26 March, 2007

The Bull from the Sea, by Mary Renault. Book review

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2004, ISBN 0-09-946353-9

It seems a bit of a cheek to review a Mary Renault novel, a little like having the impertinence to review Dickens or Shakespeare. Her novels are classics of historical fiction, and seem rather above my likes and dislikes. However, when I first came across Mary Renault’s Greek-set novels in the town library a couple of decades ago I didn’t know they were classics and had no idea what to expect, so maybe there are people in the same boat now. And certainly her writing was as fresh and vivid to me on a recent re-reading as it was when it was all new to me, so that seemed worth celebrating.

The Bull from the Sea is the second part of the story of the legendary Greek hero Theseus of Athens. The first part of Theseus’ life, covering his boyhood and his defeat of the Minotaur in Crete, was told in The King Must Die. The Bull from the Sea takes up the story when Theseus returns victorious to Athens, only to find that his father has committed suicide in despair (because Theseus forgot – accidentally or otherwise – to change the black sail of his ship to a white one to show that he was returning home alive). Theseus is now King of Athens, a small and comparatively poor city-state with predatory neighbours and internal factions, and as he establishes his rule he finds his adventures are only just beginning. He has to contend with pirates, with a barbarian invasion from the north that threatens the very heart of his kingdom, with the warlike Amazons and their fierce and beautiful queen Hippolyta, who becomes his lover, and with the jealous rage of his wife and the consequent tragedy.

The legend of Theseus belongs to the same sort of period as the Trojan War, perhaps best described as legendary history. How far the legends were based on real events and people is uncertain; what is certain is that they exerted a powerful hold on the imagination and are still being retold now, thousands of years later. The Bull from the Sea is set in Bronze Age Greece, placed a generation or so before the Trojan War – a young Achilles makes a fleeting appearance towards the end of the novel. Many of the characters are familiar figures in Greek myth – Theseus, Ariadne, Hippolyta, Oedipus (yes, he of the complex) – so they are not fictional in the sense that the author invented them, but whether they are historical is debatable.

The writing has a lean, spare, muscular style that makes masterly use of hints and gaps left for the reader’s imagination to fill in. I’m reminded of the economical elegance of classical sculpture, or the figures painted on Greek pottery. The power of Fate is an ever-present thread running through the plot as Theseus sees his destiny unfolding in response to forces beyond his control. But the novel never veers into overt fantasy. The gods never appear in the flesh, and the legendary events like the bull of Poseidon (the Bull from the Sea of the title) are given natural explanations that might have formed the basis for the development of the legends. Action and dialogue keep the plot spinning, and although Fate is always present it is conveyed in hints so the reader is always in suspense – even on an umpteenth reading when you know the end.

Theseus and the other characters are all individuals, sketched in with a few words and actions. Naturally, the reader learns most about Theseus, since the novel is narrated in first person from Theseus’ point of view, but as Theseus is outward-looking and eager for new things the reader gets to learn about other people too. The societies and cultures of Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean are imagined and brought to life in all their wonder and variety. This is probably the aspect that draws me back to Mary Renault, her ability to portray a world that is completely different from ours and to make it real on the page without losing any of its strangeness. This is Theseus’ world, not ours, and entering it is spellbinding. Is it accurate? I have no idea. Is it convincing? Yes, absolutely. Mary Renault has few equals. This is why I read historical fiction.

Masterful retelling of the Theseus legend.

Has anyone else read it?


Bernita said...

Read some of Renault - a long time ago.
Lovely review, Carla.
Writers of alternate history might find her an excellent technical guide.

Kathryn Warner said...

I really do want to read this. Do you think it's a good idea to read The King Must Die first, to understand the characters, story etc?

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you. Why alternate history in particular?

Alianore - I think you'd be fine reading this without having read The King Must Die first. You've probably already got a general idea of Theseus and the Minotaur, and even if you haven't all the backstory you need to make sense of this one is woven in as and when needed. Think of it as like reading a novel about Edward II that starts when he meets Hugh Despenser - if the author's done the job properly, it doesn't matter that the story doesn't cover Edward's earlier life. I read the two Theseus novels in the wrong order years ago, before I knew they were a pair, and it didn't cause me any problems. This time round I happened to read this one by itself, with only dim memories of The King Must Die, and it wasn't a problem again. If you happen to have both novels to hand and intend to read both in close succession, you might as well read them in order, but I don't think it'll spoil your enjoyment if you don't.

Constance Brewer said...

You know, this sounds really familiar. I wonder if I have read it? I hate when I forget books. Must be my advanced age or something. :) Then again, I just finished David Gemmel's Troy, and saw 300, so I have Greeks on the brain. Nice review. I'll have to check and see if I read these, if not, I will!

