Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I first heard of The Song of Achilles when Madeline Miller won last year’s Orange Prize, an impressive achievement for a debut novel. Miller teaches Latin and Ancient Greek, so has a strong background to take on Homer. As a long time classics geek myself, I put it on my to-read list. Her take on Achilles is undeniably modern, and manages to strike a difficult balance by giving justice to the complex world of classical myth while being readable to a layperson.

The Song of Achilles takes its title from the opening line of The Iliad
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
but is not solely about the events that take place in the epic poem, which rather than telling the story of the fall of Troy as is often assumed, actually only relates the events of a few weeks in the tenth year of the war. Miller takes much of her story from events related in the Epic Cycle, and throws in a fair bit of her own invention. Her version of this ancient myth is narrated by Patroclus, Achilles’s closest friend, and, as Miller interprets, lover. Her story begins with Patroclus’s childhood, when he is exiled by his family and sent to live in the court of Peleus. Here, he and Achilles strike up a boyish friendship that over the years grows into a romantic relationship. These events take up almost the whole first half of the novel. We are introduced to a very different Achilles from the wrathful one I knew from the classics. Here he is a laughing, energetic boy, albeit a rather gifted one (his mother is a goddess after all). Our view of him is through the prism of Patroclus’s feelings, yet we see glimpses at times of insouciance that could so easily be arrogance, determination that could become stubborn pride. The love story is handled with a light touch, and beautifully told, yet I found myself wanting things to move forward a little quicker.

At last our heroes reach the shores of Troy, and the story spins through to its inevitable conclusion - the story of The Iliad: Agamemnon (the most powerful Greek king) and Achilles will fight; whilst Achilles sulks, Patroclus will fight in battle and be killed by Hector; Achilles will then kill Hector in a rage. Spoilers? No, the Iliad is thousands of years old. This of course poses the problem of how to keep it interesting when we already know what will happen. Wisely, I think, Miller doesn’t try to make the ending a surprise. By using the classical beliefs in prophecy and the fates, our heroes themselves are aware that Achilles will kill Hector, and in doing so will cement his reputation as ‘Aristos Achaion’ the best of the Greeks, but this will also lead to his own death.

The second half of the novel is what I had hoped for when I started. At first Patroclus admires Achilles, seeing him in a new light as he triumphs in battle
I could not see the ugliness of the deaths anymore, the brains, the shattered bones that later I would wash from my skin and hair. All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.
The familiar Achilles eventually begins to appear, and the story we all know is told. Miller’s love story adds pathos to an otherwise straightforward retelling. Disappointingly, I felt some moments lacked emotional punch, especially the scene where Priam visits Achilles to beg for the body of his son, Hector. Thankfully Miller handles the inevitable problem of the death of our narrator with aplomb. How? I won’t tell, but she brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.

Miller plans to write a novel based on the Odyssey next. I’m looking forward to reading it, especially as Odysseus was one of her most successful characters. The Song of Achilles is an interesting and at times very moving interpretation of one of the world’s oldest myths. I can’t help, however, comparing it to Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2008 novel Lavinia, in which Le Guin tells the story of the second half of The Aeneid through the eyes of Lavinia, the eventual wife of Aeneas. In my opinion this is a superior take on classical myth. But then, I did always prefer the Romans to the Greeks.

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