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 (the best translated version of which is Robert Fagles’) 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.
Miller’s achievement in reworking the story is that while faithful to the original Iliad, she has explored the psychology of the main protagonists as Homer did not. Just as David Malouf’s sublime novel Ransom explores the moment of redemption when Achilles and King Priam unite in grief, Miller’s novel looks behind Achilles’ implacable grief for Patroclus to discover the love and friendship that bound these two men together. Malouf’s novel is more literary, more beautiful and more poignant because it shows us the journey of the enemy king towards full humanity, discovering truths about himself in his old age. Miller’s writing is not a patch on his – there are no glorious passages of lyricism to make your heart sing – but she’s writing in a different genre for a different audience. Achilles the hero dies before he is 30: The Song of Achilles is a young person’s novel, firmly grounded in the tussle between old and young, sympathetic to intemperate passion over the weariness of experience.
Patroclus narrates the story, retracing his awkward first meeting with Achilles in the court of King Peleus, through their childhood, the dawning of their love in adolescence, and the hard lessons of manhood on the battlefield. An outsider, he struggles to find a place for himself but is content to live in Achilles’ shadow. Theirs is not, and could not ever be a relationship of equals, for Achilles is the son of a goddess and destined to be Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. Patroclus’ destiny is to be a healer, not a warrior, and it is in the tent where he heals the wounded that he first begins to have a role other than as Achilles’ companion, and where we see their essential difference: Patroclus is governed by empathy while Achilles is governed by the pride that will be his undoing:
I developed a reputation, a standing in the camp. I was asked for, known for my quick hands and how little pain I caused. Less and less often Podalerius took his turn in the tent – I was the one who was there when Machaon was not.
I began to surprise Achilles, calling out to these men as we walked through the camp. I was always gratified at how they would raise a hand in return, point to a scar that had healed over well.
After they were gone, Achilles would shake his head. ‘I don’t know how you remember them all. I swear they all look the same to me.’
I would laugh, and point them out again. ‘That’s Sthenelus, Diomedes’ charioteer. And that’s Podarces, whose brother was the first to die, remember?’
‘There are too many of them’, he said. ‘It’s simpler if they just remember me’. (p248)
It is when Patroclus briefly ceases to ‘be himself’ that he meets his doom. Yet he sees more than most, and has a more generous heart than his hero, especially towards women.
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 in this novel 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.
Unlike most historical fiction, The Song of Achilles includes the gods as participants, and these are not the playful gods who interfere in John Banville’s The Infinities. In The Song of Achilles it’s the male gods who are petulant and unreasonable, and they are never brought to life. But Thetis, mother of Achilles, is a major force in the plot. She hates men (as well she might) and she is not only a harbinger of doom but also a malevolent presence. Achilles defies her with his love for Patroclus but he is bound to his mother nonetheless and her appearances haunt the novel. Her redemption at the end is a nice touch – but it’s not the way she will be remembered.
The Song of Achilles is enjoyable light reading, offering additional pleasure for those familiar with The Iliad. It may bring a new generation of readers to the original, though my guess is that (despite its restraint) schools will balk at prescribing it because of the unabashed relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. I’d be delighted to be wrong about that…
Author: Madeline Miller
Title: The Song of Achilles
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2011
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Song of Achilles