Mary Renault (which she did not give a French spin but pronounced “Renolt”) was once a major author in American eyes though she was born in England and lived in South Africa. John Kennedy claimed she was his favorite author, which may have been true, but at the time she represented the idea that Americans were somehow the inheritors of the ancient Greeks, a notion cherished by my high school teachers in the Fifties. She had not been identified as lesbian. (My teachers, some of whom were lesbians, may have known.) “The Persian Boy” by Mary Renault presents many ironies. It purports to be merely a history of Alexander the Great’s last years.
“The Persian Boy” is a study in devotion justified by greatness, based on the historical evidence of a slave boy, Bagoas, who was the personal attendant and lover of Alexander the Great. It is, therefore, an historical romance, If it had been written by a gay man, there might have been uproar, but it was written by a gay woman. If it had been “American,” there might have been outcry and, in fact, there was enough tsuris in England to indicate a move to South Africa was wise. It’s a strange phenomenon that the most uptight and righteous cultures are often the safest for outliers, because there’s little recognition of what they are. (It took me weeks as a teenager in Portland, Oregon, to find out what sodomy was. Of course, then I had to look up pederasty and catamite. Consult Wikipedia. They’ll tell you anything. But only males can be pederasts.) If something that would be attacked if it were contemporary is displaced into history or plainly labeled sci-fi or myth, it seems to be tolerated. So “catamite” is derived from “Ganymede” who was the boy lover of Zeus. I’ll bet they didn’t tell you that in high school.
There is a spectrum. At the lowest end is brute use of force to enslave and victimize boys. At the highest end is the aesthetic and high-value singer, the dancer, the subject of beautiful paintings. Strangely, it is at this end that castration enters. The castrati opera singers, the eunuch court members. It seems almost an attempt to escape gender, but there is no equivalent on the female side. Perhaps some consider them already castrated. There is also a religious valuing of castrati, considered an attempt to escape flesh and fleshly desire, a denial of animal nature. And there is a nonsexual version, like Batman and Robin. But no Batwoman and Robinette. (Wonder Woman? Maybe. Renault put some Amazons in this novel, but only briefly.)
“The Persian Boy” -- whom I suppose would be “The Iranian Boy” today -- is high-born, captured, castrated, trained by a pimp, sold and resold, and though he never reaches anything like control of his own destiny in this book, he achieves intimacy and protection in as luxurious a setting as might have been possible in circumstances often determined by war. He IS one of the luxuries.
Mary Renault writes without any of this context, simply assuming that the reader won’t need explanation, and mostly we don’t because everything is in human terms, though they are extreme. Heads roll as much as they do in modern sword and sandal epics. No one has filmed “The Persian Boy” and one rather dreads any attempt, given the tastes of the film public today. This is not “Conan” or “Spartacus,” but more like “Quo Vadis” in the Fifies. Beyond that, this is a sensual recreation of a world still thrust up against unforgiving environment. Those terms of survival, much of which hinges on loyalty or betrayal, still return whenever and wherever there is enough stress or strife to force us back to human bones, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan.
Renault is a fine writer in a way that seems to have gone out of fashion. Her sentences are gracefully clear, her descriptions are tellingly terse. She never lectures or over-informs or obsesses. The second paragraph at the beginning is as good an illustration as any: “Our hill-fort was as old as our family, weathered-in with the rocks, its watchtower built up against a crag. From there my father used to show me the river winding through the green plain to Susa, city of lilies. He pointed out the Palace, shining on its broad terrace, and promised I should be presented, when I was sixteen.” He is ten when he is captured, castrated, and enslaved. But he never loses his sense of being nobility, of taking a “high” attitude towards life. And he is most definitely not asexual.
I don’t think his conviction of being superior is what attracts us, though he even patronizes his patron, Alexander, now and then. He really isn’t THAT superior, since he does a bit of maneuvering and is plainly jealous. But he never loses his faithfulness, human-bound though it is. (In spite of Alexander’s aspirations to godhood.) It is this wholeness, this freedom from doubt, that is so rare and appealing today.
Born in 1905, Mary Renault must have been thunderstruck by WWI. “The Persian Boy” was published in 1972, a time of world uproar and challenge to the status quo. She was faithful to her female partner her entire life and looked quite boyish. When she sold a novel (“Return to Night”) in 1948 for a lot of money, she and Julie Mullard emigrated to Durban, South Africa, where they became part of a small colony of people like themselves, the kind of eclectic port city sophisticates who can tolerate differences.
Both women had been nurses at Dunkirk, Renault specializing in brain injuries. This concern for injury, tending to loved ones, permeates “The Persian Boy.” This is the center of value that makes life possible -- not inhuman strength and dominance in spite of the context of war. Alexander is portrayed as a leader heroic in his concern for others, especially those lesser, and we see how his compassion “pays off” in terms of forming relationships, eventually an empire.
There is no equivalent “Persian girl” tale, is there? Not today’s heterosexual bodice-rippers. Short of Elizabeth I, who would have had the worldly power within which to demonstrate deep understanding and the power to protect in the way that Alexander did? Maybe some of the modern female leaders. Renault didn’t much like women per se and wasn’t very happy with the Gay Pride movement either. She wanted to get away from physical gender assignment roles, I think, and was interested in either men too young to be defined yet or men too powerful to be confined. The problem is always how to resolve violence without being weak, how to be intimate without sacrificing identity.