The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
Over the past few days, I have been revisiting the classic poems of ancient Greece, and watching a series of lectures on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These epic poems always bear retelling. Whether in the original format or recast in one of the many variations that have appeared over the centuries, these stories of kings, heroes, gods and goddesses have the power to stir the imagination.
While listening to the lecturer speak of the wrath of Achilles, I was reminded of the short article I wrote a few years ago about one of those retellings.
Occasionally, a new version of an epic appears which turns convention completely on its head and treads a new, and sometimes controversial, path. One such is Madeline Miller’s prize-winning novel The Song of Achilles.
Miller’s work is an imaginative re-telling of The Iliad, Homer’s tale of the Trojan War. From first to last, she takes it, grapples with its metaphors and hidden meanings, and produces something refreshingly new. By choosing as her main protagonist and narrator Patroclus, one of the poet’s minor – if vital – characters, she breathes new life into the original poetry.
Patroclus visits Sparta with his father as one of the many suitors to Helen. He is not much interested in marriage and is not too upset when Helen chooses Menelaus as her husband. On returning home, he has an angry fight with another boy, kills him, and as a result is exiled to Phthia, the country ruled by King Peleus, the father of Achilles.
The small, slight and untalented Patroclus forms an unlikely friendship with the handsome and strong demi-god, who takes him under his wing and allows him to share his lessons with the centaur Chiron. When Achilles is reluctantly drawn into Menelaus’ and Agamemnon’s war, despite the protestations of his mother, the Nereid Thetis, Patroclus accompanies him to Troy.
All of Homer’s imaginative narrative is there: the choice of Helen; her kidnap by Paris; the Greeks’ response; and finally the siege of Troy itself, Achilles’ defining battle with Hector and his ultimate death at the hands of Paris – although the last-mentioned scene does not appear in Homer. However, the Achilles of The Song is not the macho hero of The Iliad. The friendship of the two boys develops into something quite different, a passionate love affair between two adult men. And Miller handles this with sympathy and flair. The characterisation in the novel is brilliant. The devious Odysseus, the arrogant Agamemnon and the learned centaur Chiron are portrayed with hyper-Homeric skill. Miller’s portrait of the nymph Thetis, rising almost vampire-like from the sea to confront her son’s lover made me shiver as I read.
And through it all moves a heroic, yet rather spoilt and petulant Achilles, fully aware what his fate will be, but in the end carelessly embracing it for love’s sake. The end and the final reconciliation are clever and satisfying. I loved this story. Madeline Miller thoroughly deserved her 2012 Orange Prize for this debut novel.