“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.”
How we met: I had planned to read all the books that made it to the Orange Prize shortlist this year. I just managed The Song of Achilles. As it happens, this is the book that won.
The Song of Achilles is Greek scholar Madeline Miller‘s tribute to Homer’s Iliad. She takes one of the most interesting warriors of the Trojan war, and goes back into his childhood to understand him for the man he became, and she chooses to tell his story through the eyes of the man who knew him best. Achille’s story, told by Patroclus.
Patroclus is an exiled prince who lives among hundreds of other exiled little boys in the Palace of King Peleus of Pithia. Used to being overlooked and unloved, Patroclus has no reason to expect to be noticed by Prince Achilles, son of Peleus and the sea goddess Thetis, but Achilles does take him under his wings, and they become companions, and in time, steadfast friends. They train together to be warriors, and while it looks like Achilles will live up to the prophesy that he will be the best warrior of his generation, Patroclus’s talent distinctly lies off the battleground and in the medicine tent. As time goes by, their friendship grows more and more fruity, much to the wrath of Achilles’s mom.
But Patroclus and Achilles are not destined to grow merrily old together. Paris, Prince of Troy, has kidnapped Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and the Kings and Princes of Greece are joining hands to lay siege on Troy and bring her back. Excited by the prospect of glory and fame, Achilles joins the campaign, followed by the faithful Patroclus who cannot let him go to his fate alone. For it has been prophesied that Achilles will not return from war alive, and Patroclus has no plans to go on living without him. But this decade long war will test everything the two young men know about each other and about themselves, and before they die, Achilles and Patroclus will be heroes in their own rights.
Madeline Miller is a good writer and tells her story well. In particular, the depiction of the budding romance between the narrator and the protagonist is done with gentle sensitivity, ebbing away the awkwardness of teenage infatuation and molding a relationship that is strong enough to last a lifetime. She doesn’t shy away from violence either, but the actual mechanisms of war become a little blurred in her story, as though they aren’t really all that important.
The problem, I think, in Miller’s depiction of Achilles and the Trojan war in The Song of Achilles, is that she uses modern day sensitivities to tell her story. The censure, for instance, that the lovers face seems to an example of modern day homophobia; in ancient Greece, I understand, homosexuality among men was not really a taboo provided you married and had babies. Also, her Achilles and Patroclus are, I think, too nice for their own times. They do not rape or pillage because we, in the 21st century, consider those things naughty, but Greek heroes certainly had no scruples about raping and pillaging, so their moral stand seems fake and unrealistic. Also mildly ridiculous is the narration by the disembodied ghost of Patroclus once he has been killed.
The Iliad speaks of the deep friendship between Achilles and Patroclus, but does not mention them as lovers. That is Madeline Miller’s extrapolation (among several similar theories by other historians) from the grief and rage Achilles feels when Patroclus is killed. Which makes me wonder, is it not possible to truly love a friend , be devastated by their death, and vow to kill and mutilate their murderer, unless you are sexually involved with them? Does that sort of depth of feelings come only from boning? What do you think?
The Song of Achilles will not leave any lifelong impact on me, in fact, it’s been a day since I finished it and it has already started to fade. But while I was reading it, it was captivating, engrossing, and I found it very difficult to put down. Nothing epic, but still a very promising debut by Ms. Miller.
Read it if:
• You enjoy Greek mythology and epics
• You are looking for some light but interesting reading
• You are not turned off by soft homoerotica
If you find the book interesting, buy from Amazon or Flipkart here:
[This is a guest contribution by Amritorupa “The Face that Launched One Thousandth of a Ship” Kanjilal. Amritorupa keeps the book blog Rivers I Have Known- Books, Reviews, And More]
Bio: Amritorupa Kanjilal was a corporate shark before she decided she would be much happier being a goldfish, blowing bubbles in her little bowl. She lives in Kolkata, India, and reads too much for her own good. When she isn’t devouring books, she reviews them on her book blog: Rivers I Have Known- Books, Reviews, And More