Saturday, 8 December 2018

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

"I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. Catch, he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. If I have to go, I will go with you. My fears forgotten in the golden harbor of his arms. The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both."

I have always had a fascination with myths. I remember hunting out books at the library in my childhood - anything that would offer a retelling of the most enthralling legends from ancient history. I watched countless Sunday afternoon reruns of old film adaptations on the BBC (Jason and the Argonauts was a personal favourite). To this day, the ancient history sections of any museum hold a magic for me that has yet to be replicated elsewhere. Something about myths captured my young imagination and has not let go. The battle between gods and mortals, the infighting between deities, and the half-god heroes that surpass all reality in their bravery and singular focus on legacy, it all intrigues me. It is a surprise, therefore, that it took me so long to finally read Madeline Miller's celebrated retelling of the Achilles myth, The Song of Achilles.

The Song of Achilles was Miller's debut work (followed up this year with another mythical rewrite, Circe), published in 2011. Introducing a new element into the legend of Achilles and his participation in the battle of Troy, Miller chose to narrate the story from the perspective of Achilles' best friend and, in her telling of the myth, lover, Patroclus. Patroclus' own participation in the story of Achilles is well supported in the Greek canon. He features, albeit minimally, in Homer's epic Iliad as the "best-beloved" of Achilles' companions. Later interpretations of the myth understood the two to be lovers. It is out of this tradition that Miller has woven The Song of Achilles, more love story than high-reaching myth. With Patroclus as the story's narrator, Miller begins the novel in unchartered territory - in Patroclus' childhood as the son of King Menoitious. Following an incident in which a boy is killed, Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus of Phthia to be brought up an orphan. It is immediately clear that Peleus' son, Achilles, is a boy of prodigious talent and beauty. The legends surrounding his birth - the rape of the goddess sea nymph Thetis by Peleus, as organised by the gods - are well known and taken as truth. In Patroclus, Achilles finds a companion unlike the adoring boys that vie for his attention. They become firm friends and, eventually, lovers. The story follows the two as they are taken in by the centaur Chiron, whose job it is to instruct the boys in all areas of education necessary for future warriors. As the story intersects with the Iliad, the reader accompanies the teenage lovers to Troy as Achilles readies to join Agamemnon's army and retrieve the exquisite Helen from her captors. It is from there that the story builds toward its fateful and tragic conclusion.

" 'I will go', he said. 'I will go to Troy'. The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. 'Yes', I whispered. 'Yes'."

It is true that The Song of Achilles will win no prizes for lyrical or transcendental prose. The book has been accused of falling too much to mimicry of young adult fiction, a point on which I both agree and disagree. The writing certainly lacks maturity - Miller herself is a classicist in background - but I felt that this lack of clear technique worked in the novel's favour. Patroclus' naiveté and simplistic narration permits Miller to capture the human elements of the towering figures by which Patroclus is surrounded. Where historical myth and its retellings do an excellent job of positioning these heroes and kings as something surpassing human, Patroclus' narration introduces a novel degree of humanity into the characterisations. It is this that makes The Song of Achilles a worthwhile read. The humanising effect rendered by the narrative perspective perfectly complements the story's position as somewhere between myth and history. It is a novel replete with gods appearing in tangible form, mythical beasts, and the intricacies of god-designed fate. Miller manages to make these features feel perfectly positioned, whilst also moulding a plot that reads closer to a historical account. 

This said, there are places in which the narrative style is quite jarring. The tone itself feels stuck somewhere between the conversational and awkward style of modern teenage boys and the lofty, supercilious language that we might believe more appropriate to retellings of classic myth. Odysseus - brother-in-law to Helen and hero of the Odyssey - has dialogue that wanders between the two. At times, he sounds like a character that would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. At others, his turn-of-phrase becomes noticeably simplistic and contemporary. It is understandable how the novel is somewhat lost in amongst these two opposing styles. Miller's choice to dictate the narration through Patroclus, a teenage boy whose main priority is his romance with Achilles, makes a more contemporary use of language feel appropriate. Although born of kings, Patroclus is also a self-described simpleton. With the introduction of epic heroes and names with which we are all familiar, however, modern turn-of-phrase feels out of place. The result is dialogue that is stuck somewhere in between the two and a good amount of narrative confusion. The novel is saved largely by the humanising effects of the narration, as mentioned above. The elimination of lofty phrasing and flowery description - so often characteristic of classic retellings - brings a unique degree of relatability to the historical figures. Their humanity  - as depicted through their pride, conceit, manipulation, and love - is central to Patroclus' perspective. Whether intentional or not, the language's lack of apparent technique helps to break down the barriers that would otherwise prevent the reader from relating to this fictionalisation of history's greatest heroes and villains.

While The Song of Achilles has been loftily praised across the board, winning the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, the book is not without its detractors. The novel has been condemned for the distraction provided by the romantic elements, as well as for its failure to adequately explore the events that surround the battle of Troy. It seems to me that any opinion of the book will be largely influenced by how closely you view The Song of Achilles in its relationship to Homer's Iliad. The mistake is to discount Miller's own description of the novel as fundamentally "a love story." In this summary, alone, it becomes difficult to see The Song of Achilles as attempting to follow in Homer's unreachable footsteps. If you view the novel as a work in its own right, detached from any previous attempts to retell the myth of Achilles and Troy, it immediately takes on a narrative depth that might otherwise be easily missed. 

" 'You have made a fair run of blocking fate's path. But you cannot do it forever. The gods will not let you'. He pauses, to let us hear each word of what he says. 'The thread will run smooth, whether you choose it or not. I tell you as a friend, it is better to seek it on your own terms, to make it go at your pace, than theirs'."

Miller does something unique for classic myth in her fictionalisation of Achilles and Patroclus. Not only does she successfully offer an interesting and innovative degree of tragedy to the legend's plot, she also introduces consequence to elements of the story that previously had none. The rape of Thetis, the sea nymph, dominates the novel's turns. Achilles' destiny becomes intwined with the goddess' distaste for mortals and the suffering that she has incurred at their hands. Similarly, the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus is not without consequence. Where such desires are excused among younger boys (who are expected to 'grow out' of their proclivities) or wealthy aristocrats who use slaves for the purpose, Achilles and Patroclus are often regarded with disdain and confusion. At a number of points in the story, their choice to pursue a relationship (albeit a choice that is typically restricted to private moments) is a point of tension. I enjoyed that Miller prevented The Song of Achilles from feeling blind to consequence. Although cultural and social differences quite clearly existed at the time, Miller offers a dose of reality to the implications of choices that, in some way, defied norms. It is a brave choice and, at times, means that there are almost too many motivations and narrative threads at play. Fictionalising myth is, however, no easy task. Miller manages to keep The Song of Achilles grounded in its origins, whilst still offering a twist that makes the novel feel both appropriately contemporary and exciting.

Although there are flaws in the novel, Miller does an incredible job with such intimidating source material. The choices that she made regarding narrative style and perspective give The Song of Achilles a truly unique angle on a myth that has already been so thoroughly explored and fictionalised. It is a wonderful novel that captures an unseen side to the tragedy and misfortune that characterises Achilles' story. That Miller is able to generate such sympathy and emotion surrounding the fate of characters originally described in an epic crafted over three thousand years ago is no dismissible feat. If you have a love of ancient myth or are simply looking for a novel that will draw you along on characterisation alone, you cannot go wrong with The Song of Achilles.


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