Reading Greek mythology in Greece is such a cool experience. The Bull from the Sea opens with Theseus returning to Attica from Crete without changing his sails from black to white, the result of which is his father, King Aigeus, leaping to his death from the cliff in Sounio. I just went to Sounio! It’s a real place! With a real history!
That history bit is what makes Renault’s book so fascinating. She does a remarkable job of interpreting myth as fact. The supernatural elements of mythology are present in her stories, but with explanations that are easily interpreted as superstitions. The people in this book believe in the gods and goddesses and fate, but is it real? Or is that larger-than-normal boar simply exaggerated into mythic proportions? And is that man the son of a god or simply extremely talented? It’s such a fun balance, and perhaps ironically, it makes the myths seem more alive. By setting them in a historical context and allowing for skepticism, Renault lets her readers see just how plausible the ancient stories are.
Theseus is a fascinating character. He’s almost annoying perfect at everything…until his charmed life falls apart. I should have expected the book to border on depressing, because all the Greek myths are fairly depressing. They are lessons couched in stories, after all, and Theseus shows us that one can never escape one’s fate. He knows, from the moment he sees Hippolyta (awesome Amazon warrior queen/king) that she will be his doom. But knowing his fate, he embraces the good while it lasts, and does what he can to accept the fallout when it happens. And wow, is the fallout depressing. Murder and sacrifice and incest, oh my! The Greek stories are never boring.
The one thing I found annoying was the way the narrative treated women. To some extent, this is simply Renault being true to her source material. And of course, Hippolyta is a force to be reckoned with. But all the other women are stereotypes. And Theseus himself is occasionally a hard man to idolize – he’s perfect, we’re supposed to believe, but he treats women as playthings or distractions. They’re always around to serve HIS needs. Basically, it’s super sexist, both because it was written in the 1960s and based on stories thousands of years old. BUT. Even though it’s problematic, this book is worth the read!
Mary Renault is a genius at breathing new life into old myths, and I’m definitely going to check out some of her other books! I suggest you do the same.
This brilliant re-creation of the story of the legendary hero Theseus begins with his triumphant return from Crete after slaying the Minotaur. Having freed the the city of Athens from the onerous tribute demanded by the ruler of Knossos – the sacrifice of noble youths and maidens to the appetite of the Labyrinth’s monster – Theseus has returned home to find his father dead and himself the new king. But his adventures have only just begun: he still must confront the Amazons, capture their queen, Hippolyta, and face the tragic results of Phaedra’s jealous rage.
Piecing together the fragments of myth and using her deep understanding of the cultures reflected in these legends, Mary Renault has constructed an enthralling narrative of a time when heroes battled monsters and gods strode the earth.
Release Date: 1962