the next day, and when another earthquake occurs, people around him realize he can sense them. The Cretans believe the poisoning of the bull offended Poseidon. Theseus feels so sick he knows there is going to be an immense earthquake soon. Poseidon is angrier than any of them could imagine. He says they must break out because the house will collapse around them. He yells out that Poseidon is coming and that the House of the Axe will fall. The revolt begins, and the dancers nearly panic before Theseus rallies them. They break out of the bull court using Daedalus' model.
As the earthquake strikes and the palace crumbles, Theseus saves Ariadne, and is cheered by the bull-dancers and the native Cretans, who heard his warning and fled the palace in time. Asterion is already taking part in the ritual to make himself the new Minos. They charge at the guards while a fire rages through the ruined Labyrinth. While the others fight, Theseus goes with the Cranes through a secret passageway, and they find Asterion wearing only the bull mask of Minos. Theseus charges him, interrupting the rite, and after a battle he stabs Asterion with his dagger. Seeing that Asterion had already been anointed with oil, Theseus puts on the mask, raises Labrys, and sacrifices the King.
Book Five: Naxos
Nearly all the bull-dancers, plus Ariadne, whom Theseus intends to marry, take a ship and sail for Greece. On the way, they find what is left of the island of Kalliste, just destroyed by a colossal volcanic explosion. They wonder what impiety provoked the gods into causing such destruction.
They land on the island of Dia, whose capital city is Naxos. The people there, who worship the Mother, are amazed by Ariadne, and carry her in a litter to the Palace. The Queen welcomes them, and Theseus looks at the King, who seems distracted, and then realizes that he will be killed the next day at the feast of Dionysos. The Queen invites them to stay for the feast, and Ariadne accepts, although Theseus wishes that she had not.
The next day the king is brought in a ship onto the sacred island, and goes up into the hills. Everyone is drunk, and all of the women go along to the island. Everyone begins going off into the hills. Theseus waits for Ariadne but she does not return. He learns that she is with the Queen in the front. Theseus runs up into the hills, and looks for her. Some of the women begin dropping away from the carriage and finding men, and Theseus drinks more and searches for Ariadne. He soon sleeps with a girl. He sees another girl watching them, and the three of them stay together for a while.
The day goes by, and people begin returning from the hills. Theseus waits for Ariadne, and finally the procession passes by, looking tired and stained with blood from the sacrifice. He waits until the chariot goes by, and then turns to go back, but he sees Ariadne inside. He runs up to the chariot, which is pushed by two priests. She has passed out, and Theseus thinks that the older priest slept with her on the mountain. Ariadne is unharmed, but there is blood all around her, and when she opens the hand that lay on her breast Theseus sees something that causes him to be sick.
The older priest talks to Theseus and tells him he cannot understand some things, but Theseus feels that he cannot bring her back to Athens after what he has seen.
Theseus makes sure that Ariadne will be honored there and then tells the priest to explain to the Queen why they leave that night. Theseus feels sad to have left Ariadne, but that he cannot do otherwise. After gathering his companions, they set sail that night.
They reach Delos the next morning, and rejoice to be so close to home. They bathe in a sacred lake, and Theseus asks a priest about the harper whom he has heard at Troizen. He learns that the harper was killed in his native Thrace, and the stories and songs about him are many after his death. Some stories are recognizable as the basis of legends about Orpheus.
They sail on the next day, and see a fire burning far in the distance. Theseus knows it is the beacon his father had put up, and he remembers Aigeus's request that he paint his sail with white. But Theseus is conflicted, because he cannot be sure what his father meant. Aigeus had said that the god would have a message for him with the painted sail, and Theseus thinks that if he paints it then his father will read it as a sign to sacrifice himself to the god.
Theseus wades into the water and asks Poseidon for a sign. The god responds, and Theseus knows that he should not paint the sails. He says that he never anticipated that his father would die. He is sure the god did not lead him incorrectly. He believes that perhaps, since his father jumped from a balcony high up, he was called by the god; otherwise he could have fallen on his sword or taken poison.
Theseus becomes King and we have hints of what is to come in later years.
