Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

I have this strategy – I’ve mentioned it before – where when I really like an author, I save some of their books.  I haven’t read two (2) of Salman Rushdie’s books.  Martin Millar has written a number of books that I haven’t read, and I haven’t made the small effort it would take to order them used online.  This is not because of any shortage of love in my heart for Martin Millar’s books.  It’s because I’m saving them.  I do it with rereads too.  It’s been at least five years since I last read Persuasion, although (well, actually it’s because) I love Jane Austen, and I like to give myself a little treat every few years.

I haven’t read Mary Renault’s Theseus books in several years.  I haven’t read The Last of the Wine since high school.  And I have never ever read The Praise Singer, and until today I had never read The Mask of Apollo.  I read this book all over the place yesterday and today, and I did it at my parents’ house where (you may have heard) there is also a tiny little puppy who likes to snuggle on laps, chew on curtains, and wrestle with a stuffed koala bear.  Because The Mask of Apollo is so good it’s sick.

The book is about an Athenian actor, Nikeratos, who lives in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.  After a particularly magnificent performance as Apollo, he meets Dion of Syracuse as well as Dion’s close friend, the philosopher Plato.  Thereafter Niko becomes involved in Dion’s political intrigues as he (Dion, not Niko) works in Syracuse to establish the perfect philosopher-state as envisioned by Plato.  This doesn’t work out as fantastically well as you might think, though Mary Renault seems very definitely to think it could have gone better if Alexander the Great, rather than Dionysius II, had been in charge of Syracuse at the time.  (Alexander makes an appearance at the end of the book, and it was like seeing an old friend.  I love Mary Renault’s Alexander books, because nobody has ever loved a protagonist, and I am including Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey, the way that Mary Renault loves her Alexander the Great.)

I’m a little sad that I’ve now read this book.  I’ve read it, and it’s read, and I can’t ever read it for the first time again.  I loved all the stuff about ancient Greek theatre – Niko speaks about how the actors interacted with each other, how the scenery worked, and the special effects, how the audiences responded.  Mary Renault writes beautiful characters, brave and flawed and frightened – you can see that she loves them, the ones she’s made up, but especially the ones she’s found in history.  I also now know a whole lot of things about Dionysius II that I never knew before.

A scene I like – I remember my mother showed me this scene when I was younger, long before I’d read any Mary Renault books in full.  Niko is not quite seven, playing little Astyanax in Euripides’s Women of Troy:

All I remember for certain is my swelling throat, and the horror that came over me when I knew I was going to cry.  My eyes were burning.  Terror was added to my grief.  I was going to wreck the play…Tears burst from my shut eyes; my nose was running.  I hoped I might die, that the earth would open or the skene catch fire before I sobbed aloud.

The hands that had traced my painted wounds lifted my gently.  I was gathered into the arms of Hecuba; the wrinkled mask with its down-turned mouth bent close above.  The flute, which had been moaning softly through the speech, getting a cue, wailed louder.  Under its sound, Queen Hecuba whispered in my ear, “Be quiet, you little bastard.  You’re dead.”

I also loved how Niko casts everything in theatre terms.  It’s not obnoxious, though it could easily be – yes, we get it, Greek politics are like the theatre – but Niko is wry and a little detached, and it seems natural.  This I liked, when he’s speaking with one of Plato’s students, a woman called Axiothea:

“The philosopher is the pilot.  He knows where the harbor is, and the reef; he knows the constant stars.  But men still pursue illusions.  Their prejudice will not be broken till such a man takes the helm and shows them.  Once he has saved them from the rocks, that will be the end of guesswork.  No man will drown if he sees the remedy, will he?”

She paused for a feed-line, as philosophers do – just like comic actors, though one must not say so.

