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Tom Chaney: R732: Finding one's moira

Tom Chaney, Of Writers and Their Books. R732, Finding one's moira. first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald on Sunday, 1 October 2006
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column, Tom Chaney: R731: The Sacred Power of Stories

By Tom Chaney

My first teaching job after a stint of graduate school was at Lees Junior College in Jackson, Kentucky in 1963. Although I was earning a degree in speech, the folks at Lees hired me to teach English - among a bunch of other things.

I was not prepared, but I had marvelous help.

The other English teacher was William C. Dizney. He had devised a curriculum of reading for freshmen that was as fine as I have ever seen. The theory behind his plan assumed that our students were no better prepared in history than they were in reading and writing. It couldn't hurt to do it all at once.

Bill had selected a series of historical novels which in two semesters spanned western civilization from the Greeks and Etruscans to the present time. There was not a bad book amongst them.

But the one I have gone back to time and again drew me in again just a few days ago. I reread Mary Renault's The King Must Die for the umpteenth time. It is as fresh now as it was forty-three years ago. When I say that, I mean that I once again found nuances of plot, character, society, and religion which escaped me before and which built on prior readings. The dense tapestry became richer, the colors more vibrant.

The King Must Die is based on the Greek legend of Theseus.

King Aigeus of Athens -- childless because of the ill will of Aphrodite -- journeys to Delphi to consult the oracle. He is told not to untie his wineskin until he reaches Athens or face a death of grief. Returning through Troizen, he tells his tale to King Pittheus. Pittheus, suspecting a notable birth in the offing, plies Aigeus with wine and leads him to the bed of his daughter Aithra. Later that same night she is told in a dream to cross to the island shrine of Athene, where the god Poseidon also lies with her.

When Aigeus leaves the next day, he hides his sword and sandals under a stone. He tells Aithra that if a son is born as a result of that night -- to send him to Athens as soon as he can lift the stone.

Theseus, child of Aigeus/Poseidon raises the stone at sixteen, is told the story of his birth by his mother and sets out for Athens. He travels by the Isthmus road defeating monsters and tyrants along the way. In Megara he kills the giant sow which preyed on travelers. In Eleusis he slays King Kerkyon who slaughtered wayfarers by wrestling them to the death.

When he arrives in Athens, the witch Medea, mistress to Aigeus, at once recognizes Theseus as the son of Aigeus. She persuades Aigeus to poison Theseus in order to secure succession for her son.

Aigeus presents Theseus with a poisoned cup, but the young man reveals the sword in the nick of time. Medea escapes. Aigeus proclaims Theseus his heir.

Theseus' position is secured. But soon thereafter the ship from King Minos of Crete arrives to claim the annual quota of young Athenians for the sacrifice to the Minotaur on the island of Crete. Aigeus attempts to prevent Theseus being selected in the lottery. Theseus volunteers, however, and sails off to Crete with the other Athenian youths.

Upon arrival in the harbor of Crete, Theseus' claim to be the son of Poseidon is mocked by Minos who challenges the youth to retrieve a ring thrown into the harbor which he does. Instead of returning the ring to Minos, Theseus casts the ring back into the see -- a gift to Poseidon. Minos' daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and gives him the thread and sword to slay the bull and free the youths from all cities from the threat of the Minotaur.

After killing the bull, Theseus, Ariadne, and the Athenian youths escape from Crete, but Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos when the god Dionysos becomes enamored of her.

Upon their return to Athens, Theseus forgets Aigeus' command to change the black sail to white, should he return. Aigeus throws himself to his death from the citadel thinking Theseus dead.

It is this story which Renault transforms from myth into believable fiction. Theseus comes of age in god-assisted strength and wisdom. The son of Aigeus and Poseidon assumes the father's throne and begins the uniting of the warring cities of Greece -- fulfilling his moira -- the shape of his fate.

Mary Renault in numerous novels gives vibrant life to the history and ur-history of Greece.When I first became acquainted with this novel, a woman friend of mine and a native of Renault's South Africa, opined that she thought Mary Renault could not be a woman. "She writes like a man," my friend said. Forty-three years later, a customer made a similar comment.At first I was skeptical of both judgments. When I reread The King Must Die I remembered that Renault writes in the first person. She has Theseus tell his own story. Renault does not write like a man. Fine artist that she is, Mary Renault believably creates a man who speaks from his own nature.

If you wish a painless, delightfully accurate lesson in Greek history from Theseus to Alexander the Great, I suggest the novels of Mary Renault.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
The Bookstore

This story was posted on 2011-10-16 03:07:05
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