Theseus: The protagonist. A Hellene king and son of a king who compensates for his small, light build with agility and ingenuity. King of Eleusis and son of King Aigeus of Athens, he is an aggressive leader who combines touchy pride with a drive for social and cultural change. He has a strong sense of destiny and a belief that he is guided by his god and also that his duty is to look after his people. For that reason, he is called the Shepherd of Athens. Though only seventeen for most of the novel, he is also a skilled warrior, hunter, bull-dancer, and lover. His views towards women are reactionary when judged by modern Western standards but are presumably either typical or even enlightened for his time period. He shows respect for the earth mother goddess but clearly looks to the male Sky gods as his main benefactors. For example, though he is angered by his exclusion from governing by the Eleusinian Queen Persephone and threatens force to obtain what he believes is the respect and honor due him, he never actually undertakes any personal revenge upon her, sparing her life and letting her freely leave Eleusis despite at least four separate attempts by her or her agents to kill him. His liberal views towards the homosexuality and bisexuality of some of his companions are enlightened, even when judged by modern Western standards, perhaps reflecting the greater tolerance of such "customs" in ancient Greece.
Ariadne: The beautiful young daughter of King Minos. High Priestess by right of birth, she is revered as a goddess incarnate by the native Cretans. The effete Minoan aristocracy has however lost belief in the religion that she represents. Gentle and timid at first, she falls in love with Theseus and helps him escape from Crete. During the voyage to Athens they stop at the island of Naxos where she joins the maenads in the yearly Dionysiac orgy. Appalled by her bloody role in the sacrifice of the king of Naxos, Theseus abandons her on that island.
Asterion: The Minotauros. He is heir to King Minos of Crete, though actually the product of adultery between Minos' queen and an Assyrian bull-dancer. Crude, ruthless and clever, Asterion has succeeded in isolating his nominal father, the dying Minos, and is positioning himself to take the throne. Asterion regards Theseus as a "mainland savage" but, desiring the best of everything, purchases him as a bull- dancer in the way that he might buy a horse with stamina and speed.
Minos: the title given to the rulers of Crete during the thousand-year history of an advanced civilisation centred on the vast palace (Labyrinth) of Knossos. On the eve of the great earthquake that destroys the Labyrinth, the last Minos is a sick man who is losing power to his hated heir Asterion. Using Ariadne as an intermediary, Minor enters into an alliance with Theseus.
Aigeus: The King of Athens and Theseus's father. A valiant and virile man in his younger days, he is in his fifties, tired and cynical by the time Theseus meets him. His people are troublesome, his nobles powerful, and he is worn out from decades of endeavoring to keep the peace and retain his authority. Theseus respects Aigeus but cannot admire him, for he is over-cautious.
Persephone: The 27-year-old queen of Eleusis, whom no one is permitted to name. Beautiful, sexually skilled, and devoted to the earth goddess, she follows the custom of making Theseus kill her current husband and King so that he can become the next 1 year king and marry her. But he turns out to be more than she bargained for, empowering himself and the downtrodden men of Eleusis, finally using his personal and political skills to persuade the men to impose their rule on the women instead. Four times she attempts to kill him or have him killed, and attempts suicide when she fails. Her ultimate fate is not known.
Amyntor: An Eleusinian bull-dancer, Theseus's right-hand among the Cranes in Crete. A big, black-haired, hawk-nosed teenager, he is too heavy for bull-leaping, so he serves to catch the leaper as he or she descends. Theseus trusts and loves him better than any other person.
Pittheus: The King of Troizen and Theseus's grandfather. He is a good king, for he is wise, just, and devoted to his people's welfare. Theseus looks up to him, despite the occasional reproof or thrashing the old king deals him.
Aithra: The 33-year-old high priestess of Troizen, Theseus's mother, and Pittheus's daughter. Theseus reciprocates her deep love for him.
Medea: King Aigeus's lover, she wants the Athenian throne for her two sons and persuades Aigeus to poison Theseus. When her plot fails, she pronounces a curse on Theseus and vanishes from Athens.
Xanthos: The cold-hearted, red-haired, pale-faced brother of Queen Persephone of Eleusis, and the chief general of the Eleusinians. On his sister's orders, he tries to have Theseus assassinated. Theseus then kills him in single combat.
Pylas: The prince of Megara. Theseus meets him on the boar hunt in the hills between Eleusis and Megara. Only a few years older than Theseus, he nevertheless respects the other's prowess and intelligence, and joins him to assault the bandit strongholds in the Isthmus.
The Corinthian: The best bull-dancer in Crete—until he lays down his life in the ring for a comrade soon after the Cranes arrive. Theseus idolizes him because he is such a consummate bull-dancer.
Chryse, Helike, Melantho, Thebe, Nephele, Rhene, Pylia: The seven female Cranes.
