Thursday, 11 May 2017
The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller
We arrived in Phthia the next day. The sun was just over the meridian, and Achilles and I stood looking at the rail.
‘Do you see that?’
‘What?’ As always his eyes were sharper than mine.
‘The shore. It looks strange.’ As we drew closer we saw why. It was thick with people, jostling impatiently, craning their necks towards us. And the sound: at first it seemed to come from the waves, or the ship as it cut them, a rushing roar. But it grew louder with each stroke of our oars, until we understood that it was voices, then words. Over and over, it came. Prince Achilles! Aristos Achaion!
As our ship touched the beach hundreds of hands threw themselves into the air, and hundreds of throats opened in a cheer. All other noises, the wood of the gangplank banging down on rock, the sailors’ commands, were lost to it. We stared, in shock.
It was that moment, perhaps, that our lives changed. Not before in Scyros, nor before that still, on Pelion. But here, as we began to understand the grandness, now and always, that would follow him wherever he went. He had chosen to become a legend, and this was the beginning.
[later in the book]
‘You are bleeding.’ The bandage has soaked through.
‘I know,’ I say.
‘Let me look at it.’ I follow him obediently into the tent. He takes my arm and unwraps the cloth. He brings water to rinse the wound clean, and packs it with crushed yarrow and honey.
commentary: What a good year this is proving to be for books. Song of Achilles is not new – it came out in 2011 – and hadn’t really hit my radar, although I do like historical novels dealing with classical events. I picked it up after JK Rowling recommended it in an interview (years ago, I came late to that too) and you can see why she liked it: it’s a story of myth and magic and of friendship and personal loyalties.
The astonishing thing is that Miller has made the story so fresh, while sticking to the usual sources. Achilles and Patroclus are key figures in Homer’s Iliad, and then Shakespeare uses them in his Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan War. The Shakespearean version of Patroclus is not a good one, nor is the relationship between the two men shown in a good light: it’s a hard, unforgiving play in general, and Patroclus gets a rough ride.
Miller has rescued him – her Patroclus is a warm and understandable character, something of a klutz, destined always to be the sidekick. But he is the beloved of Achilles, the golden boy. Their relationship is beautifully and deftly done. She does the impossible: shows life in ancient Greece, a time and place we cannot understand, but gives us a couple that we can completely understand, without getting too 21st century about it.
Knowing the outline of the story is helpful, so you can see how she fits the pieces together. I think she does an amazing job of portraying the different characters from the stories: Thetis and Odysseus are particularly well drawn. The book is narrated by Patroclus, and if you know the story you think there will be a problem at the end, but Miller overcomes it beautifully, and the final pages are immensely touching.
The obvious comparison is with Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, another great favourite of mine, a book I have read many times, one of my comfort reads. I can’t offer greater tribute to Song of Achilles than to say it would join Persian Boy in my personal pantheon, along with the magical I Am the Great Horse, the story of Alexander through the eyes of Bucephalos. (Alexander was himself very taken with the story of Achilles and Patroclus.)
This marvellous book deservedly won the Orange Prize. I very much hope the author will write the story of Odysseus next – his personality in this one is crying out to be given the full treatment…
I looked up some amazon reviews of this book. One critic considered that the words were too short, and the sentences didn’t have enough words in them. Apart from the sheer weirdness of using this as a measure of a book’s quality, I would say you would have to have a tin ear not to respond to the beauty of her writing: the prose is stunning.
Departure of Achilles: illustration taken from a vase in the Louvre, NYPL. Achilles bandaging Patroclus is from a drinking cup in a Berlin museum, picture from Wikimedia Commons.