Anonymous said...

I've read these Mary Renault books, as a youngish teenager so I am afraid I cannot remember much about them (as I am now 150 with poor memory). I did enjoy them -- at that age I was a voracious reader of greek and trojan myths. Have not read so many of late, though I see they are enyoying a resurgence.

I agree, your review is excellent. One of the things I love about blogging (writing as a lover of books in general) is the fact that one reads reviews of books that aren't necessarily recently pubished, but are books that someone has read because they enjoy them. Thanks again, I loved reading your post.

Rick said...

I would read The King Must Die first, if it's handy! But you already pretty much know the story.

I read these in high school - maybe even junior high - so close to the Bronze Age that no one was sure yet whether Mycenae was down for the count. Like "The Lion in Winter" it shaped my mental picture of the people and period, so I still sort of think of it as what actually happened.

Carla said...

Constance - that sometimes happens to me, too, so you're not alone. Though the Theseus story is so famous that it might be familiar from another retelling or from the Greek myths themselves. If you haven't read Mary Renault's version, it's well worth a try.

Maxine - thanks, and I'm glad you liked the review! I agree with you about the attraction of books that aren't confined to this month's releases. To a reader who hasn't read it before, a book published in 1960 or 1860 for that matter is just as 'new' as one published yesterday, and to somebody who has read it before, it might bring back happy memories or even provoke a re-read.

Rick - dear me, did they have junior high school in Mycenae? I never knew that :-) It is striking how a particularly powerful portrayal can become fixed in the mind, isn't it? Especially if read at a formative age. All subsequent versions have to compete with that one to a greater or lesser extent, or are shaped by it. I'm not sure how I'd react to a version of the Theseus legend that clashed hard with Mary Renault's. I like to think I'd read it on its merits, but that may be illusory.

Meghan said...

I have a guilty confession to make: I thumbed through some of the author's work in a bookstore once and failed to be captivated by it.

However, this review has forced me to reconsider things a bit. Great review, Carla.

Gabriele Campbell said...

There is something about those older books and their influence all the way from childhood reads. I totally blame Caledonia Defiant on Rosemary Sutcliff.

I checked Renault on Amazon.de, and it looks like she's got a soft spot for male/male relationships (in the Alexander books. fe.). Any of that in the Theseus ones, too?

I've put them on my To Buy list - they're Trade Paperback for 14€ so I'll have to wait until I have some money over after groceries.

Carla said...

Megumi - not everyone likes Mary Renault's style, so if you don't there's nothing to be guilty about!

Gabriele - I think there's also something about the books themselves, style or narrative or character or whatever. If it was just reading them at a formative age, I'd expect that at least some of them wouldn't work as well when re-read later.
The Alexander novels have male-male relationships, but Theseus is very much a ladies' man.

Bernita said...

"makes masterly use of hints and gaps left for the reader’s imagination to fill in."
That, for one, Carla.
For fantasy writers too,I suppose. The tendency to explain too much amd ignore the fact that characters may have a shared cultural background that makes overt explanation unnecessary.

Carla said...

Depends what gets explained, I suppose. In a setting that's quite different from the modern world, in values and expectations as well as in physical objects and tasks, I like the author to give me enough information to make sense of the story. The characters might know what their society demands in a given situation, but unless someone tells me the reader I don't know and I'm left to judge their actions by modern standards, which may not work very well. A fine balance, I suppose. One of the things I liked about this novel is that Theseus does an effective job of portraying his world, so I can see and understand how it works even though its values and structures are completely different from ours. Without that some of the actions and choices would be incomprehensible.

Scott Oden said...

I'm a huge fan of Ms. Renault's . . . but I don't care for her Theseus books. It has little to do with her, actually. Theseus is my least favorite hero of Greek myth (why, I could not tell you -- I took an instant dislike to the poor man when I first ran across him in grade school, and the animosity has followed me into adulthood). I am most fond of The Praise Singer, The Mask of Apollo, and her Alexander books. The rest did not move me.

An excellent review, though, Carla.

Carla said...

Fair enough, Scott, I don't think it's compulsory to admire Theseus :-) Isn't it interesting how some characters catch the imagination and some don't, for no obvious reason? I'm reading a historical spy thriller at the moment whose hero is a sort of Jacobean James Bond. Handsome - check. Athletic - check. Dark and dangerous - check. Highly intelligent - check. Inner Torment and Scars From The Past - check. Sensitive - check. Rich - check. Women are obviously supposed to swoon over him by page 10, yet he's not doing anything for me and I couldn't say why.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Maybe he's too fictionally perfect, Carla. Including the scars from the past, because we know that - contrary to real life where such men are a pest to live with - he will overcome whatever haunts him in the book or series.

