>> Tuesday, September 25, 2012
TITLE: The Song of Achilles
AUTHOR: Madeline Miller
SETTING: Ancient Greece and Troy
SERIES: There might be a book about Odysseus, from what I hear!
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.The basic plot of The Song of Achilles is one that a lot of people will already know, whether they've read The Iliad or not. I'm kind of in the middle: we did it in school when I was about 16-17, and unfortunately, there's no better way to describe our teacher's approach than 'doing' the book. We read and talked around it, mostly: about oral history, about Homer, a little bit about the Trojan War, and even less about the book itself. We talked more about some of the stylistic quirks of the book than about the actual story in it.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.
Still, I managed to absorb enough that I knew the gist of the plot. I do remember my attention being caught by this whole "Wrath of Achilles" thing, and wondering at what was clearly being left unsaid there. Madeline Miller's story covers much of the same ground as the Iliad, but starting much, much earlier, and from the perspective of a character, Patroclus, who has such disproportionate influence in the Iliad, compared to the attention paid to him as a character.
Miller starts her story when Patroclus is a young boy. Being a quiet, withdrawn sort of child, he's a disappointment to his brawny father, and after a fight that turns accidentally tragic, he's exiled from his home. He's taken in by King Peleus, and at first, he's as much a target of the bullies as he was at home. Until, that is, the King's son, the heroic Achilles himself, befriends him.
From there, Miller follows the boys as they become friends, and, as they grow up, lovers as well. But the events leading up to the Trojan War are in motion, and Achilles bears the weight of being the prophesised greatest warrior in the whole world, so they won't be able to stay out of the fray forever.
I really enjoyed this. I'm generally allergic to Tragic Love Stories (probably as a reaction to those horrid snobs who think they're the only type of love story worth telling in proper literature), but this one hit the spot. I guess sometimes the cathartic feelings can really feel quite satisfying...
Miller definitely tugs at the old heartstrings, but in the best way possible. She's not manipulating her readers, she's simply telling a story that wouldn't make any sense other than with its tragic ending, and making her characters so well-realised and their romance so deeply felt, that the sadness of the ending arises naturally, without any manipulation on her part. That is very important to me, I absolutely HATE authors trying to manipulate me into weeping (I'm looking at you, Jodie Picoult!).
Even though this is all narrated from Patroclus' point of view, and his feelings for Achilles are pretty biased, you still get a sense of what he really is like and how his fatal flaw drives him straight into tragedy. Miller shows how the way he is drives him into agreeing to go to war, when he knows the prophecy says it won't end well, and to his inaction at a crucial point. He's very definitely not perfect.
Apart from the main relationship, there were many other things I liked. The way Miller incorporated the gods was great. I kind of expected she'd make it a story about people in a world where everyone believes in the gods, but it's a world where the gods actually exist. That was really interesting to see. I also thought she handled the action scenes wonderfully, and I liked how her prose was deceptively simple, rather than overblown and poetic. Oh, and the secondary characters. They really came to life. I especially liked Odysseus and Briseis, and appreciated how Miller allows the latter to become a real character.
Fantastic, highly recommended.
MY GRADE: An A-.
PS - This may sound obtuse, but what's the difference between this and fanfiction? Is it just that the Iliad isn't in copyright any longer?