Friday, July 13, 2012

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller

Where to start concerning Madeline Miller's Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. Well, I guess I should begin by saying that I enjoyed this novel. I say that because the rest of this blogpost is going to sound like I didn't enjoy it because I have a bit of a bone to pick with it. But rest assured, it was a thought-provoking novel that deserved award consideration (I can't say it deserved to win the Orange Prize since I have not read the other nominees nor have I read a large enough cross-section of 2012 novels to say anything otherwise). And since it seems to be getting universal acclaim (deservedly, I suppose) I thought I'd concentrate on the negatives for a change.

The Song of Achilles is very much an updated version of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. Written in the same vein as the classic novel by Mary Renault, The King Must Die (about Theseus and the Minotaur), Miller has taken a well-known Greek myth, humanized it, personalized it and then turned the myth on its head.

In the original Iliad, it is the death of Patroclus (although a minor character in the actual poem, he is described as Achilles's most beloved companion) at the hands of Hector that rouses Achilles from his vain refusal to go into battle into a maelstrom of rage and despair that culminates in the slaying of Hector, Achilles dragging Hector's body around the walls of Troy for several days and the ultimate demise of the "greatest of all heroes" by the bow of Paris. But what was so special about Patroclus that would send a professional warrior into a blind rage so intense that he performs atrocities that even his compatriots and the gods find excessive and repulsive. Warriors watch their friends fall on a daily basis. What of Patroclus? In The Song of Achilles, Miller supposes that Achilles maintains a lifelong homosexual love affair with his Patroclus.

In an election year that sees gay marriage as a major talking point, it's no surprise that this novel has gotten a lot of media exposure. Gay issues are fashionable and a book depicting a popular literary character as gay was bound to cause a stir. But the notion of homosexual relationships among Greek (and Roman, and Persian) warriors is hardly anything new. Homosexual affairs are alluded to throughout the Iliad and Odyssey and mention of homosexual love is rife throughout Greek and Roman history from the Sacred Band of Thebes to the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos. While the most common form of homosexual relationship was pederasty (what is commonly referred to today as pedophilia), homosexuality enjoyed far more acceptance in the Athenian agora than it does in the modern western world. Hell, all of these words (homosexual, pedophilia, lesbian, etc...) descend to the modern English language from ancient Greek. It should hardly come as a surprise that the Greeks were tolerant of same-sex relations in all their various colors.

Which gets me to my first problem with The Song of Achilles. While Achilles and Patroclus don't face any overt persecution for their relationship, there exists an undercurrent of shame and secrecy about their relationship from the start. Achilles mother, the goddess Thetis is openly disgusted with the relationship (OK, she's a goddess and his mother so perhaps we can go easy on her) and more than one character tries to reason with Achilles to cut such nonsense out. Only Odysseus hints at the historical acceptance of homosexuality in the military when he notes that it is customary for young boys to take on a male lover during adolescents. But, he adds, once men come of age, they should not engage in such activities.

The hell?

As far as I knew, homosexuality was not only accepted in the Greek military it was actually condoned. Many armies (Thebes for example) encouraged homosexuality as a morale booster among their troops. And since the Trojan War dragged on for ten years even with the spoils of war one has to wonder whether Achilles was the only Greek king who maintained a relationship with another man. Sure Achilles was a beautifully vain mommy's boy and dressed in drag and had a retinue of girl besties (all in the novel, I'm afraid), but stereotypes hurt us all. Just because he fits a certain demographic doesn't me he should be centered out. There's no reason not to think that Menelaus or Ajax or Diomedes weren't into shopping for designer armor, gossiping about how Agamemnon is such a slut and sashaying down the front lines. I highly doubt Achilles and Patroclus were the only soldiers sharing a bed.

OK, sorry. I got carried away there.

My second problem with this novel is Patroclus himself. He's such an dependent, needy git. The guy can't spend a single moment out from under Achilles's shadow without threatening suicide. A weekend apart once in a while can be revitalizing to a relationship. C'mon dude! Achilles might be the son of a goddess but he's still human. Let's not put the guy up on such a pedestal. You studied with Chiron. You must have learned that all Greek heroes possess a fatal flaw. Unless of course Patroclus is, in his own way, a Greek hero and his fatal flaw is abject blindness to the bleeding obvious. Patroclus is the Bella Swan of Ancient Greek myth.

I hoped that by humanizing these characters, Miller might provide a little light as to why Achilles acted the way he did. While the Iliad remains one of my favorite stories of all time, there are more than a few moments in the story where I questioned the decision-making logic of the characters. I thought The Song of Achilles might shed so light on some of the quirkier moments in the narrative. Alas, I finished the novel as confused about the decision making process of both Achilles and Patroclus. Oh, sure, one might simply dismiss these decisions as the meddling of the Fates, but that seems like the easy way out, especially since the Fates aren't even established as characters in the novel.

But I digress. Like I said at the top, I actually really enjoyed this novel. Much like The Coen Brother's take on The Odyssey via O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Song of Achilles a fresh and innovative retelling of an old story. Don't let my overly critical, armchair intellectual curmudgeonliness hold you back. Madeline Miller can write.

By the way: If you liked The Song of Achilles, pick up a copy of Mary Renault's classic novel The King Must Die. You will not be disappointed.


neal said...

I'm intrigued by your description, and from the other press it's getting. I wonder if you've read Omeros by David Walcott. REALLY liked it, and thought it treated the Greek mythology in some really interesting ways.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I loved this book but agree that you raise some good points. Patroclus' chronic low self-esteem and clinginess was never fully explained in the novel.

Brian Joseph said...

Your commentary on this intriguing book is insightful and at times very amusing.

I think one of the best moments in the Iliad is when Achilles goes to pieces upon hearing about the death of Patroclus. That passage alone can be used as ample evidence that the two could at least possibly be lovers.

Ryan said...

@neal I've never even heard of David Walcott. I'll put him on the list

@Sam It was a concern but it didn't effect my overall enjoyment of the novel. Odd that.

@Brian Joseph I have no doubt they were lovers. And I try my damnedest to be amusing.

Man of la Book said...

Thanks for the great review.
I keep hearing mix reviews about this book.

neal said...

oh crap. I meant Derek Walcott. David might be his less talented younger brother. Derek won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Jenny said...

Gay or not, Patroclus always bothered me.

"There's no reason not to think that Menelaus or Ajax or Diomedes weren't into shopping for designer armor, gossiping about how Agamemnon is such a slut and sashaying down the front lines."

LOL! Oh dear! Thanks for the laugh that mental image produced!

Marie said...

thanks for your take on it. I still haven't read it and probably should!

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I haven't read Song of Achilles, but from what I've heard, I had some of the same reservations you did. It seems as though some of the historical details were glossed over or changed in order ti make the novel seem more "familiar" to modern readers--which, to me, is a way of saying "dumbing it down."


Peter S. said...

Hi, Ryan! I really, really liked this novel. Too bad you didn't enjoy it as much. Oh well, to each his or her own.

Anyway, I will check out Renault's novel. Thanks for the recommendation!

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