felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
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As usual, poking my head up for a rare update.

The death of Jack has been the big unhappy event lately. I didn't know him well - I had the pleasure of working with him a handful of times briefly, and I really admired his work.

Jack Layton really was as nice in real life as he was on camera. He only saw me a handful of times across the years, but - in spite of the thousands he met - he always remembered me, and remembered I was bad with crowds. Four months before he was dead, he was checking up on me. Funny, isn't it?

They used to say that Robert Stanfield was the best prime minister Canada never had. That title's been officially ceded.

Other than that, my own life has been going quite well. I increased my writing input, and I'm prepping myself mentally for a massive send-out to pretty much any Canadian publishing house I think might accept. That'll likely happen in October.

I've had a social life lately, too. Most recently at [profile] jenjoou's wonderful party on Saturday.

A lot of friends have been going through bad times, but because my own life's been going well I think I've been able to be there for most of them.

Anyway, for today's review, The King Must Die by Mary Renault.

If you were looking for gay literature in the 1950s, you didn't have many options.

There were some very, very trashy paperback novels that justified themselves morally by killing or marrying off one of the gay men by the end. Astonishingly, these were sold in every drug store.

There were scientific treatises, most homophobic, a tiny number sympathetic.

And there was Mary Renault, a deeply closeted lesbian who wrote what were then considered hyperrealistic novels set in Ancient Greece. They were attempts to retell mythic or historical stories without the magic, divine intervention, or modern cultural mores getting in the way. And she used this pose of hyperrealism to let her get away with homosexuality in her novels, since she could argue she couldn't portray ancient Greece without it.

I picked one up at random. I apparently got the least-gay one. The King Must Die focuses on the myth of Theseus, and particularly on the minotaur and the labyrinth.

It is richly realistic, and an engaging story. She goes step-by-step through the story trying to find a naturalistic explanation for each event. She draws very heavily on the J.G Frazier/Margaret Murray version of history, which has been either discredited or at least severely complicated, depending on who you ask. When she was writing though, it was quite mainstream.

So the novel takes place at that moment when stone-age, earth-focused, goddess cults that sacrificed their kings each year are losing ground to iron-age, sky-god cults with token sacrifices. Theseus is the son of one earth-priestess, and is married to another when he is chosen as the king to die at the end of the year. He breaks the old ritual.

He soon finds himself being prepared to become another human sacrifice on the island of Crete. The minotaur is replaced by an actual bull, and the Minoans now train foreign prisoners as bullfighters having replaced their sacrifice of kings with a kind of bullfighting-to-the-death. There he works to bring a final end to the sacrifice-ritual a second time.

The prose is beautiful and clear and perfectly fluid. The structure is awkward sometimes, but only because she's trying to follow the contours of the original Theseus legend, and wants to hit each event like she's passing Stations of the Cross. I have no complaints about her style, though her prose does sometimes blush purple when she writes about romance. She's much more comfortable on the battlefield.

As for content, well the story is engaging and exciting and a fun read. And I was pleased that for her least-gay novel, it's definitely there around the edges. Theseus is a bit of a homophobe, but as his homophobia almost gets him killed at one point, it's not portrayed as a good thing. He's unreliable on this point.

What struck me on the negative end is that for a woman who liked women, Mary Renault really didn't seem to like women much.

There are some sympathetic women here. They're not nonexistent. Ariadne is pretty decent for writing. And there's a lesbian bull-fighter named Thalestris who's also a well-crafted though minor character - the only significant lesbian character, and she's well-written.

But most women in her world are petty, evil, shallow, and scheming. And more tellingly, any region run as a matriarchy is also a nightmare, to be civilized by patriarchy. Women simply can't run things in her world - they only work well as followers. It's also not something that could be explained by arguing for Theseus as unreliable, which he sometimes is.

I tend to give things leeway if they're old. Otherwise I'd be confined to only enjoying things written post-1970, and I hope future ages cut our era the same slack. Sadly, she seems to have imbibed the values of her era perfectly well where women are concerned.

If you can hold your nose for that, the book is well worth reading. It's especially a pleasure for mythology geeks - and for anyone interested in old but sympathetic writing about gay men.

In the Old Days, Renault was a writer gay people recommended to one another. Her books were easy to find and some of the only things around. If the The King Must Die is any indication, they hold up quite well in spite of the one caveat above.
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felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
felis_ultharus

September 2011

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