Friday, June 5, 2020

"The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller--Fiction Review

Hey, it’s June, it’s probably warm out, I don’t know I wrote all of these reviews prophetically during the last ice age some 12,000 years ago. Anyway, why don’t we talk about today’s book, “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, which is a reimagining of the Greek classic “The Iliad.” The novel is from the perspective of Patroclus, who in “The Iliad “ is Achilles’ “friend.” 

Madeline Miller

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Madeline Miller might be one of the best writers I’ve ever read. Her language choice is precise in a manner that is so sharp you feel cut by it as if it were a scalpel. The prose of the story has a hypnotic quality that she uses more to paint the story rather than tell it. 

Her use of the first-person perspective is bold, but it also evokes the feeling of an oral tradition like how “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were originally presented in Homer’s day. This, although every translation of either of those two stories, is always done in third-person. Even “The Odyssey,” which is named after Odysseus, isn’t really from any one character’s perspective like Miller’s “The Song of Achilles.”

I also enjoy her take on the characters of this classic Greek mythos. She does justice to Odysseus, who is only a minor character in this story, but if you’ve read my “The Odyssey” review, then you know I’m ride or die with my boy Odysseus. Where Miller shines in her character work is her use of irony when developing the character of Achilles—or at least through the eyes of Patroclus, who is passionately in love with the man. So there may be some tint there.

Sidebar: Achilles and Patroclus are in an intense homoerotic relationship throughout this novel, so if that’s going to be a problem for you as a reader, then maybe bow out of this one, or I don’t know, grow up. Gay people are real people too, who have equally valid intense love affairs as heterosexuals.

Anyway, back to irony and how it applies to Achilles, the most obvious of his ironies is how we remember the Aristos Achaion—best of the Achaians as Miller stylizes him—in the contemporary idiom Achilles’ Heel. Achilles is supposed to be the mightiest, fiercest warrior, and his name evokes weakness—a specific kind of weakness sure, one that is both singular and unexpected, but still a weakness. Everyone who speaks English as a first language has used or heard the idiom Achilles’ heel, and Miller does the interesting thing and almost completely doesn’t address that aspect of him. No, the ironies she explores in this novel are more profound. Achilles, as a man, is gentle, soft-spoken, honest to a fault, and before the Trojan war, was rarely violent. In fact, he seems to respect life genuinely. The irony is he’s also the greatest killer ever.      

What I don’t love about this book:

Lots of lead time before the events of “The Iliad” in this retelling of “The Iliad.” We spend time with Patroclus as a baby. Then as a boy with a simpleton for a mother and a tyrant for a father. Further along, but still mired in Patroclus’ past, as a slightly older boy, we see him as a suitor at the gathering where Helen chooses her husband. Minor spoiler here, it’s not Patroclus as you might have guessed. Finally, there is a scene where some boy decides to take something of Patroclus,’ and a fight ensues where Patroclus stands up for himself and accidentally kills the boy. Then he gets banished from his father’s kingdom—all that has to happen first before we ever really meet Achilles, the guy the novel is named after. Then there are even more goings-on until we finally get to the bit where it picks up with the goings-on of the “The Iliad” at about halfway through the book.

My point is, “The Song of Achilles” takes a bit to get to the main action of the story. While the preceding scenes are excellent character building—for the main characters—it does also involve a lot of characters you’ll never see again once the boys head off to Troy. So you have to learn another cast of secondary characters as well in the second half of the story.   

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Like I described in the “What I don’t love about this book” section, we spend a fair bit of the beginning of the novel with Prince Patroclus—not fitting in—in his home kingdom and being generally a disappointment to his father. It’s only after he’s been banished and fostered by Achilles’ father, that we begin the story of the relationship between him and Achilles, which is the focal point of the novel.

One of the benefits of having a goddess for a mother, and being a demi-god yourself, seems to be you’re already pretty much the best at everything even before instructed. Which is why, for the early part of the novel, Patroclus is shocked to find out that Achilles’ education is, for the most part, ceremonial. The only thing he seems to require only a modicum of training in is his lyre lessons, where he is, of course, still way better than Patroclus. 

Eventually, Achilles leaves his childhood home to train under Chiron, a centaur who taught Hercules. Patroclus goes too, of course, much to Achilles’ mother’s chagrin because she hates Patroclus. Chiron, after seeing Achilles demonstrate his skill with weapons, immediately informs him, there is nothing he can teach him, for Achilles is already the greatest warrior ever. He does end up teaching the boys a lot about medicine and instructs them in other matters over the years that they live with him. What mostly happens at this point in the story is Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship makes the turn from friends to lovers.

