“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

A fascinating attempt to novelise the Iliad, taking the material beyond the confines of Homer’s poem, both before and after, but not falling into the trap of having to tell the whole bloody story in detail, wooden horse and all (one of the weaknesses of the broadly successful film Troy). Miller, apparently inspired by Shakespeare’s take on the story in Troilus and Cressida, writes as Patroclus, cleverly choosing Homer’s favourite character (frequently addressed by the poet directly as “you”), and tells his life story, from running away after killing another boy to his time (neatly) as a ghost after his killing by Hector (Homer has Patroclus appear as a ghost to Achilles, so that’s OK). Her style (as usual with me) grated at first: spare, often journalistic ‘vivid’ present tense sequences, trying to convey her subject’s thoughts, often self-consciously jarring. This unease didn’t really ever go away, though there are wonderful passages, particularly those involving fast action: Patroclus’ direct challenge to Thetis on the cliff is an early example; the first actual battles around Troy are later ones.

What’s really interesting for me, however, as someone who teaches the Iliad, is what she does with it.

Larger scale reshapings include the development of Thetis into a malevolent, intolerant, controlling, and ultimately tragic seaweed-smelling fishy force, and of course the focus on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, portrayed fully as a ‘gay’ one, sticky moments and everything, although all a little coy, Mills and Boon. (Their relationship works well, until the ‘Iliadic’ final quarter, where Patroclus’ exasperation with his lover’s selfish behaviour, and, in fact, Achilles’ actual selfish behaviour, aren’t 100% convincing – but perhaps that’s Homer’s point: Achilles is exceptional). The Iliad starts with Chryseis not being returned to her father, and ends with Hector’s body being given back to Priam: Miller does well to nest this within her own version – Patroclus’ being exiled from his father at the start, and at the end his being buried with Achilles. She also uses Homer’s portrayal of Achilles as a bard, a singer, throughout her novel, and in her ambiguous title (”of” meaning “sung by” and “about”; subjective and objective genitives). Achilles, with Helen, are uniquely in the Iliad fully conscious of their roles in a story, to the extent of starting to create the artwork before it’s all over, Helen by her weaving and Achilles by singing.

But it’s the little observations, the little twists, which, in true Charles-Martindale style, educate one about the original. These include, in no particular order:

  • Agamemnon’s embassy to Achilles doesn’t fail just because he sends others, but also because it’s at night and in private.
  • Also on the embassy in Book 9, Miller makes much of Phoinix’ use of the Meleager story to try and persuade Achilles to fight; she changes it in making it Meleager’s wife, Cleopatra, who persuades him to fight, not the people in general, thereby making the story hit Patroclus harder, linking her and his name (κλεος + πατηρ vs. πατηρ + κλεος).
  • Aias’ role in the embassy is particularly poignant, as if Achilles returns he, Aias, will lose his status as άριστος Αχαιων.
  • Achilles’ steadfast and stubborn refusal to listen to the concerns and suffering of the Greeks is part of his divine element: that’s what the gods do all the time. It is Patroclus’ kindness, in Homer & Miller, which makes him so human by contrast.
  • Nestor’s plan for Patroclus to fight dressed as Achilles is arguable a “Mauretania”: a deliberate and cynical attempt to get an ally to enter a war by engineering the loss of something dear to them, something whose loss will make their fighting inevitable.
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    One Response to “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

    1. Pingback: Statius: “Achilleid” | Houyhnhnm

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