19 July 2012

The Bull from the Sea

A while back I posted a review of a historical fiction book that just didn’t work. I am happy to have something now to compare it to in order to show how historical fiction ought to work. The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault is excellent. Last year I read The King Must Die which told the story of the legendary Theseus growing up as a young man in Troizen, learning of his true identity as prince of Athens, and going off to fight in the labyrinth of King Minos as a bull-leaper. The Bull from the Sea picks up from the exact point at which The King Must Die left off and continues the story of Theseus through his many adventures and all the way up to his death (Hint: it’s been foreshadowed continually since the first book).

What makes The Bull from the Sea a greater book than Helen of Troy? Both take place sometime in the 1200s BC, during the Mycenaean Age, both deal with legendary characters and events, and both are trying to bring a touch of realism to their respective stories. However, Mary Renault fully enters into the worldview and culture of the Mycenaean time period. There are no jarring moments when modern sensibilities clash with ancient ideas. There are no politically correct characters who seem far too contemporary with today to fit into an ancient context. Interestingly this very fact, which I believe to be the book’s greatest strength, is one of the things some reviewers over at Goodreads.com criticize. Some say that the book is misogynistic because it depicts women in a negative light or it depicts Theseus treating women badly. As for the first accusation, those who make it really need to understand how free indirect speech works in a novel. For those who make the second accusation, that Theseus treats women badly, I respond, “Of course he does!” Aside from the oddball Spartans (and their oddness developed at a much later date than this story takes place) the Greeks were very demeaning toward women. Plato’s modest suggestion in The Republic that women have the same sort of souls as men was shocking in the 5th century BC. Should we expect Theseus to be a perfect gentleman in the 13th century BC? Overall, the best way to present these cultural differences is to enter into them for the sake of writing and avoid authorial asides and censures. Good readers will appreciate the immersion into another culture while still being able to objectively discern whether they should want to imitate that culture.

What is covered in this story? Theseus becomes a pirate, he meets centaurs (spelled phonetically as “kentaurs” in this book), he fights the Amazon priestess Hippolyta and wins her hand, and he contracts an official and disastrous marriage with Phaedra. All the stories in the legend are transformed here. Renault has a way to taking mythical elements and making them realistic without robbing them of their wonder. The kentaurs, for example, are not half men/half horse; they are a primitive and wild people living in the mountains like cavemen, who have a way with horses and who possess an amazing knowledge of natural medicines and poisons far surpassing those of the Hellenic physicians.

The gods in these stories may or may not exist. Renault doesn’t go the route of having shiny, bearded men in togas, and everything that happens in the story could conceivably be explained without the gods. However, being sucked into the story it’s not hard to see why everyone believes in the gods. It’s a fun question to play with as you read: “Do the gods really exist in this fictional world or not?”

Finally, there are a number of great cameos in the story. Theseus meets Iphigenia and Oedipus at Colonus. Theseus’s friend Pirithous tells him the story of Jason and the quest for the golden fleece. Achilles and Patroclus even make a brief appearance near the end of the story, as the story closes shortly before the Trojan War would begin.

To summarize: If you are a fan of Greek mythology or of any well-written historical fiction, I highly recommend The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault.

5/5 stars

(Note: As I also said when I reviewed The King Must Die, pagans act like pagans in this book. If you've read Suetonius you should be fine.)

2 comments:

Sherry said...

I loved both of these books about Theseus when I read them many years ago. I would like to be able to go back and re-read them. But reading your review reminded me and put a smile on my face as I remembered.

Rick said...

Thanks! Have you read any of Renault's other books? I'm wondering whether to do her Alexander the Great trilogy next.