Tuesday, July 16, 2013

READ THIS: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)
Publication Year: 2012
Read: June-July 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Where It Came From: Bought it at a train station
Rating: FIVE STARS (out of five)

The Quick and Dirty:


A fun and also thought-provoking retelling of the legend of Achilles, as narrated by his loving companion, Patroclus.

The Wordy Version:

I wish I had the eloquence to say READ THIS in a way more befitting Madeline Miller’s own writing. The Song of Achilles is so well crafted that I stopped reading it five weeks ago so I wouldn’t have to make it to the end. I couldn’t prolong the book forever, though, and finished yesterday in a rush of emotions that had me marveling at how I could be so happy at moments of shared love, and simultaneously grieve for characters just based on their fates.

Essentially, Miller reworked Homer so she could tell another Homeric story about the price of glory and what should constitute the kleos or reputation/glory of a hero. Putting it into one sentence makes it sound like it’s an easy feat, but it has to be one of the most difficult to achieve. Homer has been read and revered for over 2500 years, his scope both extraordinary and intimate. Homer tells of countless gruesome deaths on the battlefield, impersonal in the repetition, yet tender in the details. Were Homer just listing battle fatalities, he would be writing something good, but Homer frames the battles in a poignant narrative of Achilles coming to grips with his own mortality. As story arcs go, this is as meaningful and timeless a tale as you can ever hope to read or hear. And Homeric perfection rests in the balance of the protagonist’s journey with the rest of the world, seen in secondary arcs and epic similes.

It’s in the scope of Miller’s work that she evokes Homer more than in particular language or characters. Characters central in Homer are only peripheral in Miller, and battles that are hundred of lines of poetry are reduced to an almost sheepish summary. Miller’s Achilles is so powerful that he cannot enjoy individual duels, and he sees glory as an abstract concept instead of a pile of bodies and plunder. But just because Miller shifts the narrative doesn’t mean she is ignoring the definition of greatness in Homer. (Just as Homer is not ignoring the definition of greatness when he crafts an Achilles who actively rejects the symbols of status for most of the epic.) Instead, Miller is asserting that human love is eternal and enviable to the gods.

It’s a huge departure from the Homeric text. Miller’s brilliance is that she reaches that conclusion with minimal adjustments to her source myths. The most jarring change for me is that order of Iliad XXIV and XXIII is reversed (I have a feeling that if you didn’t spend months studying XXIV, you won’t even notice this). Initially I was thrown by the reversal, but when I look at the book at a whole, it makes sense. This Achilles does not find resolution in his dinner with Priam because Priam’s message is not the one that Miller’s Achilles will accept. The denouement of the story naturally changes as Achilles’ understanding of life becomes less important than Patroclus’ acceptance of its limitations and appreciations of its rewards.

A change like that would be disastrous in a lesser book. Madeline Miller’s style is so lovely, her portrayal of Patroclus and Achilles as a couple so refreshing, and her interpretation of Iliad IX’s Embassy to Achilles so thoughtful that I feel like cheering, “This is what it means to think about Homer! This could be the way to think about heroism in life!”


Alyssa L. said...

A very eloquent review that shows how much you loved the book, and happily proves that we are capable of writing reviews of length about things we like, rather than just saving our words for the things we have problems with! :D You should probably be my classics teacher, and tell me all the interesting theories and stuff about the ones I've read. Direct me to literary criticism!!! :D

Susan said...

Hehe. I am all for doing classics criticism with you! This book is highly influenced by articles debating the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Madeline Miller basically wrote it because she felt it had to be a sexually intimate relationship, despite considerable scholarly debate.

I love literary criticism. Reading it is like butting in on an awesome book club meeting that has lasted thousands of years.

Sarah Hesler said...

Hey! I know this is like a year later, but I finally read this book, from your recommendation here :) It was definitely a book I found hard to put down, and I enjoyed it. I think a more recent reading of the Iliad or even just some time hanging out on Wikipedia might have made things a bit more meaningful, but even without that I don't think I was missing anything essential. I'm on the hunt for other historical fiction of the same vein now...so if you have some recommendations, I'd love to hear them!

Susan said...

Sarah, I am SO HAPPY that you read it and enjoyed it! I always get a little nervous sending my book recommendations out into the world to meet new readers. I can't remember crossing paths with any shelf-twins of the Song of Achilles; I just reread IMPERIUM by Robert Harris (first in a planned trilogy about Cicero) and it has some similar elements (set in the ancient world, central character is famous and craves greatness, story is narrated by companion) without the magic of the gods or the tenderness of the romance. But the best option is probably Mary Renault, whose novels are set in mythical ancient Greece and are supposed to be really good. I just can't tell if the writing style is in the same vein as Song of Achilles. I vaguely remember reading the beginning of THE KING MUST DIE one day while waiting for tutorees to show up one day, but I reshelved it in the Classics Center and never finished because of thesis-work.

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