The Bull from the Sea, the second of Mary Renault’s novels telling the life of Theseus, is very different to its predecessor The King Must Die in both its tone and content but remains an enjoyable read.
The novel picks up where The King Must Die finished; Theseus is coming to the end of his voyage home to Athens from Crete, upon landing he is told that King Aigeus is dead and realises that it is his fault for failing to change the colour of his sails as he promised. The rest of the novel charts the rise and fall of Theseus’ kingship and at times seems more like a series of loosely connected retelling of episodes from the myth than a single story- his initial encounter with Pirithoos, his capture of Hippolyta, his encounter with the fallen Oedipus- the linking factor being the character and first person narration of Theseus himself.
The turning point comes after the death of Hippolyta, which marks the beginning of Theseus’ slow decline and the ruin of his kingdom. Theseus tells us Hippolyta had “saved her man” but “the King had been called; and the King had died”, setting up an air of foreboding and uneasiness that lasts throughout the rest of the novel, through his blindness to Phaedra’s attempted seduction of Hippolytos, Hippolytos’ tragic death and his prolonged absence from Athens only to return to see his kingdom irreparably diminished and lacking the power to fix it.
Whereas The King Must Die was concerned with the coming of age of Theseus and focused very much on the youth and vitality of a hero coming into the prime of their life with their greatest deeds ahead of them, The Bull From the Sea is a much more subdued novel from the perspective of an aging Theseus, exploring what happens when a hero doesn’t die at the opportune moment and the tragedy that ensues. This theme is no more apparent than at the end of the novel, when Theseus is a guest on Skyros, and catches a glimpse of the youthful Achilles who is associated with light and vitality, “as springy and brisk as noonday”. Achilles acts as a foil for Theseus, beginning his heroic journey as Theseus comes to the end of his, and is a sign of the new generation of heroes that will fight in the Trojan War, bringing with him the promise of new hope and glory but also doomed to death. Theseus never meets Achilles, wishing to spare him the grim reality of an aged hero, and there is a sense of the cycle starting anew with Theseus’ final sacrifice.
Renault’s distinct retelling of myth, in a way that it seems historically plausible yet still incorporating the mythological elements of gods and monsters, is as delightful as ever in this novel. Her depiction of religion is masterful, belief in the gods and their influence over life appears to be as natural as breathing in her novels and there is a striking portrayal of the combination of attitudes towards it, as a matter of fact part of everyday life to awe at the inhuman power and insight of the god. At the end of the novel there is a flash forward to the Battle of Marathon of 490 BC, when it was rumoured that the ghost of Theseus appeared on the battlefield, an unexpected and brilliant melding of classical myth and history which only proves the extent of her skill in creating this world in which we do not need to see the gods to believe in them.
This novel is strange, sometimes meandering, lacking a bold climactic sequence that we can root for, and yet there is something significant in its atmosphere of quiet contemplation of the passage of fate and time. Theseus’ friendship with Pirithoos is typically understated, yet this is a mark of its absolute solidity, he is a constant friend and companion to Theseus throughout his life without complication and hears the news of his death “as one hears things without meaning”. I still prefer the thrills of its prequel, but would recommend this novel as its countering weight and balance. But maybe read the first one again afterwards.
Image: Seeta Parmar