Other bits I liked:

“A man more precious than empires, both to us and to men still unborn, with who knows what wisdom yet undistilled in him.  He is clear of all misjudgement, except his faith in me.  He had not seen Syracuse for twenty years; Dionysos he had known only as a child who rode upon my shoulder.  For no living man but me would he have gone again to Sicily.  And I sent for him – for this very thing which has made and broken all: his charm that can make discourse beautiful and catch the soul through the heart.  Was Oidipos himself more blind?”


There’s always one more war to win, or one more election, before the good life; meantime they wrangle about the good, those who still believe in it.  So we dream.  Of what?  Some man sent by the gods, first to make us believe in something, if only in him, and then to lead us.  That is it.  We have dreamed a king.

I will now stop raving over Mary Renault.  I love her.  This book was wonderful and I love her.  Internet, read more Mary Renault!  I love her!  I am giving this book five shiny sparkly stars, and I feel like I want to go read every surviving ancient Greek play right now and imagine Niko playing the roles.

28 thoughts on “Review: The Mask of Apollo, Mary Renault

  1. Wow, you have an amazing amount of willpower! I wish I could borrow some of it for my relationship with food! LOL. But I totally know what you mean, that it’s sad when you’ve read something really good because you won’t be experiencing it for the first time anymore!

    • Haha, I have NONE of this restraint with food. My sister just came back from England with two big bars of Cadbury chocolate with almonds, all for me, and that stuff is disappearing at a record pace. But with books, the end result is so satisfying it’s worth it.

  2. I am ashamed to say I have never read Mary Renault, or indeed conceived the desire to before this post. Now, I am thinking I must definitely check her out. And I absolutely understand the need to save up author’s books. I do it, too and particularly with authors who are perfect for days when a person feels sad or ruffled or otherwise not at one with the world. Like storing up literary pain killers!

    • Literary painkillers – love it! And that’s exactly right. These things are especially good for when I feel like reading a new book, but I don’t want to take the risk of not loving it. Out comes Mary Renault!

      I truly truly love Mary Renault. And I think The Mask of Apollo is a very good place to start with her; Fire from Heaven, the first of her books about Alexander the Great, is also very good. Or if you’re in the mood for something modern (I mean, you know – World War II modern, which was completely modern for her), and can overlook some very sneery writing about effeminate gay men (they must all be Manly! And Heroic!), The Charioteer is my favorite of her books, and one of my favorite books ever. She implies six things for every one thing she lets her characters say. Love it.

  3. I read the Mask of Apollo once long ago. You’ve made me want to revisit it again- although I know what you mean, never being able to approach the magic of reading something excellent for the very first time again. Although a re-read after more than fifteen years I’ll have forgotten so much it will feel pretty new!

  4. Oh, ancient Greeks. This sounds really cool though! I read this thing about how the Greeks would make soldiers from the Persian and Peloponnesian wars become actors in order to cure their PTSD. Did they talk about that in this book?

    I think I will definitely have to put Mary Renault on my TBR list! Thanks for the revieeeeew!

    • I’ve never heard of that, but what a fascinating thing for them to do! Wouldn’t they get all jumpy when the props fell and things? Reading Mary Renault always makes me want to learn more about the time periods she’s writing about – funny because normally I couldn’t care less about the ancient Greeks. Roman & Latin FTW!

  5. Man, I wish I had happened upon her earlier. I always kind of avoided her stuff, but then one of my Classics profs recommended The Last of the Wine as one of the best, most accurate historical novels of Classical Greeces, and then I was hooked. I still haven’t read the Alexander books, though.

    • I just wrote “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH CRAZY READ SWIFTLY ALEXANDER EEEE” and then realized that didn’t make any sense. For reals you should read the Alexander books. They are wonderful. Mary Renault romanticizes Alexander, but, you know, he’s romanticizable, and she makes him a fantastic character. She makes him go so nicely into all the stories from Arrian & Plutarch & those guys.


        I understood perfectly! I’ll add it to my list after Greensleeves (which I have checked out right now, but I’m trying to restrain myself till the New Year. I’m not even sure why).

