Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Reviewed for The Washington Post by Mary Doria Russell, March 6, 2012:

Unlike the lucky students of classicist Madeline Miller, I was never exposed to Homer in my youth. Until I was 60 and writing about Doc Holliday (who read the classics in their original languages), the closest I came to The Iliad was watching Brad Pitt in “Troy.”

The term “homeric” can be code for overripe prose, sweeping epic plots, and a mob of indistinguishable heroic characters. That pejorative is more aptly applied to florid, opaque translations of Homer. After bogging down in several of those, I discovered Stephen Mitchell’s propulsive, muscular rendering of The Iliad (Free Press, NY, 2011) and had just finished reading it when Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles landed on my desk.

Read these two books together, is my advice. And if you are as ignorant of the story as I once was, it doesn’t hurt to watch “Troy” before you dive in. Seriously. It’s a good way to learn the names.

Miller’s The Song of Achilles is back-story, an exegesis that draws the personal and the intimate out of Homer’s virile action-adventure. In The Iliad, Homer roots Achilles’ wrath in sullenness and injured pride: during the siege of Troy, Agamemnon takes the captive girl Briseis from him, and Achilles sulks in his tent rather than fight for the king who humiliated him and stole his new toy. Deprived of Achilles’ godlike skill in combat, tens of thousands of Greeks die as the price of his honor, but it is the death of his friend Patroclus that truly arouses Achilles’ rage. That loss hurls Achilles back into combat, driven by a grief so overwhelming that it can still stun and move us.

Who was Patroclus? Why did his death so devastate the hero Achilles?

Homer tells us what happened, but not why. So Miller searched ancient Greek texts for every mention of Patroclus. She found an exile and an outcast, and creates for us a lonely and isolated child with a streak of appealing sadness, who catches the eye of the golden boy Achilles and grows up beside him, becoming not simply companion and friend, but dearer to Achilles than all the world.

Gradually, The Song of Achilles becomes a quiet love story, one so moving that I was reluctant to move on to the war and Homer’s tale of perverted honor and stubborn pride. But Miller segues into that more public story with grace. Her battle scenes are tense and exciting, as the young, half-divine Achilles comes into his own: Aristos Achaion, greatest of Greeks. By the end of the story, she has matured her characters by another ten years of warfare. It’s beautifully done.

Miller brings off other equally difficult transitions. A third of the way in, she eases us from a naturalistic world that feels realistic and familiar into the ancient one of gods and goddesses who mate with mortals to produce the great warrior-heroes of Homer’s story. It’s a gutsy choice.

In “Troy,” for example, screenwriter David Benioff tells the story of the siege without bringing in computer-generated deities, and subtly suggests how real events might later be interpreted as divinely influenced. (Achilles is also rendered safely heterosexual, and Patroclus becomes his “cousin.”) Miller does no such clever modern weaseling. The sea-nymph Thetis has been raped by a mortal and forced to give birth to Achilles. The utterly human young Patroclus accompanies his uncanny half-divine friend to a mountaintop where the boys are schooled by a centaur. These events feel real within the context of the novel, and reminded me of the remark made by the editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Stanley Schmidt: “We have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past we called them angels and demons, centaurs and nymphs.”

Too often novelists treat the past as though it were Now, But With Hats. (Plucky, independent women stand up for themselves; slaves talk back and get away with it. Yeah. Right.) Miller has stripped such modernity from her story. There’s no Freudian psychology; no Enlightenment skepticism about religion and received wisdom; no ironic 21st century knowingness. Informed by scholarship, her imagination blends seamlessly with incidents from The Iliad, creating a coherent whole.

In prose as clean and spare as the driving poetry of The Iliad itself, Madeline Miller captures the intensity and devotion of adolescent friendship, and lets us believe in these long dead boys for whom sea nymphs and centaurs are not legend but lived reality. In doing so, she will makes their names known to yet another generation, deepening and enriching a tale that has been told for over 3000 years

 

 

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