Following my success with Lavinia, I decided to finally bite the bullet and read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Although I followed the buzz around the novel when it was published and then won the Orange Prize, I had been putting it off for some frankly not very good reasons. As I’ve said before, I have an ambivalent relationship with novels that rewrite myth, but I think both Lavinia and The Song of Achilles have helped me work out what my issue is. It is not novels that rewrite myth (she types, remembering that her childhood favourites The King Must Die and The Bull From The Sea should have demonstrated this straight away). It is novels that try to be too faithful to myth – that at their worst end up feeling like bad translations of Homer or Virgil. Lavinia had the occasional patch of this. The Song of Achilles had none that registered on my radar.
Miller has managed to do something rather wonderful in taking such a well-known story and finding something new in it. To do so, she picks up on one of the great controversies of the Iliad – are we meant to read Achilles and Patroclus as lovers, or as just good friends? I won’t go into the arguments about that here, because Miller takes the starting point of their romantic relationship and uses it as the fresh canvas on which to create her story. I think this is what prevents the book from wandering into that danger-zone of ‘too close to the original for comfort’ – the ancient texts don’t talk about how Achilles and Patroclus got to know each other or their lives. We get, of course, the moment of Patroclus donning Achilles’ armour and the tragic results, but there’s a whole lot there still to tell. The focus on the interpersonal relationship means both that Miller has a unique hook, a story that has not yet been told, and that there’s a strong direction through the plot that doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Patroclus, the novel’s narrator, acts because of his own motivations and his feelings for Achilles, giving events a narratively satisfying flow.
A side note: it is interesting that both The Song of Achilles and Lavinia give voices to those who have previously remained voiceless, and in ways which illustrate their authors are aware of this. Lavinia introduced Virgil as a character, lamenting that he hadn’t made more of the Latin princess. The Song of Achilles takes this approach in two directions. First, it lets ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ speak – Patroclus may have had a voice in the Iliad, but it wasn’t a voice that expressed the emotional complexity of his relationships with Achilles. Second, it tells the story of a different Achilles; its muse does not only sing the wrath of Achilles, but attempts to give a view of his broader personality, his gentler side, his compassion for the underdog, his emotional warmth towards Patroclus, and in some cases his simple confusion at being a young man-god in a culture that is going to eat him alive. Homer’s Achilles always had more to him than wrath, as his encounter with Priam in book 24 demonstrates. Miller uncovers more of him.
I was particularly impressed with how Miller decided to deal with the gods, always a tricky one, not least because of the prominence of Thetis as a character within the story of Achilles. I’m delighted to say that she goes for it – gods exist, gods despise humans for their mortality, Thetis comes over as ice-hard and ambitious, wanting immortal fame for Achilles and hating his relationship with Patroclus as somehow demeaning of him. If we were to get meta about this, I might suggest reading the text with Thetis as a metaphor for the Iliad‘s portrayal of Achilles, what that poem wants him to be, but that’s an idea off the top of my head. I particularly liked that Thetis as a character was also fleshed out; her relationship with Peleus, one forced on her by the other gods against her will, came over as particularly creepy and problematic, but it was a convincing way to shape her character. After all, it is fair to ask what on earth the gods see in mortals; the answer appears to be ‘not much’. However, while Miller may decide to keep the gods in play, they remain mysterious and confusing. Achilles, who frequently slips off to see his mother in the early mornings, appears to have a better grip on what they are like, but Patroclus is as much in the dark about their motives and aims as the rest of us. It’s an approach that works rather well, not least because it gives the book’s readers credit for creative suspension of the imagination – a thing which Wolfgang Petersen explicitly thought that film audiences could not cope with in Troy.
Overall, The Song of Achilles offers a parallel text to the Iliad, not an alternative. It weaves itself into the spaces of that narrative rather than trying to tell the story afresh. It is also very well written, and happy to stretch stylistic conventions – I am thinking particularly of the last section, where Patroclus’ unburied shade becomes the narrating figure. If you harbour doubts about historical fiction, you can safely put them to one side to pick up this book.