I studied Classics at university, and of course the Iliad was required reading. But I often had to admit, always a little sheepishly, that I was never really a big fan of the epic. I could never enjoy the long lists of ships, war prizes, heroes, and descriptions of violent, bloody deaths that fans of Quentin Tarantino would find familiar – and least of all the sulking, brutish, prideful Achilles. I always found myself cheering for the tragic figure of Hector instead – the prince of Troy who fights not for glory or everlasting fame, but to defend his home and family.
But Madeline Miller has caused me to completely rethink and revise my opinion of Achilles. The novel tells the story of this mythological hero, from his boyhood in the kingdom of Phthia to the Trojan War, through the eyes of his beloved companion, Patroclus. Patroclus is a character from Greek mythology who we know less for himself and more for the cycle of vengeance that follows his death. (Spoiler alert! Hector, prince of Troy, kills Patroclus; in vengeance, Achilles kills Hector; to avenge his death, Paris kills Achilles; to avenge him, Philoctetes kills Paris, and so on. You get the idea.)
Ms. Miller begins her story with Patroclus, a sullen, awkward prince exiled from his home to the kingdom of Phthia, ruled by king Peleus. Patroclus quickly falls under the spell of the bright-eyed, golden-haired prince, Achilles. Achilles is intrigued by Patroclus and the two become inseparable. When Achilles is sent away to become a student of the ancient, learned centaur, Chiron, Patroclus cannot bear to be separated from his closest, and only, friend; and so he runs away from the palace and joins Achilles on the slopes of Mount Pelion.
The author handles their blossoming affection and romance very delicately and reverently. She does not beat around the bush in her explanation of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship as many more prudish historians and translators have been wont to do over the centuries. Moreover, Ms. Miller gives her readers an opportunity to better understand Achilles’ motives for going to war and provides believable explanations where Homer remains silent. She fleshes out both his and Patroclus’ characters and gives added dimensions to a character, who, in the Iliad, is little more than the sum of his anger (μηνιν…ουλομενην) and pride.
One of the difficulties facing any modern adapter of Homer and his heroic epics is the omnipresence of divinities. Do you, as an author, ignore them, thereby stripping the stories of their heart and soul? Or do you portray the heroes living in a magical world, thereby making the story unrealistic to modern readers and difficult to reconcile with the grim, visceral effects of war? Well, Ms. Miller simply takes the gods in her stride. At the beginning of the novel, she deals with them matter-of-factly in Patroclus’ child-voice. It reminded me very much of how a child today might explain the existence of Santa Claus and his elves. He does not think twice about their existence, and consequently, neither do you. She writes with clear, evocative prose and I would agree with the Guardian’s review that the prose is better than almost all the so-called poetic translations of Homer I have ever read. The Song of Achilles is a must-read for any lovers of historical fiction, and Classicists too, whether they are fans of the Iliad or not.
Check the WRL catalog for The Song of Achilles.