Book of the week : The Song Of Achilles - Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is the remarkable debut novel by Madeline Miller which won the 2012 Orange Prize.  It’s a retelling of Homer’s ancient tale of the Greek hero Achilles and the siege of Troy, so of course it’s a thumping good story.  The Iliad would hardly have survived 3000 years of story-telling if it were not.  Miller is a classics scholar, and in her capable hands the well-known tale is transformed into easy-reading historical fiction

One of the most powerful passages in The Iliad is in Book 18, when a weeping Greek soldier comes to the tent of Achilles and tells him that his lifelong friend Patroclus has fallen in battle, slain by the Trojan prince Hector

In Robert Fagles’ excellent translation: “A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles, both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth, he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face and black ashes settled onto his fresh war-shirt. Overpowered in all his power, he sprawled in the dust. Achilles lay there, fallen … tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands”

Homer tells us what happened, but not why Achilles was so grief stricken. Miller fills in the back story

It is told in the voice of Patroclus, which to readers familiar with The Iliad may be puzzling, since we already know that Homer’s story ends with Achilles outliving Patroclus. Yet Patroclus’ narrative continues after his death and cremation

When he is 10 years old, Patroclus, the awkward, not-very-promising son of a minor Greek king, accidentally kills an older bully, the son of a nobleman, over a game of dice. His father sentences him to exile in another small kingdom, Phthia, whose King Peleus once raped a sea goddess, Thetis, and produced a son now of Patroclus’s age. His name is Achilles

Achilles is everything that Patroclus is not: the perfect prince. To everyone’s surprise, the golden boy chooses unprepossessing, standoffish, silent Patroclus as his friend and companion, and the two are educated together by the centaur Chiron on Mount Pelion — Achilles in the art of war, Patroclus in the art of healing

With the Trojan War about to begin, Peleus calls back the boys, thinking that Achilles will lead an army from his kingdom. Thetis carries her son off to Scyros instead, wishing to break up the youths’ relationship and prevent Achilles from fighting. She forces him into a liaison with Deidameia, princess of Scyros, who later gives birth to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. Patroclus follows Achilles to Scyros. Although Thetis has made Achilles disguise himself as a girl, Odysseus arrives and, tricking Achilles into revealing himself, they head off to war

Although Achilles soon is recognized as the greatest Greek warrior, it is the story of Patroclus — as Achilles’ aide-de-camp, as his friend and lover, as a medic for the Greek army, as protector of a captive girl over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel, bringing disaster upon the Greek camp — that interests Miller more. Meanwhile, Achilles, who cannot function without Patroclus’ help, remains remote and godlike

Miller keeps close to the traditional interpretation of the major figures of the Trojan War, fleshing out those who are essential to her story. The portrayals of Odysseus and Agamemnon are especially well done, giving a sense of their personalities as well as their roles in the story. She has been freer in presenting some of the characters, such as Patroclus and Briseis, who have not been as fully developed in other works. Thetis, seen through Patroclus’ eyes, becomes a chilling figure — a controlling mother who tries to shape her son’s life and hates Patroclus for being part of it

Miller’s other achievement is to elevate women beyond the bit parts they play in The Iliad.  Yes they are still sacrificed, traded, carted off as war booty and so forth, (the novel could hardly be historically authentic if they were not) but Briseis, the captive girl, is an intriguing character with strength, wisdom and dignity.  Like many a woman attracted to gay men, she bears their rejections well and forges instead a close and rewarding friendship with Patroclus.  Though she is among the most powerless in this most masculine of tales, she has a compelling presence and she alone has the courage to confront Achilles about Patroclus’ needless death - and she not only risks the wrath of stony-hearted Pyrrus to demand burial rites for her friend, but deprives him of the kind of vengeance he would like to have

Particularly satisfying is the ending of the novel, which, given the confines of a story that has both of its major characters dead before it ends, is quite a remarkable achievement

Even for a scholar of Greek literature, which Miller is, rewriting the Western world’s first and greatest war novel is a daunting task to undertake. That she does it with such grace, style and suspense is astonishing

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