Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Mythology, revisionism, fantasy,romance
My rating: ★★★★ (4 of 5 stars)
The true brand of a good tale, I once heard, lies in a string of four words signifying the storyteller’s power over his audience: “And then what happened?” These words indicate a sliver of magic in the middle of action, wedged between this or that plot point; it is a question posed as a half-baked sterling review, an evidence that the truly gifted tale-spinners can prod readers to continue thumbing through the pages for answers.
Contemporary literature pushes the challenge to summon these words up a notch, especially for authors who opt to give revisionism or retellings a go. How would you keep your audience spellbound when they already know what would happen?
Madeline Miller knows exactly what to do, as evidenced in her debut novel The Song of Achilles.
Unfazed by the herculean task of taking on one of the greatest Greek literary masterpieces of all time, Miller manages to weave a story that feels simultaneously old and fresh. She borrows significant parts of Homer’s The Iliad for her novel’s backbone, though instead of giving the narrator’s seat to her titular character, she bestows it to a rather vague figure in the source material: Patroclus, the brother-in-arms and, in this universe’s canon, lover of Achilles.
(That detail alone could ignite a debate, but let us take it here as a fact the same way Plato did in his Symposium, Aeschylus in his lost play Myrmidons, or William Shakespeare in his Troilus and Cressida, shall we?)
The story unfolds as a bildungsroman. After accidentally killing a boy over a game of dice, the young prince Patroclus is exiled from his homeland to the faraway kingdom of Phthia, where he crosses paths with Achilles for the first time. Achilles, branded well even before he was born as “the best of all the Greeks”, is golden, beautiful, swift, and strong—essentially everything that Patroclus thinks himself to be the opposite of. But the envy and bitterness Patroclus harbors towards the boy vanished when they forge an unlikely a bond, a friendship that soon blossoms into love. They grow up together and nurture these feelings, despite risking the ire of the gods. Destiny, however, catches up to them: Helen of Sparta was abducted, and every Greek hero was called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Choosing a life replete with glory and fame over one lived in obscurity and irrelevance, Achilles joins the cause. Fearing for his beloved, Patroclus could only follow.
And this, as many of its readers would know, is where the tale latches itself onto the fateful events of The Iliad: how the Greeks and the Trojans engage in a ten-year warfare, how Achilles is dishonored by King Agammemnon, how Achilles nurses his wounded ego and withdraws from the battles, and how Patroclus decides to take matters into his own hands, unwittingly diving headfirst into his own downfall.
Enthralling and soul-wrenchingly poignant, I think The Song of Achilles proved it rightly deserved the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.
Since this patchwork of Greek events has been refashioned as the autobiography of the self-effacing Patroclus, the novel in its entirety takes an unassuming tone. It seems that Miller makes it a point for Patroclus to take the whole vehicle with him, as even his personality makes the novel’s title an altruistic dedication to the love of his life instead of being the story his own life.
This takes us to what many “classic fans” are pointing out as this story’s Achilles’ Heel: characterization. I have seen it argued many times that Miller’s Patroclus is in no way the same Patroclus that Homer created. The former is molded to be overtly maternal, a tad too “feminine” by preferring the art of medicine and cookery, buzzed by his undying love, and a “total zero” when it comes to the battlefield. Homer’s Patroclus, they say, is much stronger. He fought like a true warrior and is not underscored to be the bottom to Achilles’ top.
What they failed to pay attention to is the obvious: it is Miller’s Patroclus, not Homer’s. How is it that any Greek myth can have fifty versions that can be considered correct, and this cannot? Note, too, that Miller’s Patroclus is crafted to be an unreliable narrator. Just because Patroclus considers himself weak does not mean he truly is. What kind of assets should a character possess to be considered “strong”, anyway? Why would he be tagged in a prophecy as “The Best of the Myrmidons” if he is weak? Miller is throwing clues at you here. This is The Iliad sailing in the modern times, and she is making you take a step back and reassess what a “strong” character should be like.
Achilles, for his part, is a striking albeit lonely portrait of a Greek warrior. Throwing away my initial view of him as a child-man throwing a tantrum, I reopened my eyes to his character to learn his real tragedy—his semi-divine birth. He is a bevy of almost’s: almost a god, almost immortal, almost good enough. What’s worse is he would not simply die; he is prophesied to die young.
Acutely aware of his mortality, he seeks eternal life in the form of fame and glory, of his story etched in songs and urns. He simply cannot hold back if he wants to be immortalized. His emotions then, too, are of extremes, explaining why he practically goes berserk when he learns of what happens to Patroclus at the hands of Hector. See, Achilles does not seek any other person to get close to because he already has everything in Patroclus: a bosom companion, a friend, an adviser, a lover. Losing the man equates to everything being taken away from him. With his grief and wrath tearing through his hubris, he returns to the battlefield not for honor or reputation like everyone else, but for his fallen beloved friend.
Stepping back for the big picture, these two characters are pushed in the forefront romance-bound, with big chunks of the novel portraying them as younglings exploring their feelings. With that, I think it is only understandable how…hormonally charged some chapters came to be (I could do without that certain soft porn-ish bit actually, but we have passion-crazed teens at our hands, so…)
This does not mean the whole piece has degenerated into a lump of, to borrow from fandom-speak, vanilla slash. Even if emotions are highlighted, there are so much more going on in the story that Miller successfully delivers. From time to time there are slips with switches between modern and period-appropriate tones, but these are not exactly unforgivable. The purple prose that threateningly rears its head more than once in it is not deplorable either, as it sometimes do lend the words a splendor that readers can enjoy. If I will have one thing I disliked about it, it is how hastily-paced the chapters of the Trojan War seem to be, presented in stark contrast of the slow build-up of the first half of the book.
But the real beauty of The Song of Achilles, I think, lies in how Miller utilizes her literary tools to tug at the readers’ feelings. It could not be reiterated enough that the material she worked on is not new—we are talking about a three thousand-year-old poem here, and there is no escaping that even if her market consists mainly of young adults. Those who have played hokey instead of completing the required Homer readathon back in high school must have taken to SparkNotes for their Iliad and Odyssey book reports; if not, they might have watched an Iliad-inspired flick starring a very brawny Achilles played by Brad Pitt (with an armor-stealing Patroclus as his…uh, baby cousin). There is practically no reason for anyone to not know anything about it. Because of this, she knew she could not make the readers ask “and then what happened?”. What she did instead is wrote the tale in a way that will make her audience say, “This author knows that I know what will happen, and she’s making sure I’m relishing every step I’m taking until I get there.”
This technique gives her foreshadowing a different flavor, especially the ones pointing to the looming tragedy involving the two main characters. The audience that knows will take these bits of forewarnings as rungs—painful ones—towards the inevitable ending. I surmise that every time Achilles nonchalantly wonders “What has Hector ever done to me?”, a staunch supporter of the leads gets a shard of his or her heart shattered again, tenfold.
Over all, this has been one roller coaster of a read. I repeatedly go back to some passages just to revel at their raw beauty, sometimes to even cry at them. I would shamelessly admit that this book made me want to revisit Homer’s masterpieces again, just so I could see my darling characters again in a universe that classicists have unreservedly adored.
Four stars for a stunning read.