(image from amazon.co.uk)
I do love a good book list, I think it’s the obedient side of me (yes, there is one) that makes me appreciate being told what books to read. With so many books and so little time it’s as good a place as any to start. So after looking through a few potentials in the Orange long list that came out last week I plumped for The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Achilles is involvement in the battle of Troy let me fill you in with a couple of details. Born to a sea goddess and king Peleus, Achilles grows into a beautiful warrior, promised a destiny of glory. He joins Agamemnon and Ulysses in their siege of Troy, to revenge Menelaus, whose wife, the magnificent Helen (not originally of Troy you’ll remark) ran away with Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy. Paris was promised Helen by Aphrodite in exchange for choosing her as the most beautiful goddess, above Hera and Athena, who offered respectively wealth and wisdom.
One might be forgiven for thinking that love is the correct choice, at least above wealth, however it certainly causes the most problems. The siege of Troy lasts over ten years and results in death, mayhem and destruction, with the lives of men at the mercy of the whims of the gods.
This version of the classic tale is told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, a young Greek prince who becomes Achilles’ closest friend. Patroclus is the antithesis of everything Achilles represents, no soldier, his fate remains untold, a mere detail in the history of Troy. Yet his place as hero of this book is deserved.
The book has a direct style, it quickly pulls the reader along, and Miller’s description of Patroclus’ feelings leaves us loving, and weeping alongside him. There is something comforting, almost reassuring in reading a story when you already know most of the characters, like the pleasure of seeing old school friends again. Although there is not the suspense in discovering if there is a happy ending or not, I was impressed by the vivid description of Achilles’ pain and loss.
The Gods’ intervention in the lives of men is taken for granted by the characters of this novel, and later by the readers, we get used to Achilles’ mum popping up, through the foam of the sea, bringing a storm behind her. It is telling that such an ancient tale is still relevant today. A colleague recently compared Greek mythology to psychoanalysis, and although the Athenians of the time had yet to become familiar with Freud, all the essential ingredients of human emotions – love, bereavement, revenge, jealousy, cowardice, are present in these myths, and this novel. It brings up the eternal debate, are we playthings of fate, or can we create our own destiny?
This book is Madeline’s first, after reading Ancient Greek and Latin at Brown it may seem a logical conclusion to studies that also included Yale’s School of Drama, where she specialized in adapting classical tales. Hopefully this means we can expect more work in the same vein.
I have to admit a slight penchant for the retelling of myths, ever since reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand years ago, also based on the Troy saga, but from the viewpoint of Paris’ twin sister, Cassandra. Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was another retelling of a well-known tale, a great idea but written a little simply I felt. This, would in fact be my only negative comment about the Song of Achilles, whilst the style is meant to be fast paced, sometimes it comes across as lacking nuance and subtlety.
One mentionable matter is that researching this novel has brought to my attention another book in the Myth series of which Pullman’s novel was one, A.S Byatt’s Ragnarok: the End of the Gods, and I am looking forward to reading that next.