Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

In her bestselling novels published in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mary Renault recaptured, in lilting and simple prose, the world of ancient Greece, re-telling the myths of gods and heroes and the histories of kings and queens. In The Bull From The Sea she writes in the voice of Theseus, the Athenian prince whose adventures included slaying the terrible half-man, half-bull Minotaur in Crete, capturing and marrying the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and building an empire famed for the justice of its laws and the peace enjoyed by its people.

There are so many versions of the Greek myths, and the characters in them have such convoluted relationships, that a novel like this, carefully researched and plotted, helps us to hear them anew as they must have sounded to ancient audiences listening to them sung around a hearth fire – as just vivid dramas about people. Theseus has a tangled family background to begin with. The fearsome Medea was his father’s mistress; the unbalanced Phaedre, who ended up lusting after his own son, was his second wife; the girl Ariadne, whom he abandoned after she helped him escape Crete, was Phaedre’s sister. Theseus' adventures, in Mary Renault’s hands, are not just tall tales, but spring from his own rational and human responses to pressing problems. He must defend his kingdom against ambitious men who would be glad to take it from him, he must marry a woman he doesn’t like to create needed alliances. Illness and palace gossip and religious conflict are all, also, a part of his and everyone’s life, and shadow everything he decides to do.

Renault is particularly strong where she interweaves, in the old myths, what modern scholarship knows about the history of this era. If we had to "place" The Bull From the Sea in history, we might put it circa 1200 B.C. Towards the end, Theseus meets the young Achilles, a hero of the Trojan war which may actually have been fought around that time. The historic truths looming behind the plot are, first, the religious clash between people (mostly women) who worship a very ancient Mother-and-Moon Goddess, and those (mostly men) who worship Zeus and find the Goddess cult emasculating and grotesque – which it probably was. The second truth is the movement of barbarian tribes, pushed by who knew what far-off turmoil "at the back of the north wind," down into the Mediterranean in search of land, plunder, and safety. It is the wars they cause that bring the story to a climax, and bring Theseus his greatest grief.

Renault creates a world of sunlit seas and fields, intense physical activity outdoors, and family bonds so casual – men "get" children on slave, queen, and war captive equally – that paradoxically, almost everybody is as familiar as family. Despite the sun it’s a bleak world, too. A man "is what he is"... but the gods decide all.

No comments:

Post a Comment