The Song of Achilles: Madeline Miller

★★★½

I went over to the dark side recently and treated myself to a Kindle. In my defence, it was mainly a matter of expedience. Being a fast reader, I suffer the consequences of long train journeys or business trips.  Things reached a peak when, during a visit to Germany, my copy of World Without End weighed more than the rest of my hand luggage put together.  Rather than heave enormous books around Europe, just in case I run out of something to read, it seems much more sensible to have multiple e-books at my fingertips. And so, for my first Kindle experience, I lighted on Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles, which promised to indulge my fascination with the myth cycle of the Trojan War.

Miller’s book is narrated by Patroclus and begins with his rather miserable childhood, spent under the thumb of a father who dislikes him and thinks him simple. Deliverance from this lonely life comes at a shocking price: the accidental murder of another boy, after which Patroclus is sent away into exile at Phthia, where Peleus holds his court. Here he meets the king’s son Achilles, builds a cautious friendship with him, and eventually becomes his bosom companion. From there we move into more familiar territory: the boys’ time with wise Cheiron on Mount Pelion; the court at Scyros; the mustering of the Greeks at Aulis; and the voyage to Troy.

Some recent versions of the myth, such as Troy itself and the Age of Bronze graphic novels, have shown a tendency to focus on the human side of the conflict and to play down the role of the gods.  Miller, on the contrary, simply presents us with the myths in all their original strangeness.  Cheiron is actually a centaur; Apollo leans down from the walls of Troy and sends his plague-arrows among the Greeks; and Thetis is a goddess rather than a priestess, as Age of Bronze makes her.  She was one of the things I liked best about the book.  I’ve always imagined the gods and goddesses as being bright and dazzling, but Miller’s Thetis is a dark, vindictive sea-demon, enveloped by the smell of the surf, sharp-toothed and jealous.  I actually felt a wonderful wash of dread whenever she appeared on the scene.  Despite my misgivings about putting Greek gods on film, I’d love to see what Guillermo del Toro could do with her.

I applaud many of Miller’s choices.  She obviously has a thorough knowledge of the period, as she has an MA in Classics, but she wears her learning lightly.  I like her emphasis on ritual and protocol, and I thoroughly enjoyed her episode on Scyros: Achilles and the daughters of Lycomedes is one of my favourite subjects in art.  In Miller’s story, she adds an extra twist of amusement: Patroclus has already found Achilles hidden there.  On Patroclus’ arrival, Achilles (still decked out in skirts and assumed by everyone to be a girl) coyly introduces him to naïve Lycomedes as ‘her’ husband, come to rescue ‘her’.  Indeed, I have to say that I felt there was much more life to the early part of Miller’s book than there is later on, when (like the Iliad itself), it all seems to boil down to lists of names and gory descriptions of spears breaking through bones.  Perhaps it’s because she had a slightly freer imaginative rein at that stage – and, let’s be honest, of all the heroes Achilles has perhaps the most eventful adolescence.

Two things niggled – come on, you knew it couldn’t be all praise.  I felt that the first half of Miller’s book was heavily influenced by Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven.  The feel of Peleus’ court; the growing friendship between Achilles and Patroclus; the very way that Achilles was described… they all had a strong family resemblance to Renault’s descriptions of the young Alexander and his relationship with Hephaistion.  Having said that, Mary Renault is my benchmark for historical fiction set in Ancient Greece and so the very fact that Miller’s book brought her to mind is high praise.  But it just all felt quite similar.  (It may be that Miller has never read Fire from Heaven, but I’d be extremely surprised if that were the case.)

My other concern was the characterisation of Patroclus.  It’s fine when he’s a boy and his role consists mainly of rhapsodising over Achilles with greater or lesser amounts of teenage angst – although parts of this do have the breathless feel of well-written fan-fiction.  Later, however, Miller would have us believe that Patroclus is a fairly poor fighter and that his time at Troy is divided between helping the medics and keeping the tent tidy. This, I don’t buy.  To the society that Miller describes, such a man would be considered little better than a woman and I would expect her Patroclus to be treated much worse than he is.  Instead, everything is explained away by the fact that Achilles is ‘looking after him’.  To me, this felt false.  One minute Miller’s gentle, home-loving soul is doing his best to stay away from the battlefield; the next he suddenly offers to ride out in Achilles’ armour to strike fear into the hearts of the Trojans.  In the Iliad, Patroclus is a respected warrior in his own right, referred to with the word ‘illustrious’ and quite capable of smashing into the Trojans (he was one of the Myrmidons after all!); I think I’m also right in saying that he should also be a little older than Achilles, as suggested in Age of Bronze, but that’s a minor point.

Bear in mind that I am an incorrigible nit-picker with historical fiction, especially when it deals with characters I particularly like. Don’t let the grumbling cast too much of a shadow. Overall this was an enjoyable book, incredibly readable and a welcome retelling of Achilles’ story.

Update: 01/06/2012 – And Miller has won the 2012 Orange Prize for this book, which is one more reason for you to give it a go!

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