HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
In my own pantheon of The Three Marys, there is one whose Historical Fiction was greatly instrumental in prompting me to plunge into the writing of said genre. Mary Renault didn’t need to adopt the detached, oft-pontificating tone in which historical fiction can sometimes indulge. Her works possessed a profound gift–the storyteller’s art in motion. Her characters were real, passionate, often deeply flawed… and you were right in there with them.
My choice for today, out of many excellent novels, had to be The King Must Die. This cover image is from my bookshelves and the mass market edition circa 1979, but the original date is 1958, and my first read was from the public library. The King Must Die was my introduction to Ms Renault’s works–I think I read it when I was eleven or twelve. (We didn’t have or read ‘YA’ when I was of that age–we read books!) Already more comfortable with mythological and speculative worlds than any contemporary reality, I’d not yet realised how fascinating history was–no doubt in consequence of the dry dates and statistics to which public school curriculum rendered it.
This book began to change all that for me. A retelling of the myth of Theseus, it had an undeniable and firm grasp upon the historical personalities and realities that birth legends. It was that seemingly effortless mix that truly comes only with serious application of craft. Gritty and sometimes unpleasant, yet nonetheless magical in every sense, the novel makes an impassioned appeal for both the fantastic and the historic–together. It was bildungsroman (woot!) at its finest, warts and all, with an oft-unreliable narrator as hero, displaying both the arrogance and virtues of a deeply-inculturated young man. Not much is shied away from or glossed into comfortable platitudes. You root for Theseus, as well as long to give him a good spanking. 😉
It takes little guesswork to hazard that The King Must Die is responsible for my plunge into a lifelong fascination with Sacrifice and Sacred Kingships from all cultures. It also made it difficult for me to be satisfied with a lot of first person narrative. It’s a form that not many can achieve with the same effortless grace as Mary Renault. (Or my inaugural Retro Rec author, Mary Stewart, for that matter.)
Recently, I heard a writer at a convention recommend Mary Renault–with the caveat, however, that ‘she is old-fashioned’. I was rather appalled at anyone attempting excuses for someone who had more talent in one nib finger than most writers possess in their entire repertoire… but, after all, we all say a lot of silly things when we’re baby writers. Though I truly don’t think I had the brass to assume myself able to take a mammoth with a BB gun. 😉 Not with prose that glides like this:
The Great Court was empty under the moon. Tier upon tier rose the pillared balconies, dimly glowing. Lamps flickered behind curtains of Eastern stuff. The pots of lilies and of flowering lemon trees shed a sweet heavy scent. A cat slipped from shadow to shadow, and a Cretan who looked as if his errand were the same. Then all was silent. The great horns upon the roof-coping reared up as if they would gore the stars.
I stretched out my hands palm downward and held them over the earth. “Father Poseidon, Horse Father, Lord of Bulls, I am in your hand, whenever you call me. That is agreed between us. But as you have owned me, give me this one things first. Make me a bull-leaper.”
No question in my heart, I would encourage everyone to read The King Must Die. Or any of Mary Renault’s books. And come on, I read it at the age of eleven; surely it isn’t that insurmountable an experience. If it is, indeed, ‘old-fashioned’, then bloody DAMN but we need more ‘old fashioned’ in this world.