“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller – Doomed Beauty

Despite as a rule giving supernatural and magic realism a wide berth, I find Greek and Roman myths and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey intriguing examples of storytelling and creative writing from nearly three thousand years ago. With an academic background in the Classics, Madeline Miller has produced a vividly imagined modern take on the famous drama of the warrior Achilles and his friend and lover Patroclus. After a decade of research, she has crafted a tightly plotted tale to which we can relate, despite the different values and customs of the day, through the well-developed main characters and dialogue which is modern, without jarring.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, a Greek prince who is exiled from his unloving father’s kingdom at the age of only nine for having accidentally killed a boy who bullied him. At the court of the kindly King Peleus, Patroclus catches the eye of his charismatic son Achilles, and the two become firm friends and eventually lovers. With the sea goddess Thetis for a mother, Achilles is fated to become immortalised in memory as the greatest warrior of his generation, the price being that he will die young. This seems likely to happen sooner than he and Patroclus might wish, since the Greek kings and princes are bound by an oath to fight for the return to Menelaus of his beautiful wife Helen, who has been abducted (perhaps willingly) by the reckless Prince Paris of Troy.

For a Me Too protagonist this book may seem beyond the pale, the treatment of women as booty along with golden goblets, slavery and rape of women being taken for granted, often at the hands of the men who have slain their male relatives in battle. Even female deities do not escape this: the virtuous Peleus was rewarded by the gods by being allotted the sea-nymph Thetis to give him a child, but was expected to use brute force to overcome her resistance.
In a confined Mediterranean natural world where so much is unknown or inexplicable, no one in this book questions long-held superstitions, the role of the capricious gods in determining the course of events or the “pecking order” of the deities, in which Thetis, though powerful by human standards may have to beg Zeus for a favour, or be unable to explain a prophecy from the Fates, “well-known” for their riddles. With her eyes “dark as sea-wet rocks and as jagged”, her clinging dress “shimmering like fish-scale”, she sustains a vicious contempt for Patroclus. “He is not worthy of you” she tells her son, although events may prove otherwise.

I liked the lighter moments of humour in the blend between fantasy and practicalities as when kindly centaur and teacher of men Chiron is disappointed to hear that the boys have been taught to ride: “Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by the legs or tugged at”. Patroclus found “the centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s…I slipped alarmingly on the sweat-slick horsehair.” On first meeting, Patroclus is fascinated by “that impossible suture of horse and man, where smooth skin becomes gleaming brown coat”.

Although the love between Patroclus and Achilles is portrayed with sensitivity, it seemed to me like a rather feminine take on male love. Similarly, the blood and guts of battle appear somewhat sanitised in the protracted Trojan War, with the Greeks setting off from their camps on the beach across a plain to reach the city walls, rather like a road construction gang going off to work. Admittedly, the book builds up to a violent climax, perhaps all the stronger for brutality having been underplayed earlier.

As Achilles loses the innocence of youth and starts exploiting his reputation as a fighter to challenge the corrupt actions of the unpleasant war leader Agamemnon, the unthinking acceptance of the glory of prowess in battle gives way to more complex considerations of the misuse of power, even with good intentions, which may lead to stubborn pride and hubris. Apart from a rather sentimental final paragraph, if you can cope with a ghostly spirit “the faintest shiver in the air” as the deceased narrator, the novel achieves a condensed but quite neat and thought-provoking ending. The simple value of human love, like that between Achilles and Patroclus may be shown to have more worth than artificially god-fuelled fighting skills. The desire to be a mere mortal may win out over the heartless arrogance of Pyrrhus, the unfortunate son of Achilles whom Thetis tried unsuccessfully “to make.. a god”.

I was prompted to read this by reviews of Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls”, which has a feminist take on the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the viewpoint of Briseis, cast as a Trojan king’s daughter rather than the Anatolian village girl of this version. Although women play a much smaller part in Madeline Miller’s story, I found her tale less viscerally violent with a more subtle and satisfying plot and the characters of Achilles and Patroclus much more fully developed, complex and arousing empathy. It’s worth reading the two novels for comparison.

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