The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
8 November, 2012
It was a measure of my dullness, my dizziness, that it took me until mid-afternoon to see that this was Achilles’ doing. His gaze was on me always, preternaturally sensing the moment when a soldier’s eyes widened at the easy target I presented. Before he drew another breath he would cut them down.
We chose The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller for my book group via a poll, probably because there was so much talk about it and because it had won this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. It’s a strange thing. I began to see reviews trickling through my blog timeline since early in the year. Glowing reviews from all sorts of book blogs, many with an interest in contemporary rather than classical literature. And yet they were all uniformly fervent in their enthusiasm for this book. I love Greek mythology. But the story of Achilles and Troy has been recounted so many times, the last version in a rather tedious film version. So I was curious about this book but not enough to bring myself to read it just yet.
But what a find. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I read the first page of a book and felt its rhythm, the poetic trilling of the language, the little pauses between each phrase that pricked my emotions like darts.
Miller’s Achilles is the epitome of godliness with just enough humanity and wide, clear-eyed honesty to make him the most desirable of men. And Patroclus, the mortal who catches his eye, the greatest of the Myrmidons with such compassion and honour to be just the one to tell Achilles’ story. At The Song of Achilles‘ core is their love story in its purest form, the siege of Troy unfolding in the background, the inevitable, grief-stricken climax the only plausible ending to their tale.
I devoured this book and yet I didn’t want it to end. I read it in snatches, inching towards the finale, knowing what was coming, straining against it and yet, Miller’s beautiful, lyrical prose kept nudging me forward. In all the violence and machismo of Ancient Greece, she has teased out its beauty and I wanted to feel the warm sunshine on my skin, lying on the beach staring out at the sea just like Achilles and Patroclus.
One of the things I loved about Miller’s retelling is that she kept the gods and their divine powers intact. She didn’t try to explain them away in some rational way. The whim of the gods as they played their games is all the more cruel because of their effect on the mortals. Achilles’ tutor Chiron, the wise centaur who first so frightened Patroclus at the beginning. Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis is cold and frightening in her majesty, all her love and ambition poured into her only son, the result of a forced union with Peleus, the King of Phthia.
She would return only to visit the boy, never for any other reason, and never for long. The rest of the time the child was raised by tutors and nurses, and overseen by Pohinix, Peleus’ most trusted counsellor. Did Peleus ever regret the gods’ gift to him? An ordinary wife would have counted herself lucky to find a husband with Peleus’ mildness, his smile-lined face. But for the sea-nymph Thetis nothing could ever eclipse the stain of dirty, mortal mediocrity.
And all the kings of the Greek kingdoms, many heroes in their own tales including Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and his sly, silvery tongue who lures Achilles into Agamemnon’s war to rescue his brother Menelaus’ beautiful wife, Helen from Troy. They are all there, muddied by their mortality against Achilles’ semi-divine majesty. The injustice of the women’s plight in a man’s world, told with compassion through Patroclus’ eyes.
Patroclus’ retelling of his love for Achilles is beautiful and melancholic, overcast by the prophecy of Achilles’ death sealed by the slaying of Hector of Troy. And so they both embark on the war against Troy while avoiding any encounters with Hector so as not to fulfill the prophecy. And yet the gods are cruel. And we see Achilles change as he becomes the Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. In a camp of hardened soldiers and proud kings, it is not only the Trojans Achilles must best but his destiny. But when Patroclus dies at Hector’s hand, Achilles goes on a violent rampage to seek his revenge. And although Achilles dies before the fall of Troy, this is only accomplished with the arrival of Achilles’ monstrous son Pyrrhus, moulded again by Thetis’ ambition.
Miller’s gift is that she has recreated something beautiful and new out of a tale told over a thousand times. I’m truly curious as to what she will produce next. And I do hope she does. It’s an astonishing feat and truly deserves its prize. And it’s Donna Tartt’s book of the year.