Iros, Hippon, Menesthes, Telamon, Phormion: The five male Cranes (apart from Theseus and Amyntor).
Lukos: a Cretan officer who commands a detachment of African warriors in the service of King Minos. Sent to collect the tribute of fourteen youths and maidens from Athens, Lukos serves as an example of the polished and sophisticated courtiers of the Labyrinth in contrast to the crude but energetic values of mainland Greece.
Kerkyon: The 20-year-old, strongly built year-king of Eleusis. The name 'Kerkyon' is given to all year-kings: his real name is not given. Theseus kills him in a wrestling match.
Thalestris: A skilled Amazonian bull-dancer and valiant warrior.
Simo: A small boy who mocks Theseus's fatherlessness in Troizen.
Phaedra: Theseus' later wife; now a child, she idolises him as a handsome bull dancer and he is brought to comfort her when she thinks that he has been killed. In this novel, there is an incipient tenderness between them but Renault seems to change her mind and never allows this to flourish in the sequel.
Poseidon: Theseus's great patron god. He rules the waters, protects horsemanship, and causes earthquakes.
Apollo: Theseus's other patron god, a god of light, music, healing and prophecy. He inspires sudden bursts of insight.
Mother Dia: Gaia, goddess of fertility and the earth, worshiped most by the Eleusinians and Cretans.
Several of the societies in the book practice the sacrifice of kings. The Minyans of Eleusis have a custom of sacrificing their king to Mother Dia each year. In Theseus's seventeenth year, he fights King Kerkyon according to custom, and kills him. When Theseus hesitates, the Eleusinian queen tells him, "The king must die." This is different from the tradition in Theseus' own city of Troizen, and other Hellene kingdoms, where it is the choice of the king himself when to sacrifice his life.
Minyan versus Hellene
Much of the plot is woven around conflicts between the Minyans, the short, dark, matriarchal descendants of the earliest Greeks (or possibly the pre-Greek peoples that inhabited Hellas) and the Hellenes, the tall, blond, patriarchal people who long ago immigrated into Greece and slew, drove out or subjugated many of the Minyans. While the Hellenes worship the traditional Greek pantheon of gods—Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, etc.—the Minyans principally worship Mother Dia. Theseus, a Hellene in all save height, candidly admits that he cannot understand the Minyan world view.
Minyans practise matriarchy: their queens wield all temporal and religious power and are succeeded by their eldest daughters. The consort kings hold no power and are traditionally killed after a year's reign. It is alluded in the book that some Minyan kingdoms continue this tradition, while others perform it once every Metonic "year" and others have come to observe the custom only ceremonially, by hanging effigies of the king consort from trees sacred to Mother Dia. The book narrates the transition from this matriarchal model to the patriarchal kingship and society followed by the Hellenes.
Renault's juxtaposition of the older, matriarchal versus the newer, patriarchal organization is partly conjectural, partly based on scant evidence.
Mary Renault is well known for her positive depiction of homosexuality, and although this trait is not as important in The King Must Die as in her other novels, it is still present. Although Theseus is strictly heterosexual, he tolerates those of his companions who are gay or lesbian. Renault depicts these minor characters as generally decent folk, though often (as in the cases of Iros, Hippon, and some Cretans and Eleusinians) as frivolous. Thalestris, a lesbian Amazon, is especially positively portrayed.
Gods and Goddesses
None of the gods or goddesses referred to in the novel actually make appearances. Nevertheless, deities form essential parts of the characters' lives. Theseus infers that Poseidon and Apollo are inspiring or helping him, and interprets the voice of his heart as the voice of a god. Some characters such as Medea and Theseus are able to occasionally make accurate prophecies due to the unseen work of some god, or the use of magic. Worship of Mother Dia also inspires the sacrifices of the Eleusinian king, and people always pray to the gods for relief from famine, disease, or danger. See Wikipedia entry on Mary Renault for speculation on how the writers views may have been reflected in her novels.
References in other books
Poul Anderson's novel The Dancer from Atlantis covers the same period, but from a clearly pro-Cretan point of view - Theseus being the book's villain, a barbarian pirate and cruel destroyer of Cretan civilization. In one passage the protagonist - a time traveler from the 20th Century who had read and liked Renault's book - reflects on how different the actual Theseus is from the way she depicted him.
In Richard Adams's book Watership Down, the 25th chapter (entitled "The Raid") begins with this epigraph quoted from Renault's book: "He went consenting, or else he was no king... It was no man's place to say to him, 'It is time to make the offering.'"