Monday, April 16, 2012

{review} the song of achilles

Madeline Miller The Song of Achilles (2011) 

 
I turned. Thetis stood at the edge of the clearing, her bone-white skin and black hair bright as slashes of lightning. The dress she wore clung close to her body and shimmered like fish-scale. My breath died in my throat. ‘You were not to be here,’ she said. The scrape of jagged rocks against a ship’s hull. She stepped forward, and the grass seemed to wilt beneath her feet. She was a sea-nymph, and the things of earth did not love her.
Madeline Miller has produced a remarkable redaction of the story of the Greek hero Achilles - the 'best of the Achaians' [Greeks] of the Trojan War. Miller has a real feel for the stories behind the Trojan War saga, not least The Iliad. The result is a very much humanized presentation of the great hero, told from the perspective of his lover Patroclus.  

The Iliad is a hard read. It helps to like men and battles. It is a wonderful poem if you can stay the distance. Miller's great achievement is to take this material and rework it into something that makes one want to return to the original - she reminds the reader of how extraordinary are these stories.

The plot: Miller's narrator Patroclus (yes, it's first person) tells the story of how he met Achilles, their boyhood, adolescence, increasing sexual attraction, and their attempts to avoid Achilles' known fate: 
My hand closed over his. ‘You must not kill Hector,’ I said. He looked up, his beautiful face framed by the gold of his hair. ‘My mother told you the rest of the prophecy.’ ‘She did.’ ‘And you think that no one but me can kill Hector.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And you think to steal time from the Fates?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Ah.’ A sly smile spread across his face; he had always loved defiance. ‘Well, why should I kill him? He’s done nothing to me.’ For the first time then, I felt a kind of hope.
Some characters really shone for me: Miller's Odysseus is wonderfully tricky - as he should be. Miller's presentation of Achilles' mother, the goddess Thetis, manages to surmount the problems of realistically presenting gods in a human world.

 Some things didn't work so well for me: I thought Miller had some problems with time: after all, there is a lot of time to get through during the Trojan War when nothing much is happening except battle, battle, battle. The segues from stasis to action seemed sometimes forced. I also found the love scenes a bit coyly soft focus; indeed, on one level, the whole book sometimes threatens to veer into 'romance' territory.
I handed him the last piece, his helmet, bristling with horsehair, and watched as he fitted it over his ears, leaving only a thin strip of his face open. He leaned towards me, framed by bronze, smelling of sweat and leather and metal. I closed my eyes, felt his lips on mine, the only part of him still soft. Then he was gone.
But, you know, I really enjoyed The Song of Achilles. I enjoyed Miller's take on the Patroclus-Achilles relationship (were they? weren't they? was always an issue in studying The Iliad and works of the epic cycle). I think it is fantastic that a book that is in its own way a love song to a far more ancient book is a contender for the Orange Prize and I think that Miller has done classical studies the sort of huge popularizing favour that ordinarily only comes about nowadays via the cinema - Gladiator et al.
‘Is it right that my father’s fame should be diminished? Tainted by a commoner?’
‘Patroclus was no commoner. He was born a prince, and exiled. He served bravely in our army, and many men admired him. He killed Sarpedon, second only to Hector.’
‘In my father’s armour. With my father’s fame. He has none of his own.’
Odysseus inclines his head. ‘True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.’ He spread his broad hands. ‘We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?’ He smiles. ‘Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.’
‘I doubt it.’
Rating: 8/10.

If you liked these: go on, read the original.

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