Then, their simple life comes to an end, and they’re summoned back to Achilles’ father’s court. When they arrive, they find out that the Greeks are going to war to recover Helen, who had been stolen by the Trojans. Achilles is expected to lead his father’s men to Troy.

You might be tempted to think that this is where they head off to Troy and meet their destiny as described in “The Iliad,” well, you’d be wrong. First, Achilles’ mother kidnaps him in the night and shanghais him to another kingdom to hide him. Why? Well, because there is a prophecy about Achilles, which states that he will earn fame and will be the greatest warrior ever to live if he goes to Troy, but he will ultimately be slain after he kills Hector. So her reasoning is if he can’t go to Troy, then he can’t kill Hector, and therefore he will never die.

Patroclus, again, follows and finds him in another king’s court, and Achilles is disguised as a woman. Even more shocking and hurtful to Patroclus is Achilles was secretly married to that king’s daughter, and they have a son on the way. This whole deception doesn’t last long though when Odysseus and Diomedes show up, and Odysseus, ever faithful to his nature, shatters Achilles feeble attempt at deception with one of his own. They eventually secure Achilles’ oath to go to war and fight the Trojans. 

At Troy, everything progresses much as it did in “The Iliad,” except for some literary updates and minor events. We get to meet the Trojan women who were taken as “spoils of war,” to which Achilles and Patroclus are far more humane to than their counterparts. There is a significant disagreement between Achilles and the commander of the Greek forces, which causes Patroclus to don Achilles armor and take the field to inspire the men to defend the camp from the Trojans since Achilles won’t fight. Hector kills Patroclus at this point.

Outraged and grief-stricken at the death of Patroclus, Achilles retakes the field to hunt down, and kill Hector. He even manages to wound a god, who stood in his way, and eventually, he catches up to Hector, and kills him, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Shortly after, Achilles is killed by a lucky shot from Paris. Paris, who is the one who caused all of this grief in the first place when he stole Helen.              


So obviously, reading “The Iliad” first helps with setting up the world of this novel. Still, it is possible to understand it and appreciate it without having read that piece of literature. I would go so far as to say it might be preferable to read this book first before attempting “The Iliad” because this is a modern novel written in a modern if literary style. So for readabilities sake, “The Song of Achilles” is far easier and serves as a great introduction to the heroes found in “The Iliad.”

Having read the “The Iliad” myself, I can tell you that it, like “The Odyssey” is a dense read, written for people over two thousand years removed from today. If you want to get a feeling of what understanding the text is like, crack open the nearest bible and flip back to anywhere in the old testament, and you’ll get the idea. “The Song of Achilles” captures the spirit of the Hellenistic people who lived around the time of the Trojan war. However, it also updates the language choice, and characters so that a modern reader can first, understand them easier, and two, relate to them.    

Parting thoughts:

This novel is many things; it’s a coming of age story, a love story, an adventure story, and a war story. What it also is, is an excellent reference for understanding irony in the literary sense. Irony is a tricky concept for the modern audience to wrap their brain around because it is colloquially used in everyday speech synonymously with coincidence—and they don’t mean the same thing. I am guilty of this, to my friends’ utter horror, more than my share. It’s a nasty reflexive verbal tick, and I’m basically just a collection of those, who pretend to have sentience but was really created in a lab to destroy humankind. 

So what’s the dif—you see what I did there? DESTROY!—between coincidence and irony? Well, I could spout the definitions at you, but every time someone has done that to me, even when I love them, I’ve always wanted to punch them in their face—just a little. Then after they give you the definitions, like useful human dictionaries, they come up with a contrived little example that they first describe coincidentally and then torture that scenario to describe it ironically, and my impulse to punch them in the face rises. 

I’m not going to do any of that. I’ll show the contrast with just material from this review. The fact that Achilles is genuinely gentle, kind, good-natured, wouldn’t normally hurt anything, and all that jazz is ironic. After you also consider the fact he’s the greatest killer ever because those two kinds of qualities are generally considered to be the opposite, and are antithetical to one another. Paris, being the guy that sets off the Trojan war because he stole Helen, and also being the guy who lucks out and shoots Achilles with the help of a god, Apollo, who is a dick, but that part is irrelevant, isn’t ironic. It’s merely coincidental. Nothing about it is the opposite of the literal meaning there. They’re just events that happen in succession that aren’t expected. 

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