Monday, October 21, 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I, Patroclus
The Song of Achilles, the 2011 debut novel by Madeline Miller, retells the life story of the titular Greek hero as related through the first-person perspective of his friend and constant companion Patroclus. In Homer’s Iliad, it is the death of Patroclus that so enrages Achilles that he hunts down the Trojan warrior Hector, slays him, and defiles his corpse. Here Miller provides us with the back story behind Achilles’ terrible rage. In this novel, Achilles and Patroclus share a homosexual relationship. While that in itself is not so unexpected—some would say even Homer implies it—what is surprising is how much the romance dominates the book. Those hoping for tales of Achilles’ battlefield heroics may find themselves waiting awfully impatiently for the boats to leave for Troy.

The ancient Greek tale of the Trojan War is one of the greatest stories ever told, which leaves one to wonder what Miller could possibly hope to add to it. What she does is make the story more compelling and palatable to a modern audience by making the mythical heroes less idealized, adding psychological depth to the characters, and staging scenes that descriptively recreate life in the ancient world. While some readers may find the explicit gay love scenes offensive, I was more put off by the way that supernatural events are treated in the book. In Homer’s epic poems, of course, the gods and goddesses exist and interact with the characters. What works for Homer, however, doesn’t necessarily work for Miller. On the one hand she humanizes Achilles and Patroclus by depicting them in a realistic homosexual relationship. On the other hand she has them riding on the back of a centaur. The incongruity is jarring, and totally yanks the reader out of any semblance of verisimilitude into the world of young adult fantasy literature. Most of the time the mythology is handled with more subtlety. The gods exercise their influence behind the scenes and are mentioned by the characters in conversation. The few instances, however, when the story does go into Clash of the Titans mode, the effect is detrimental to the novel’s mature literary examination of love, honor, and glory. Chiron was a centaur, after all, so what’s to be done? While Miller’s faithfulness to the classic texts is to be respected, for this modern retelling she could have exercised more poetic license.

For much of the book, Patroclus is not the most satisfying of narrators. He’s overly whiny, too passive, and too often gushes like a lovesick puppy. At about the halfway point, the Greeks depart for Troy and the book vastly improves from then on. In fact, it keeps on getting better and better up until the end, and Patroclus manages to earn the reader’s respect. Despite the fact that the conclusion is foregone, Miller adds dimension, complexity, and sensitivity to the proceedings, providing the reader with an opportunity to view this ancient tale in a new light. It’s no substitute for the Iliad, but an admirable supplement to it. One character that’s handled very well in the book is Odysseus. It would be interesting to see what Miller could do with the Odyssey.

The Song of Achilles is a well-crafted literary mashup of classic myth, peplum film, and fantasy romance. Fans of any of those genres will surely find something to like in it, but to truly love this book you’d have to be enthusiastic about all three.

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