In his short essay, “Theseus and the Minotaur (1500 BC),” which appears in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Lee Child discusses and dissects the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, peeling back layers of meaning to expose the structure underneath. A structure that, it turns out, is nearly identical to Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories.
Theseus and James Bond
At first I was skeptical. After all, the myth is about how the son of a king saves Athenian youths from suffering death-by-Minotaur. (Here is one version of the myth: The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.)
Lee Child, though, strips away the particular details to reveal the essential points of the tale. He writes:
“The story goes like this: Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, is a privileged but maverick warrior. At the start of the tale, he is away on the coast, attacking and burning enemy ships, in an action that is not fully authorized. He returns home to a crisis. Athens and Crete are in a state of uneasy truce, with Crete holding the upper hand. The price of peace is that Athens must periodically supply young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a grotesque creature that lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. A demand for fresh victims has just arrived. Theseus insists that he be allowed to go, posing as one of the victims. He arrives on Crete and enlists–by seduction–the help of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete. She supplies him with a ball of string, so that–if he survives the encounter with the Minotaur–he will be able to find his way out of the maze. Theseus descends, unwinding the string as he goes. He kills the Minotaur after an epic struggle. He retraces his steps with the help of the string. He emerges on the surface, ignores Ariadne, and returns home to a mixed welcome.”
That’s a condensed retelling! Child goes on to compare the salient points of the myth to those of the James Bond stories:
- Athens and Crete were two superpowers who reached an uneasy truce. (The US and Russia)
- Theseus (James Bond) was a young man of rank who acted alone and took responsibility for the necessary outcome.
- The hero makes a strategic alliance with an attractive young woman from the other side.
- A gadget (the ball of magical twine) was given to Theseus. Further, this gadget was made by an exceptionally skilled craftsman (Daedalus/Q).
- A secret underground facility (the maze/Q division).
- An all powerful opponent (King Minos) with a grotesque sidekick (the Minotaur).
- An epic fight to the death (Theseus vs the Minotaur).
- An escape (Theseus uses the ball of string to find his way out of the maze).
- The femme fatale is abandoned or dies (I’ve noticed that if Bond’s female ally is good at heart then she has an excellent chance of dying).
- The hero returns home to a mixed welcome. In the Bond films I’ve watched, the hero usually gets taken to task for his high kill rate, his destruction of property and his general recklessness.
- A James Bond story usually begins with “a scene of gratuitous violence or action not related to the main storyline.” Compare this with Theseus’ burning of enemy ships.
- James Bond’s dual nature: is he bold, courageous and heroic? Or is he hotheaded, out of control and arrogant?
- Is M, and the secret intelligence service generally, embarrassed by James Bond, by his antics, by the number of people he kills and by the amount of property damage he does? Or are they proud of his results and his unscrupulously unswerving dedication to his goals?
Lee Child has often said that his own heroic character, Jack Reacher, is based on the myth of the mysterious stranger. This is from an interview Child gave in 2011:
“Retrospectively, I look at the character as an update of a very old figure, who comes out of 1,000 years of literary tradition: the loner, the mysterious stranger, the knight errant who shows up, solves a problem and then leaves. He came out of Scandinavian sagas and English tales of knights and survived into the American West and pop lit. (Q & A: Lee Child on writing, naming and aging Jack Reacher)”
Who or what is your protagonist based on? What myth most closely captures your protagonist’s quest?