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A Review of Semicolons
Notes for Selections from
The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Selection # 1 
King's Explanation to Theseus
Punct Ex AK G9 L1.3 SVC
Selection # 2
Theseus Returns to Eleusis
Punct Ex AK G9 L1.5 Prep
Selection # 3 Crete Punct Ex AK G9 L5.8 N Abs

     The NEH "Timeless Classics" booklist includes The King Must Die by Mary Renault in the suggestions for seventh and eighth graders. Because I have a personal interest in ancient cultures, I read it looking for passages that might be of stylistic interest for this site. My sense is that the 338 pages may overwhelm many middle school students and that some of the themes may be too mature for them, but that is for individual teachers and parents to decide.  The selected passages can provide an excellent review of the use of semicolons, even if the students do not read the novel. Perhaps the best way to use these passages is to give students the punctuation exercises and then have the students discuss how their versions compare to Renault's. My guess is that the punctuation exercises will frustrate students, but that very frustration should reinforce in their minds the importance of punctuation.

Notes on Style

Selection # 1 -- The King's Explanation to Theseus

     The semicolon between the two main clauses in the first sentence emphasizes the contrast between the blindness of animals and the god-given knowledge of men. I would also invite discussion of the colon after "sign." The rules for the use of the colon and semicolon are flexible, but I have never seen a textbook that suggests following a colon with a subordinate clause. In the text, however, the "that" after the colon serves no function other than that of a subordinating conjunction. In the analysis key for Level Three, I explained the "that" clause as a delayed subject, but since "this," "sign," and the clause all refer to the same thing, one could also consider the subordinate clause as an appositive to "sign." Note, however, that the colon serves the normal function of a colon -- what comes after it is a more detailed, more specific version of "sign."
     The theme of humans being the only species that knows that it will die is fairly common in literature, perhaps because it is a very important idea. ["Moira" means fate or destiny.] Most of the sentences in this passage consist of two or more short, relatively simple main clauses. The brevity and simplicity of the style reinforces the meaning: This is the way life is -- it is just that simple. Another interesting point for discussion in this passage is the difference between people who are happy living "unknown, like the stall-fed ox" and those who choose "short life with glory, and to walk with the god." Note that the king does not present the short life of criminal fame as an option. Perhaps, in those days, and in that culture, it was not one.
    Totally ellipsed verbs are not very common so I would also direct students' attention to the example in the next to last sentence -- "And the custom changes, Theseus, but this token never *changes*."

Selection # 2 -- Theseus Returns to Eleusis

     The semicolons in the final sentence of this selection are governed by a stylistic convention -- a semicolon separates main clauses in which the verb in the second clause is ellipsed. The ellipsed verb is usually replaced by a comma -- "Mary loves roses; Sara, lilies." Renault pushes this convention by eliding two subjects and their verbs in a series of three main clauses. Note that without the semicolons, there would be a subject/verb agreement error -- "There was ... sunlight, ... shadow..., and a woman ...."
     An interesting topic of discussion might be Renault's reason(s) for not using semicolons in the first two sentences in this passage, but using them in the third. Why, in other words, is the text not punctuated as:

     As I rode under the gate-tower black with people, the gates groaned open; and the watchman blew his horn. The flags of the Great Court stretched before me; and between the high walls my horse-hoofs echoed. Upon the roof, the Palace people were thick as winter bees, but they were quiet, and no bright cloths hung from the windows.
I would suggest that Renault's use of semicolons isolates, or, in other terms, separates or distinguishes various images as they run through Theseus's mind as he rides into the passive city. The use of finite verbs in the passage reinforces this idea. The passage marks a turning point in the novel. Theseus had been the "king" in a queen-dominated society, a society in which the "king" lasted a year and was then sacrificed. But this passage marks Theseus's return from killing a boar, winning a war, and killing the Queen's brother. He is now the commanding, powerful figure, returning to face the citizens and the Queen.
     The Queen is the "woman in a wide stiff skirt," and her "long stiff shadow" suggests the tension that now lies between them, but the sentence undercuts her power by denying her the force of a finite verb. Renault could have written "a woman in a wide stiff skirt and purple diadem, tall and unmoving, threw like a column a long stiff shadow in the sun." The simile, "like a column," reinforces this idea -- a column is a symbol of power, but it is only a symbol. In itself it has no power. 
     The sequence of finite verbs (and lack of them) that leads up to this final image prepares for it. Theseus "rode"; "gates groaned." The "watchman blew his horn" to announce Theseus's arrival. The "flags" (inanimate) "stretched," whereas Theseus's "horse-hoofs echoed." The inactive "people were thick;" "were quiet." No "cloths hung .... There was ... sunlight; ... shadow ....; a woman." This is now Theseus's world to command. 

Selection # 3 -- Crete

     The first sentence of the final selection includes the other primary function of semicolons -- separating items in a series, some of which themselves include commas. As a bonus, it also includes a colon that introduces this series. The syntax in this series can be explained in two different ways. Some people may view it as a series of nouns that function as appositives to "rite." Each noun in the series represents a part of that rite -- "priests and pristesses; pedestals, a boy; vases, [and] oils." Other readers, however, may view the sentence as focused on a series of noun absolutes. In this view "rite scrambled" is a noun absolute that functions as the direct object of "saw." The "scrambled" is then modifies by a series of noun absolutes that follow the colon:

priests and priestesses *being* in their daily clothes . . .
pedestals bearing lamps . . .
a boy holding the ... censer . . .
vases ... laid . . . [and]
holy oils *being* in pots . . . .
Grammarians and linguists will, I should note, argue about these explanations, so I would suggest that students likewise be enabled to take non-conforming positions. There is no one "right answer." My own preference is for the explanation using noun absolutes because it raises "scrambled" into the main S/V/C slots of the main S/V/C pattern. (If we consider "scrambled" to be simply a gerundive, then the main S/V/C is "I saw ... rite . . . ." But if we consider "rite scrambled" to be a noun absolute that functions as the direct object, then the words in the main S/V/C slots are "I saw ... rite scrambled.") This passage also includes a noun absolute ("robes torn and soiled") that most grammarians would probably explain as adverbial in function.
     The punctuation exercise for this passage will be very challenging for most students, and I would warn them of this, but ask them to try before the class discussed it. Finally, this selection makes an excellent de-combining exercise, and the results of that exercise can be turned back into a sentence-combining exercise. Decombining will, of course, destroy the richness of that first sentence, but the class discussion about the results of such an exercise may help students see how the very structure of Renault's first sentence emphasizes the extent of the scrambled "fear and wreck."

This background is based on the cover of an Italian translation of The King Must Die.
[For educational use only.]
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