“Horses go blindly to the sacrifice; but the gods give knowledge to men. When the King was dedicated, he knew his moira. In three years, or seven, or nine, or whenever the custom was, his term would end and the god would call him. And he went consenting, else he was no king, and power would not fall on him to lead the people. When they came to choose among the Royal Kin, this was his sign, that he chose short life with glory, and to walk with the god, rather than live long, unknown like the stall-fed ox. And the custom changes, Theseus, but this token never. Remember, even if you do not understand.”
I wanted to say I understood him. But I was silent.
Theseus grows up the son of a priestess and the grandson of a king, believing he is the son of Poseidon. Only when he is sixteen does he learn the truth — that he is the son and only heir of the King of Athens. He sets out to claim his birthright, but he has barely been in Athens for a year before the ships come from Crete to claim their tribute — seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the cult of bull-worship. Theseus is one of them, and must use all his cunning to ensure he and his companions survive.
The story of Theseus is one of the best-known of the ancient world: a prince of Athens who nonetheless joins the tribute slaves from taken to Crete to be sacrificed to the ferocious Minotaur, who lurks in the centre of a giant Labyrinth. Theseus kills the Minotaur with the help of the princess Ariadne, who gives him a ball of string to find his way through the maze, but despite betraying her country for him, he abandons her during his escape.
The main elements of the myth are here, but reimagined to take account of what we know about the Bronze Age from archaeology. So instead of being simply sacrificed to the Minotaur, the tribute slaves are forced to become a team of bull dancers, leaping over the horns of the bull in a terrifying sport (and depicted beautifully on a fresco found when the palace of Knossos on Crete was excavated). They aren’t expected to live for long. But Theseus takes his duty of kingship seriously and, in what is my favourite aspect of the book, forms his band of companions into a tight-knit team — they must rely on each other utterly if they are all to survive.
There are parts of this story that are very familiar to us — a father’s desperate love for his son, for example. And yet there are times when the author shows the Bronze Age Aegean as a completely alien place, for example, the title refers to an ancient custom where a King would ritually sacrifice himself for the sake of his people, and the responsibility (as well as the power) of kingship is a major theme of the book. Conversely, when it was written (in the 1950s), the matter-of-fact attitude towards homosexual relationships was particularly noteworthy, whereas for a modern readers this barely registers.
In all, this is a beautiful retelling of a well-worn myth, but so grounded in reality you feel like these characters could really have existed. I wish I’d read it years ago.
The King Must Die is available from Amazon.