      • Oh you have Greensleeves? Greensleeves from the library? How wonderful! You should read it immediately, in the old year, so as to hasten the existence of a moment where I am not the only person who has read it. 😛

  6. This sounds like a fun read! I’m with the other who say it’s incredible you held out so long, since you knew you’d love it.

    I too had never heard of Mary Renault. Thanks for rectifying that!

    • I love, love, love to delay gratification in this way. It gets easier after I’ve decided to hold off on a book, because I just stash the book somewhere and forget about it, and then one day, HERE THE BOOK IS AGAIN, and it’s a lovely surprise to come across it, and I read it. It’s like finding money in the pocket of a winter coat, except way more excellent. (I used to hide some of my birthday money from myself too. :P)

      I hope you get a chance to try Mary Renault sometime! I think she’s just wonderful.

  7. You know in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, how they’ll get a treat, and Mary will be like, no, let’s wait, it’ll be better!

    I have always connected you as Mary, because of that

    • I always identified you with Laura. Cause you were all BLAAAAAAH LET’S GO DO THIS, and I was all, Can we stay inside and sit quietly, instead? But I wasn’t a goody-two-shoes like Mary, was I? Mary was obnoxious when they were little!

  8. Gahh you made me want to read this book!

    You remind me of my brother, the way you restrain yourself from reading anymore books by your favorite author because you want to savor the moment of first reading something awesome. Or keep that feeling alive. My brother still hasn’t read the last HP book because he’s so sad that JK Rowling hasn’t written anymore. If it’s something I haven’t read yet, I go for it as soon as I can. But if it’s a re-read, I like to space it out so that I’ve almost forgotten all the details, and I can savor them again and be re-surprised (if that makes sense).

    • Yay! Read it! Read it and tell everyone about it! I want everyone to read Mary Renault!

      Hahaha, I completely understand where your brother is coming from. I would have done that with the seventh HP book (I’d have done it with 5 and 6 too!), except that I love discussing the books with family and friends, and everyone I knew read it the day it came out. And I knew that if I waited, everyone would have already had their discussions. But I can identify. Every now and then, I remember that all the Harry Potter books have been written, and I get sad that there are no more coming.

  9. I’ve never come across anyone this enthusiastic about Renault. Ok, I’ll have to try her. I save up books sometimes–I saved the last Sherlock Holmes story for about a year, until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

    • I didn’t know people had always heard of Renault! I never meet anyone who’s read her stuff, though in fact I think she’s a really good writer. I always want to learn more about ancient Greece when I’ve read one of her books, though in real life I don’t much care about ancient Greece. 😛

  10. Pingback: Wrapping up 2009 « Jenny's Books

  11. Hi Jenny,
    I just read your book report. Kudos on a nice job. Since I just joined WordPress this weekend I am having difficulty getting my HTML to post correctly.

    I notice yours is all neat, etc. What are you using to format your posts? I am simply writing HTML in Notepad but the WordPress server scrambles it and I have to reformat the spacing and everything>


    Kind regards,
    Charlie C.

    • Sorry, I don’t know how to help! WordPress allows me to choose whether I want to type in regular text or in HTML, and I normally just type in regular text.

  12. Hi Jenny

    I don’t know you or follow your blog (perhaps I should start?) but just wanted to say hi to another Mary Renault fan. I recently read a biography of her that has started me re-reading all of her books again – and some for the first time, such as her first novel.

    So great to know people are still enjoying her books 50 years on!

      • Hmmm … never knew you’d replied and rediscovered this page as i’m re-reading MoA having suggested it for my book group. This is like opening your soul up and inviting people to tear you apart. I’m terrified!

        Anyway, the biography is by David Sweetman. Interesting, but I’d like to read someone else’s take on her life too, for some reason.

        And I forgot I’d registered before and now have multiple identities.

  13. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: The Mask of Apollo, Pompeii « The Literary Omnivore

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