Theseus: Another fascinating retelling of an ancient myth

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Geraldine McCaughrean TheseusTheseus by Geraldine McCaughrean

Out of all the heroes in the Greek mythology canon, Theseus always struck me as the most pitiable. Though he started out promisingly enough, a string of bad decisions and unlucky circumstances left him the most broken of all the heroes in Greek mythology. In her retelling of his story, Geraldine McCaughrean pinpoints the reason for all this misery, Theseus’s fatal pride, and maps the trail of ruined lives and broken hearts that Theseus leaves behind him before his sins finally catch up with him.

King Aegeus of Athens is desperate for a son, but is joyful when the sorceress Medea tells him that the next woman he holds in his arms will grant him a child. Aegeus hurries home to his wife, stopping only to visit his friend King Pittheus. But when Pittheus’s daughter Aethra accidentally falls into his lap, Aegeus recalls the prophetic words, and hides his sandals and sword under a huge rock outside the palace, telling Aethra that should she ever bear a son, he will one day be able to lift the rock, and claim his birthright underneath.

Strangely enough, McCaughrean chooses to omit the prophetic words of the Oracle of Delphi that Aegeus originally goes to: “Do not loosen your wineskin until you have reached Athens,” and its mysterious meaning that was understood only by Pittheus, who arranged for Aegeus to get drunk and sleep with Aethra. Likewise, gone is Aethra’s seduction by Poseidon, which casts Theseus’s real paternity into doubt. These are two of the most famous aspects of the Theseus myth, and I was surprised to see them removed, particularly since McCaughrean hasn’t shied away from these slightly more adult themes in her other Greek myth retellings.

In any case, young Theseus eventually comes of age, lifts the rock and learns whom his true father is. Now his adventures really begin, first on his way to Athens, in which he dispatches of several bandits along the way (in rather grisly ways, I might add), and then in Athens itself, where he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt by his stepmother. His father is delighted beyond words to finally meet his son, but soon concerned when Theseus decides to travel to Crete in order to kill the hideous half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Traveling as one of the Athenian hostages that King Minos has decreed must be sacrificed to the bull, Theseus’s greatest trial comes when he must brave the labyrinth and the beast that waits for him at its heart.

Theseus’s success and his escape with the Princess Ariadne of Crete is usually where children’s versions of his particular hero stop, but McCaughrean continues with Theseus’s tragic life and the terrible decisions that lead to his own downfall. Although she skips Theseus’s journey into the Underworld, she includes the disastrous familial problems that he faces through his own sense of pride and egotism. Particularly interesting is McCaughrean’s take on matters of the heart: Theseus is used to being loved and adored by all his subjects, and so naturally it is Phaedra, who fascinates him: “She did not sigh at the sight of him. She did not tremble at his touch. Her eyes did not linger lovingly on the back of his head as he passed by.”

As well as all this, the author manages to slip in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, as well as a cameo appearance from Hercules himself, and the tale of how Theseus came to have a club as his weapon of choice. There’s plenty going on here, and it’s all told in McCaughrean’s lovely prose, as this description of the Queen of the Amazons displays: “Her throat was as dark and inviting as the wine flowing from a wineskin, and her lips seemed swollen from eating succulent and exotic fruits.”

Although certain omissions prevent me from calling this the definitive version of the Theseus myth, this is another fascinating retelling of an ancient myth, in which the humanity of the hero is just as important as the legendary feats they perform.

Greek Heroes — (2003) Ages 9-12. Publisher: What makes a hero different from ordinary men? Are courage and strength enough, or is there something more that’s needed for battle, whether against a fearful monster or the wrath of the gods themselves? Here are the stories of four heroes, Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, and Odysseus, who follow the path of glory in their many unforgettable adventures. Geraldine McCaughrean is a master storyteller and she excels in combining nail-biting plots with a powerful portrayal of the main characters in all their complexity, their matchless strength and wit tempered by human weakness. The result is a collection of deeply satisfying and mesmerizing stories that will be an excellent addition to any bookshelf.

Geraldine McCaughrean Greek Heroes Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, OdysseusGeraldine McCaughrean Greek Heroes Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, OdysseusGeraldine McCaughrean Greek Heroes Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, Odysseusfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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