This week I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This novel pays homage to The Iliad, and I appreciate the scholarship and imagination poured into this novel that took ten years to complete. Miller has a bachelor's and master's degree in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University, and she has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales for modern audiences. She has also taught in her field for nine years.
I must admit that although it has been many years since I read The Iliad, I was surprised by Miller's depiction of Achilles. What I do remember is Achilles' rage and ferocity, but Miller's Achilles is much more docile. Achilles is the son of King Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. (You may recall that it was at their wedding party where Eris throws the apple of discord with "For the Fairest" inscribed upon it. Zeus throws the apple out of Olympus, and Paris finds it on the shores of Troy. Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena demand that Paris choose one of them to win the apple, and Paris chooses Aphrodite. Aphrodite grants Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, who's King Menelaus' wife. He kidnaps her, takes her to Troy, thus "launching a thousand ships" and the start the Trojan War.)
But the story doesn't begin with the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. The story begins when a young nine year old prince named Patroclus competes for Helen's hand in marriage. Greek princes have assembled to woo her with gifts and words. But before Helen chooses Menelaus, all the Greek princes swear an oath to support and fight for whomever she chooses thus ensuring that they are all honor-bound to fight the impending Trojan War. Soon after the contest for Helen young Patroclus is sent away to foster with King Peleus after he accidentally killed a boy. Patroclus quickly gains Achilles' attention, and Achilles chooses him to be his companion, an honor all the young princes covet. The reader wonders what it is that Achilles sees in the awkward Patroclus, but the book is told completely from Patroclus' point of view. Patroclus definitely has self-worth issues, and many of them are understandable. Through Patroclus' eyes the reader gets a frightening depiction of Thetis as she constantly expresses her hatred for Patroclus, and a lovely depiction of Achilles as the boys grow-up together and eventually become lovers. I think it would be fun to read the same story from Achilles' point of view to get a better reading of Patroclus because I didn't really "see" Patroclus until the very end. THe reader would also be privy to the conversations between Achilles and Thetis, too. I have always been a softie for the wise man in literature. Patroclus is wise, kind, and brave.....the trifecta of heroes without the proverbial heroic flaw. I truly love his character by the end of the story.
Miller does eventually describe Achilles' rage in detail toward the end of the war. The politics, intrigue, violence, and tragedy of Troy are written beautifully, and I think readers who love Greek mythology are going to love The Song of Achilles. The rich narrative is paired with a helpful character glossary so readers can keep all the gods, immortals, and mortals straight.
I hesitated before purchasing this book (because I thought I already knew the outcome of the story) from Ann Patchett's indie bookstore Parnassus Books, but it was on her "recommends" table so I bought it. I was also hesitant to read it because of the storyline between Patroclus and Achilles, and I wonder how much of Miller's version of their relationship is based on scholarship and/or speculation. But in spite of the storyline and already knowing the tragedy of Achilles, I admit that, like the Trojan slave Briseis and Achilles, I, too, fell in love with Patroclus.
What have you been reading lately?
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