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The Original Arena: Theseus and the Labyrinth

The Hungers Games movie finally hits theaters today, and while the buzz has reached a fever pitch (the Rotten Tomatoes score is a solid 86%) some of us feel a wintry chill, like a District 12 kid on Christmas without tessera. We seasoned fanboys and fangirls have been here before. Lord of the Rings fandom has shriveled. Potterdammerung is in full swing. After we walk out of the theaters, what do we do with ourselves until the next movie comes out? 

The King Must Die by Mary RenaultRead about where it all started, of course: The King Must Die by Mary Renault. The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic look at the classic Theseus story; Mary Renault’s version is the real deal. Most people know Theseus (if they know him at all) as “that guy in the labyrinth with the minotaur” (or the protagonist of last year’s ill begotten Immortals movie), but his story has a lot more chapters than that. See if you can play “spot the Hunger Games inspiration.”

The classical myth goes like this: Theseus finds a sword under a stone which was placed there after his conception by Aegis, king of Athens, as proof that he is the father. Theseus travels to Athens to claim his birthright, uniting the disparate regions of Greece along the way. Once he gets to Athens he finds out that the city owes tribute to Crete every year, 14 youths, 7 boys and 7 girls, to go into the labyrinth and be killed by the Minotaur. Theseus volunteers, intending to defeat the Minotaur and end the yearly tribute. He befriends Ariadne, Cretan princess, who gives him rope so he can find his way out of the labyrinth once he has killed the monster. He does so and flees, Ariadne in tow, but then he forgets her on an island. He also forgets to change the sails of his ship from black to white, indicating his success, and his father, assuming Theseus has failed, throws himself off a cliff. Of course, this leaves the throne conveniently open for Theseus to become king, fall in love with an Amazonian woman, have a son with her, watch her get killed, and then marry Ariadne’s sister who tries to seduce Theseus’ son with disastrous results.

That’s the mythical version of the story, and it’s important to know because it will illuminate just how much work Mary Renault does in The King Must Die. Much of classical history is lost, we’re lucky to still have third-hand Roman versions of Greek history. The myths are even worse – allegorical tales of a very different culture that came before science or even writing had developed. Renault weaves the connective tissue between the disjointed pieces of Greek myth and shows more realistic beginnings that led to fantastical ends in mythology’s bizarre game of cosmic telephone. Did Theseus actually turn into an absent-minded idiot who forgets his girlfriend on the beach or does he have his own reasons for what he does? Did a half-bull, half man creature actually exist, hidden away deep in a labyrinth? Or is that the bastardization of what really happened: the Athenian tribute was actually sent as contestants in a dangerous but not always deadly sport of bull-jumping? Renault thinks so, and she has archaeology on her side. She’s said that she wants people to look back at her books a realize that she was right. She writes with such confidence that you never doubt it.

Bull Jumping Mural

Those are just two examples of the many mythological elements that are explained away with ease. Renault researched exhaustively but for all that, she never breaks a sweat. There won’t be any pauses for civics lessons or jarring definitions but don’t worry, those new to Greek culture won’t be left behind. It should make a seamless transition for Hunger Games fans who are going through withdrawal. There are plenty of connections outside of the obvious volunteering as tribute to battle to the death for sport. Just sub out muttations for a minotaur, an arena for a bull-pit, and Peeta’s puppy-eyes for Theseus impregnating ladies all up and down the Greek coast. The book gets pretty steamy without being too explicit, so it’s teen friendly but not juvenile. When the Greek tributes are all fighting one enemy instead of each other they have much more time to hook up.

The King Must Die is the first book about Theseus. It’s not a long book, but there’s a second, Bull From the Sea, about his life after the labyrinth. Combined they may last you until Catching Fire explodes into theaters. Moreover, Renault was a prolific writer, so there’s plenty of other quality historical fiction floating around. She has the guts to put words in the mouths of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, and Socrates and make it sound believable, no small task. It’s compelling reading material, enough to patch up the Katniss and Peeta sized hole in your heart, at least for a while.

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