Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller

"Achilles" is a name still famous after thousand of years. He's the greatest Greek hero, even though the action in the Iliad mostly has him sulking in his tent. His relationship with his friend Patroclus plays an important role in the Iliad's story, and scholars have long suggested that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was romantic rather than platonic. Miller takes this standpoint in her novel The Song of Achilles, which follows the boys from their initial friendship through Achilles' death on the battlefield of Troy.

This is not a reinvention of Achilles' tale but rather a fleshing out with Patroclus as the narrator and protagonist. To anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek mythology, the ending is known from the beginning, and that awareness adds a deep dramatic tension throughout that I found hard to let go of. While I was reading, I desperately wanted to reach the end (reading of their joy was too much), and yet when I stopped reading, I didn't want to pick the novel up again because I knew that pain would be coming. This isn't a criticism but a testament to Miller's ability to make the reader feel the boys' relationship.

Although the book begins with the boys as pre-teens and ends with Achilles and Patroclus in their late-twenties, they never really seem to age and their relationship doesn't seem to evolve. Patroclus is always a fuller character than Achilles, who is too perfect and powerful to feel real. Nevertheless, this characterization of the hero and the relationship seems appropriate. For one, "perfect" is the way Patroclus sees Achilles, so it fits that we see him that way too. In addition, Achilles' story is that of myth, and there's a certain stasis in myth (e.g. Odysseus and Penelope's relationship is unchanged after his twenty-year absence) that's normal and feels right here.

My favorite part of the book is the early development of the boys' romance while working with Chiron, trainer of heroes. Their uncertain grappling of their feelings for one another, finally culminating in mutual love, is sweet and innocent. The world and customs of Ancient Greece are well-drawn, and the story moves quickly and smoothly. Throughout the book, Miller utilizes her readers' familiarity with Greek myth to strengthen her story. It's great to see Odysseus' way with words so well-constructed, and when Achilles repeatedly says he doesn't intend to kill Hector ("After all, what has he ever done to me?"), we groan with our foreknowledge.

It's a little surprising that although The Song of Achilles does not really break new ground in Achilles' and Patroclus' stories, it's nonetheless engrossing and moving. I'd recommend it to anyone with interest in Greek myths.

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