So to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. I love a bit of Greek myth. As a youngster I watched the film Jason and the Argonauts whenever it was on the TV, I also like the 1954 Kirk Douglas film, Ulysses, which tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey (both of which make me an expert on Greek myth of course!!). Over the last year I’ve helped my 9 year old read through Rosemary Sutcliffe’s version of Homer’s Iliad, called Black Ships before Troy and this week I started reading to him a young person’s version of The Odyssey. I don’t claim to be a scholar, not by a long chalk, but I know the outline of the story The Song of Achilles is based on. More accurately, Miller has reworked part of Iliad from a different perspective adding a pre-Troy story for good measure. The title The Song of Achilles is a direct reference to Iliad sometimes known as Song of Ilium (Troy). This is to be Achilles’ epic poem.
Achilles is the Greek hero whose rage and wrath is a major feature of Iliad. In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller humanises Achilles as a sensitive young man with a sense of justice. She weaves other Greek stories with the basics of Iliad to portray this side of him. The narrator of Miller’s book is Patroclus, an exiled prince brought to the house of Achilles’ father as a boy. He grows up with Achilles and as teenagers they are both taught by Chiron, a wise, cave-dwelling Centaur. Patroclus and Achilles share everything, they love each other without question or compromise, much to the disgust of Achilles’ mother, Thetis the sea nymph. Patroclus chronicles their adventures before and during the Trojan wars, but from the view point of how their experiences affect their relationship. He is a calming influence on Achilles, he is his conscience. Whenever Achilles is on the verge of making the wrong choice, Patroclus reigns him in. In a way, this is what makes this relationship believable. They are the antithesis of each other and yet can’t live without each other. Miller’s writing also assists here, she writes about moments between the two with such sensitivity – small touches, looks and disappointments all recognisable as the closeness of two lovers and giving the book a romantic quality.
Most of us know the ending of the story of Achilles – even if it’s from watching Brad Pitt ham it up as the hero in the film Troy. Miller’s story ends equally as tragically, with one last uplifting feature leaving you to close the book with a sense of satisfaction.
This is the third of the shortlisted Orange Prize books I’ve read. I can understand why it was a popular choice. It is a story that will appeal to a mass market as it is surprisingly easy to read. Reading it, you feel confident Miller knows her stuff (she is a Classics scholar and has adapted other myths for the stage – so she should!!), the book is peppered with references to characters most of us may have heard of before, but don’t know how they fit into the Greek stories of Troy, and yet as a reader you don’t feel bombarded with detail to put you off continuing. It must be a difficult job being a prize judge; this book is so different from Half Blood Blues and Foreign Bodies, the writing in both is slightly harder to come to grips with, mainly due to the use of Jazz vernacular in Half Blood Blues and the literary heavyweight style of Foreign Bodies. None of which makes this book any less worthy of winning the prize. The unique perspective of a well known story and the sensitivity with which Miller unfolds this tragic love story in her first novel, makes it a nice read – the sort of thing you can recommend to most of your friends and be sure they will like it. My Skye-bound friend loved it and I think my sister and another friend (both studied classics) would love it too.