Rick said...

Funny about how we form likes and dislikes toward mythical figures. I don't have much use for anyone on either side in the Trojan War except for Odysseus (who tried to dodge the draft). I think I already rather liked Theseus, and Renault as the Official Version simply confirmed it.

Carla said...

Gabriele - maybe you're right. I might find him more appealing on a second reading.

Rick - it is odd, isn't it, and it probably varies between individuals. I find Odysseus interesting too, but some people dislike him as two-faced.

Art Durkee said...

It is interesting to me, to see that Renault's books are still being read and admired. I've read and re-read some of them several times, particularly the Alexander books and "The Praise Singer." Theseus, as has been mentioned, is just a less likable character to me, but his band of Athenians who travel to Crete with him in "The King Must Die" have stuc in my mind for decades. I've also read a couple of biographies of her—fascinating person—and one of two of her purely historical books.

I appreciate her at least as much, for my own personal reasons, in depicting the ancient Greeks' attitudes towards sexuality, and emotion life, as I do for her other historical accuracies. This was all a revelation to me, at an earlier time in my own life, and has had a lasting impact on me.

Thank you for the good review of Renault. It is wonderful to see that her work can still inspire folks (I've enjoyed this comments thread, too).

Carla said...

Hello, Art, and thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed the review and the comments thread! There's something timeless about the Greek myths - which is why I suppose they have lasted since the Bronze Age or however far back they go - and Mary Renault captures that quality.

Eigon said...

I loved Mary Renault when I was at secondary school, too - one of the reasons I went on to do Dark Age Greece as part of my archaeology degree!
I think it was also the fascination of reading about openly gay characters in a book from the school library (and this was the 1970s, when such things were not talked about as much as they are now).
Theseus was one of my favourites - I remember feeling very sad, right at the beginning of the Bull from the sea, about the girls who had been bull leapers and couldn't fit in back in Athenian society.
The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, as well as the Alexander trilogy, are firmly on my 'must re-read' list.

Carla said...

Hello, Eigon, and thanks for stopping by. I'm sure you're right about how ground-breaking the gay characters were. I liked Theseus too (as you'll see from the comment thread above, not everyone does!). If I remember rightly, two of the bull girls are killed trying to capture the escaped bull (the first Bull From the Sea) right at the beginning - which at least is a fitting death, I suppose - and one of the girls does manage to build herself a life with an open-minded husband.

Jessica said...

Hello, Carla,your review was fascinating and perceptive.
Did you notice, I wonder,how Renault suffered from a good deal of internalised misogyny to be able to write symapthatically about a hero setting to overthrow matriarchal cultures?
She really seemed to have a down on women, and only like boyish ones like Hippoylata and Chryse the Bull dancer, while the 'feminine' ones like Persephone, Ariadne and Phaedra are depicted scornfully...

I'd be fascinated to know what your views on this are.


Carla said...

Jessica - hello and welcome. The novel is written from Theseus' point of view and so reflects his character's values and opinions (imagined; of course no-one knows what the real Theseus thought, if he even existed). It's open to the reader to decide whether they agree.

Anonymous said...

Hello, again, Carla, thanks for the welcome (are you the same Carla who is on LibraryThing?) sorry for delay.
I do love a stimulating discussion as there are so many ways to approach a novel, so many interpretations...I hope this won't bore you. I love discussing with someone who takes a different slant from me, and I do think that there is a good deal of 'internalised misogyny' in Renault's novels...
I was very uneasy with the whole treatment of women in the Theseus novels, not because I wouldn't expect an ancient Greek patriarch to be as sexist as anything, seeing women as 'war prizes' etc but because of the odd bursts of gratuitous nastiness in Theseus' attitude towards women,as when he threatens to kill his father's nameles war prize for being provocative, his awful cold treatment of poor Phaedra, his sneering comments about her pride in their baby, his even noticing when she had her make up applied badly on meeting Hippoylatus, etc.
While I can only claim a layperson's knowledge of the myths, I did note that Renault has changed the myth in places so that sexual, 'feminine' women who enjoy being women, like Ariadne and Phaedra, are portrayed in a disparaging way. Conversely, she has altered the myth about Hippoylata (depicted as boyish,though why an Amazon, raised apart from men, would be boyish isn't explained)_
so that intead of Theseus' deserting her to marry Phaedra, with the result that she and fellow Amazons invade his wedding in revenge, during which she is killed, she is shown as supporting Theseus in extending his patriarchal territory and encouraging him to subject poor Phaedra to a marital life as second best.
I know that Renault wrote this long before the rise of feminism and the increased idintification of women with matriarchal prehistorical cultures, but all this made me uneasy, and when I saw the biography by David Sweetman, written with the co-operation of Renault's lifelong partner, so quite tactful, I understood why. Sweetman gives various quotes which I found quite dismal, indicating that Renault really did actively dispise women in general,and seemed not to see herself as one. She had a tragic relationship with her mother, so her scorn for matriarchy makes sense in that light. I think that accounts for the unsympathetic portrayal of 'feminine' women and her identification with Theseus.
While again I make no claims to be an expert on myth, I have never come across any evidence that Theseus was any more of an opponent of matriarchy than doing a bit of Amazon fighting/abducting
like Herkales, Achilles etc.
I was really horrified by Theseus' slow throttling of Phaedra, and while he then turns into a bitter old man, he never expresses contrition.
Do tell me your thoughts on all this.

