Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Song of Achilles ~ Madeline Miller

The majority of my experience related to Greek myths is as follows: in 9th grade, I was supposed to read The Odyssey for my English class.  Evaluation included class discussions and an in-class essay.  In a mind-blowingly stupid move, I did not read the book or even go for the Spark Notes.  I repeat, I had to complete an IN-CLASS essay.  I have no idea what I was thinking.  So the day to write the essay came and I sat down and stared at the  essay prompts and wracked my brain for details from all those class discussions that I hadn't participated in. And nothing came.  Finally, after about 10 minutes of panic, I went to the front of the classroom, told the teacher I hadn't read the book, and asked if I could complete it that night for a two letter grade penalty.  She agreed and I spent that afternoon and evening in the company of an audiobook and a friend who had some knowledge of the epic poem.  I have no idea what that essay was about but I got the C and somehow did NOT learn my lesson (though I was at least better prepared for future in-class essays about books I hadn't read and never had to resort to those measures again).

I had other random lessons about the Ancient Greeks throughout my education but not much stuck except little details like how Aphrodite was the goddess of love, Apollo pulled the sun across the sky, Hera (I think?) sprung out of Zeus's forehead (or something).  I never really got the point of these lessons, to be perfectly honest, though I found the gods and goddesses fairly interesting and I loved seeing the ancient ruins on a family vacation to Greece when I was 13.  But it's always bothered me that I never read The Odyssey, which is why it's on my Classics Challenge list.  When I started seeing raves about Madeline Miller's modern retelling of The Illiad in the blogosphere last year, I figured that a soft start would be good and set about waiting for the paperback release.  And now, I am happy to say, I actually WANT to read Homer.  Kudos to you, Miller.

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, a rather un-princely prince who is exiled from his father's kingdom as a child and sent to be raised in the court of King Peleus, father to the beautiful, goddess-born Achilles, prophesied to be the greatest warrior Greece has ever seen.  The two strike an unlikely friendship and become lifelong companions.  They eventually join the Greek army as they set sail for the Trojan War, to which Patroclus is bound by oath and Achilles is bound by hubris.  During their decade in Troy, the mettle of both men is tested and the question of what it means to be great is explored and challenged.

Most of this book made me rather angry, though that has nothing to do with the book itself but the values of the time it portrays.  First off, the horrible treatment of women, who can be raped wantonly and aren't considered to be people - even goddesses are less than mortal men - is infuriating.  And then, the fact that a decade-long war would be waged for a woman is mind-boggling.  Because of course it's really for spoils and glory and who cares how many underlings die?  HONOR GODDAMMIT (pun intended), and the suggestion that she went of her own volition is unimportant indeed.  And then there's the very idea of fighting for glory rather than a cause - Achilles kills how many people because he wants to be remembered?  Bullshit, that is.  Even the fact that this is all tempered by Patroclus, who clearly questions these values, was not enough to help me really get past these feelings.  This one quote by Odysseus helped a little: But fame is a strange thing.  Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade.  What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another (363).  This validation of my feelings was greatly appreciated but it came so late.  I'm not sure if my visceral response to these issues is my own problem or if maybe Miller could have done a little more to make the ancient Greek values more accessible - or maybe, like Patroclus, I'm supposed to see the horror of it all and not get too close.

All that said, I really liked it.  Miller's writing is lovely and it was easy to lose myself in it.  And while she is clearly a lover of Greek myth (she has a master's degree in Ancient Greek, which makes my English degree seem like a sturdy investment), it's clear that she doesn't take it at face value.  The Song of Achilles is truly an ode to the demigod, sung by possibly the only being who ever loved him for him rather than for his abilities as a warrior or for his beautiful face, but that does not mean Achilles is shown to be perfect.  His fatal flaw - hubris - is illustrated quite well and not lost on Patroclus himself.  While Patroclus's awe of his lover sometimes became a bit tiresome, it was also sweet and multi-faceted.  Come the end, though, I sometimes wonder how great Patroclus could have been without Achilles's shadow over him.  He certainly proves himself, though too late to be truly valued for it.

I do have a couple of complaints about the book though - first, it at times seemed a little hollow, needing to be fleshed out.  For example, what were Patroclus and Achilles doing on that mountain with Chiron for two years and how did they not get horribly bored or lonely never seeing other people's faces?  And assuming that that is a comfortable lifestyle for them, then how did they not go mad in a crowded camp for ten years?  And how were there no deserters in that time?  These are questions that I can imagine epic poetry taking for granted but in a novel they need to be answered or at least hinted at. This is a fictionalized account of a fictionalized account - it can take liberties.  I also had some trouble with the timeline - at times it seemed overlapping and contradictory, which was just distracting.

Despite my inevitable complaints, though, I really did enjoy this book and particularly appreciate that Miller made me interested in the original myths, which no teacher ever managed to do.  I would gladly read her rendition of The Odyssey and in the mean time, I'll just go to her sources.


  1. I really liked this book, and like you it made me want to read Homer. Although that was a few years ago now and I still haven't started it.....

    1. Lol, the same thing will probably happen to me. Though I do have The Odyssey on my Classics Club list, so I'll have to get there eventually!

  2. Ooh, ooh, ooh, I'm so glad that you liked this one, too. I'd always enjoyed the Greek & ROman myths I read growing up, but I'd never read The Iliad before reading this one. I loved how poetic her language was and it made me pick up The Iliad straight after finishing. (Didn't like it much and quit reading not far into it, but still!)

    Query: Did Odysseus by any chance remind you of how Remus Lupin might have been if he'd been sorted into Slytherin? Cunning through and through, but also peacekeeping, etc. I keep waiting for a major HP fan to read this book and talk to me about this. When I brought it up to the author and asked her about it, her response was something like, "An evil Remus Lupin? Hard to imagine." So clearly I need someone like you to weigh in on it.

    1. Oh my god, that blows my mind. It is really hard to think of Lupin as evil, though I wouldn't say that Odysseus is evil either. They're both clever mediators, so I guess it's not a stretch to imagine that Remus could use that cleverness in other ways as well. As far as HP allusions go, Patroclus very strongly reminded me of Harry - essentially orphaned at a young age, seemingly mediocre and overshadowed, takes a second to Achilles (as Harry often did to Ron and Hermione), but shines in the end. But Remus/Odysseus... I'll have to give that a think!