Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 10 Aug 2017

The Bull From The Sea by Mary Renault

I think it’s important to tell you about my reading failures as well as about the books that surprise and delight me. I should come clean from the outset and say that I gave up on this book less than half-way through – so what you’re going to get here is more an explanation about why I found this unreadable rather than a full review of the novel.

It’s quite hard to think of a more unfashionable novelist than Mary Renault (1905-1983) despite the fact that she is often quoted as being J.F. Kennedy’s favourite writer . Renault is the pen name of Eileen Mary Challans who was born in the UK and educated at Oxford before becoming a nurse in that city. She met and fell in love with Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse, and the two of them left to live in South Africa soon after Renault had begun publishing as a light romantic novelist. The move was a double-edged experience – on the one hand she moved into a community more accepting of her lesbian lifestyle than she could have found in the UK but she also found herself out of sympathy with the South African government’s policy of Apartheid, which she strongly opposed. She was a member of the non-violent Black Sash organisation – a grouping of white women who campaigned for racial equality.

Christopher Fowler writing for the Forgotten Novelists series in The Independent newspaper in 2010 characterises the development of the writing style that would bring Renault most success in the following way:

Renault was drawn to romantic fiction but was anxious not to be labelled a gay writer. In the 1950s, the subject came with social and political issues attached, so she devised a way to express her fascination with the philosophical aspects of idealistic love by setting her novels in Ancient Greece.

Despite having no real background in the Classics, Renault found that she was able to take the stories of that period and recreate them in her own, often idiosyncratic style. The Bull From The Sea (1962) is effectively the free-standing sequel to The King Must Die (1958) and tells the story of Theseus after his return to Athens from Crete.

Over recent months, in the publicity surrounding celebrations to mark the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, I have seen Mary Renault’s name appear on a number of lists highlighting famous Gay authors and it’s this that prompted me to see if I’d been ignoring her work unjustly. Sadly, I have to report that I didn’t find hidden gold here.

I think for me the problem was essentially one of style. Her prose is dense and rather unforgiving and I struggled with what felt like an oddly hybrid sentence structure poised somewhere between modern and archaic. Try this for size:

I knew, as one sometimes may, that I had met a daimon of my fate. Whether he came for good or ill to me, I could not tell; nor, it may be, could a god have told me plainly. But good in himself he was, as a lion is good for beauty and for valour though he eats one’s herd. He roars at the spears upon the dyke-top, while the torchlight strikes forth fire from his golden eyes; and one’s heart must love him, whether one will or no.

And there’s acres of stuff like this that drags you down as you’re reading and the whole exercise becomes excruciatingly hard work. After a little over 100 pages I was ready to trade places with the Minotaur.

The pace of the storytelling is also oddly uneven – there are pages where she lingers for what seems like an eternity over details and then months or even years pass at the turn of the next page. Much of the action is described through the eyes and sensibility of Theseus but we seem to get very little psychological insight or substance and even the centrally important fraternity with the piratical Pirithoos is cemented in the most unlikely fashion in minutes as the must decide whether to fight as enemies or live as friends. Never have blazing eyes and homo-erotic stirrings concluded an issue so quickly.

To be fair however Renault does seem to resonate with some Greek scholars and Bettany Hughes who has become a well-known populariser of the Ancient World on television holds her in high esteem. In 2015 she wrote in The Telegraph:

I think her greatest gift is in many ways very Greek. There is an almost untranslatable ancient Greek word: xenia. Often described as “guest-host friendship”, xenia was both an unwritten code of international conduct, in operation since about 6000BC, and an idea – that as a species we thrive when we welcome the unexpected across our threshold. In The Bull from the Sea the author opines: “It is the mark of little men to like only what they know; one step beyond and they feel the black cold of chaos.”Well, Renault was no little man. She encourages us all to walk through history, through literature and through our own lives with open eyes and an open mind. To recognise that although humanity has many faces, across time and space, we all of us share one human heart.

So maybe the fault lies with me and I’m just not ready to appreciate Renault’s particular gifts. Probably the only way for you to find out is to give it a go yourself and see what you think.


Terry Potter

August 2017