Carla said...

Hello Jessica - no, I'm not on Library Thing, that must be a different Carla (I daresay there are several). Contrition may have been rather beyond the pale for a hero in a heroic society to express, even to himself. Theseus doesn't exactly strike me as the sort of character who's prepared to admit that he could be wrong. What about the possibility that the Theseus novels are concerned not so much with gender as with Theseus' particular set of values? Theseus values physical courage, athletic ability and prowess in battle, regardless of whether these are displayed by men (himself) or women (Chryse, Hippolyta). One could perhaps argue that Theseus only likes women who are a sort of reflection of himself. His own fate does not seem to be one to be envied, and there may be a subtle message in that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carla

Just managed to lose a long comment!
I take your point, succinctly made. Renault may well have seen he story as being on those lines in pre feminist days. But as the sort of courage Theseus admires was through upbringing, physical strength etc limited to men except in exceptional cases - Chryse, Hippoylata - even seen that way it is arguably still a novel of a clash between the male and female?
That is, even apart from the clash between matriarchal and patriarchal cultures?
I think as an ex wrestler myself I was horrified by the slow throttling of Phaedra because of knowing the difference between throttling (slow, involving cutting off the air supply) and
strangling (quick, cutting off the blood supply to he brain)? Don't think I'm a violent lunatic, but you are taught these. (That sport did require 'masculine' courage, but in my opinion I needed far more courage to deal with later Hyperemesis, which by defiition
only women get!)
I was very sad to hear of Renault's low view of women in Sweetman, Heilburn, etc, when I did some geeky research. It does seem to show in Theseus' flashes of malice to women, his father's war prize, etc, which are out of character in a macho hero.
I think she seems to dislike the character of Phaedra, particularly, altering the myth to romantise the relationship between Theseus Antiope/Hippoylata and de-romantise the Phadera Theseus relationship? In my myth, Theseus certainly doesn't kill Phaedra.
I take your point about the narcissim; in fact, for an exclusively hetorosexaul man, Theseus' dream of a muscular, boyish woman is incongruous too.
His end is sad. I prefer the one in the original myths where he is murdered.
No doubt you will have a well argued, succinct reply!


Carla said...

As with many myths, the Theseus legends have a lot of variations, and may well have had still more that haven't survived. The various characters and their actions in the various versions have been open to interpretation by different readers/listeners/storytellers over the centuries, and possibly the diversity has contributed to the longevity of the legends.
I cannot comment on Mary Renault's opinions or beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Hi Again.
You are cetainly right about the myth having different interpretions, as indeed do they all. I must re-read 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' talking of that...
I don't comment on Renault's 'inernalised misogyny' malicously,it always makes me very said to come across it in a women writer, but because I think it is a thing that has to be watched out for in novels, like subtle racism.
Shakespeare is of course, the greatest writer of all time, but he didn't do justice to Jews and was highly unfair in his portrayal of Joan of Arc and I'd be the first person to say so.
I was dismayed to see on Amazon various male reviewers of these books saying enthusiastically that they were gong to take Theseus as a role model. Girls, watch out for your necks...


Anonymous said...

Good stuff! I don't think you're so far apart in your views, Carla and Jessica, though you disagree. I read this at school. My teacher had a bit of a rant about how Mary Renault had a down on 'matriarchies' and thought 'patriarchies' were progress, and said if you could put that to the era when she wrote, then you could learn a lot about Ancient Greece. If she was writing today, she'd have taken another angle about it all. My critcisim is I couldn't stand Theseus!


Carla said...

Different people have different opinions. It's open to individual readers to decide if they agree with various interpretations.

Carla said...

Jon - hello and welcome. You're not the only reader who dislikes Theseus; see comments further up the thread.