Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012, is a retelling of the story of this Greek hero first immortalised by Homer in The Iliad. I always like to read the Orange Prize Winners, and this is highly deserved.

It is fabulous. The tale is told by Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend, confidant, and lover. It is the tale of a lifetime, from boyhood to adulthood, the choices that must be made and the choices that are forced upon them. It is a tale of love and power, of betrayal and friendship, brought to life and rendered forever in my mind by Miller’s acute storytelling.

Aside from the fact that he was played by Brad Pitt in the movie Troy, the most memorable thing I knew about Achilles before reading this book was the myth of his imperviousness: that his goddess mother dipped him in the River Styx as a babe, rendering him impossible to kill, except for his one weak point: the heel, thus the naming in modern medicine of the Achilles tendon. Indeed, The Song of Achilles is full of Greek myth, Greek gods and Greek goddesses, and much of the story revolves around prophecy, particularly that made by the Fates when Achilles was born: that he would be a great warrior. The power of the gods and the power of prophecy is inherent both within the story and within the lives of the book’s heroes - it is a given that what is prophesied will come to pass. Even though, as a teenager, no-one has seen Achilles fight, everyone believes that he will be the greatest fighter. They know because that is what the gods say, and nobody - nobody - doubts the gods and their word.

In fact, this is one of the most outstanding things about The Song of Achilles: Miller invokes a world where the presence of the gods is taken for granted; they are an intrinsic part of the daily structure. Today we understand these stories as myths, as something other than real or as allegories, but in Patroclus’s world they are an everyday part of life. People - Patroclus himself, even - meet the gods, converse with them, have children with them. Given these encounters, how could they be anything other than real? Miller makes this unquestionable to the point of making me wonder for myself whether, perhaps, they were real. In addition, she makes Achilles and Patroclus human, and makes the reader a part of the places they visit. Achilles and Patroclus spit olive stones at one another, listen to and tell stories by the fireside. And in reading just a few simple words I can picture the palace of Achilles’ childhood home, join him and Patroclus on the creaking boats journeying to Troy, or their camp on the beach. In this way, Miller makes Achilles’ ‘fearsome warrior’ aspect take a back seat to his humanity.

Thus, the picture of Achilles that Miller and Patroclus paint for us is all the more tragic once the gods and the fates more firmly lodge their claws in him. Reputation and honour are two ideas that run strongly through The Iliad, and through Greek literature as a whole; without these things a Greek man was nothing, worthless. As an adolescent Achilles accepted the prophecy of his warriorship and hero-dom, but it did not appear to affect him or impact his daily decisions; he was his own man. But as time ticks by and the Trojan war rages on he gradually becomes puffed by his arrogance and full of his importance. He starts to wield his power and to hold it over other men’s heads, something he did not really do before; it has changed him, this killing. He becomes obsessed with his reputation and this, in turn, becomes his downfall. Has he been driven insane by the gods, by his mother’s tweakings and interference? Or is it just the Greek way? Pride - hubris is the term Miller uses - and honour being so important to him, he cannot relinquish them, and puts the one thing, the one person, he loves most in danger as a result. Irony piles up upon irony as the final scenes play out. Is it a self-fulling prophecy? Oh, how the gods have played him; how he has fallen into the deep runnels they made.

Ultimately - and to add further irony still - what lives on beyond The Song of Achilles most is the strength of his love. It is not his warriorship that I kept with me at the end of this book, not the otherwordly prowess his prophecy was built around, but his humanity. It is Achilles’ love for Patroclus that makes him come right in the end; it is a love that is incredibly moving, a love that is worthy of having books and poems and tales written about. Gently captivating, The Song of Achilles sent my brain whirring, my sense of right and wrong into overdrive, and set my emotions on fire.

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