The Bull From the Sea

by Mary Renault

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2004, ISBN 0-09-946353-9

It seems a bit of a cheek to review a Mary Renault novel, a little like having the impertinence to review Dickens or Shakespeare. Her novels are classics of historical fiction, and seem rather above my likes and dislikes. However, when I first came across Mary Renault's Greek-set novels in the town library a couple of decades ago I didn't know they were classics and had no idea what to expect, so maybe there are people in the same boat now. And certainly her writing was as fresh and vivid to me on a recent re-reading as it was when it was all new to me, so that seemed worth celebrating.

The Bull from the Sea is the second part of the story of the legendary Greek hero Theseus of Athens. The first part of Theseus' life, covering his boyhood and his defeat of the Minotaur in Crete, was told in The King Must Die. The Bull from the Sea takes up the story when Theseus returns victorious to Athens, only to find that his father has committed suicide in despair (because Theseus forgot - accidentally or otherwise - to change the black sail of his ship to a white one to show that he was returning home alive). Theseus is now King of Athens, a small and comparatively poor city-state with predatory neighbours and internal factions, and as he establishes his rule he finds his adventures are only just beginning. He has to contend with pirates, with a barbarian invasion from the north that threatens the very heart of his kingdom, with the warlike Amazons and their fierce and beautiful queen Hippolyta, who becomes his lover, and with the jealous rage of his wife and the consequent tragedy.

The legend of Theseus belongs to the same sort of period as the Trojan War, perhaps best described as legendary history. How far the legends were based on real events and people is uncertain; what is certain is that they exerted a powerful hold on the imagination and are still being retold now, thousands of years later. The Bull from the Sea is set in Bronze Age Greece, placed a generation or so before the Trojan War - a young Achilles makes a fleeting appearance towards the end of the novel. Many of the characters are familiar figures in Greek myth - Theseus, Ariadne, Hippolyta, Oedipus (yes, he of the complex) - so they are not fictional in the sense that the author invented them, but whether they are historical is debatable.

The writing has a lean, spare, muscular style that makes masterly use of hints and gaps left for the reader's imagination to fill in. I'm reminded of the economical elegance of classical sculpture, or the figures painted on Greek pottery. The power of Fate is an ever-present thread running through the plot as Theseus sees his destiny unfolding in response to forces beyond his control. But the novel never veers into overt fantasy. The gods never appear in the flesh, and the legendary events like the bull of Poseidon (the Bull from the Sea of the title) are given natural explanations that might have formed the basis for the development of the legends. Action and dialogue keep the plot spinning, and although Fate is always present it is conveyed in hints so the reader is always in suspense - even on an umpteenth reading when you know the end.

Theseus and the other characters are all individuals, sketched in with a few words and actions. Naturally, the reader learns most about Theseus, since the novel is narrated in first person from Theseus' point of view, but as Theseus is outward-looking and eager for new things the reader gets to learn about other people too. The societies and cultures of Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean are imagined and brought to life in all their wonder and variety. This is probably the aspect that draws me back to Mary Renault, her ability to portray a world that is completely different from ours and to make it real on the page without losing any of its strangeness. This is Theseus' world, not ours, and entering it is spellbinding. Is it accurate? I have no idea. Is it convincing? Yes, absolutely. Mary Renault has few equals.

Masterful retelling of the Theseus legend. This is why I read historical fiction.