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TBTS Reviews: The Song of Achilles

March 13, 2012

My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders. He married my mother when she was fourteen and sword by the priestess to be fruitful. It was a good match: she was an only child, and her father’s fortune would go to her husband.

He did not find out until the wedding that she was simple. Her father had been scrupulous about keeping her veiled until the ceremony, and my father had humored him. If she were ugly, there were always slave girls and serving boys. When at last they pulled off the veil, they say my mother smiled. That is how they knew she was quite stupid. Brides did not smile.

The word epic gets a lot of abuse these days. Like awesome before it, epic has been scaled down; instead of an incredible journey of sweeping scope during which the very foundations of the world shake, through movies, television and most of all the Internet epic now means something considerably less – in internet slang, simply “very cool” or, when paired with its usual dancing partner fail, an impressively total failure. Quite a step down from, say, Gilgamesh or the Edda or The Iliad, like seeing a once-great performer reduced to playing county fairs. But Madeleine Miller has brought forth an epic in the rather more literal sense of the word: The Song of Achilles, a stunning retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Achilles’ lover Patroclus.

Miller is a classics scholar – yes, they still make those – whose specialty is adapting classical tales for modern audiences. But Miller is not just an adapter, and The Song of Achilles is not The Iliad for Dummies. What she’s done instead is to re-imagine the great epic as a powerfully erotic and moving love story without cheapening the original source. Patroclus is a terrific narrator, a fully realized character painstakingly assembled by Miller’s expert hand. He is believable and achingly human, while Achilles, though just as well-done, appropriately seems to come to us from a slight remove, as though his divine heritage leaves him never fully knowable. Together, they play off each other beautifully, Patroclus earnest and awkward, Achilles perfect and aloof. The Trojan War itself is only part of the book; before that, we see two boys becoming men, at court and later under the tutelage of Chiron the centaur. Though Patroclus is ordinary in almost every way, Achilles chooses him and stands by his choice regardless of what his father or anyone else thinks, and it is in these moments where Achilles seems more man than god. Miller captures the feeling of being in love with someone far above your station, and just as adroitly carries off the feeling of joyous disbelief when that love is reciprocated. But this is no mere slice of an epic, no attempted reduction of a great story to an individual scale that loses sight of the whole. If anything, Miller has gone to great lengths to remind us of the scope of the original, and she uses the first half to inform the events of the second. As the war develops, the scale of the story widens until it reaches its original size, and while I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that this is the angle Hollywood needed and somehow missed in all its attempts at the sword-and-sandal epic. It is an ambitious project, one that at its root aims to make us rethink the way we view a story we already know, and at nearly every turn Miller succeeds. At its best, The Song of Achilles transports us back to ancient times in a way more accessible and plausible than any big-budgeted Hollywood picture has yet managed.

Miller’s prose is elegant without being ornamental, but also feels classic, even stately, most of the time. Her few missteps – and they are indeed few – come when she makes the voices of ancient characters sound the occasional overly-modern note. Amazingly, even though homosexual love is front and center in this story, The Song of Achilles never reads like it has a larger agenda. The idea of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers is hardly new – most famously, Shakespeare brought it up in Troilus and Cressida and it’s been posited several times over the centuries since – but The Song of Achilles is perhaps the most honest and the most beautiful iteration of the idea. Graceful, memorable, and totally absorbing, The Song of Achilles gets my highest recommendation.


One Comment
  1. Paul the Geek permalink*
    March 13, 2012 2:20 pm

    No one can write a review that makes me want to read a book quite like you can, Mark. Dammit.

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