It’s a good thing the Left of Cool columns aren’t technically reviews, because while I liked The Song of Achilles very much, I think I sound more overwhelmingly positive than I truly was. As I say in this weekend’s column, there are things that feel rather anachronistic – I wonder how much of that is due to the treatment of certain issues than the issues themselves, and also how much of that treatment is imposed upon the text by its being a novel.
The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, and at the end we discover that he has an audience in Achilles’ mother Thetis. I found it interesting to discover at this point that Patroclus has an agenda – he’s specifically trying to make the record of Achilles’ life not about the number of people he kills. And then there’s Homer with the wrath/rage/anger (depending on what translation you favour) and that’s the iconic opening line.
Homer set his epic at the beginning of the end. The Greeks and Trojans have already been warring for close on a decade at the beginning of The Iliad, yet the outcome of the war remains undecided. The stalemate can only end when Achilles rejoins the war and kills Hector. “Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles”, begins my translation of the text. Achilles’ anger is at the centre of the epic, and it is strongest when he loses the man he loves most, Patroclus.
Reading Homer for the first time it’s rather disorienting to see how this love is taken for granted. Of course Patroclus is concerned for his friend’s honour; of course Achilles’ grief at his death should spur this destructive passion. The moment in which Achilles discovers his friend’s death is one of the most powerful in the epic and it transforms this rather unsympathetic man into someone who matters to us. It’s probably a bit ridiculous in the face of all this to debate how far the love between these two men (if indeed they existed) was romantic; interpersonal relationships have changed out of all recognition over the centuries. But if there’s a love story at the heart of the epic, surely this, rather than the Helen-Paris liason, is it.
Madeline Miller’s Orange prize shortlisted The Song of Achilles retells the love story between the two men in Patroclus’ voice. An early incident in the book has a prepubescent Patroclus travelling to the court of Laertes to ask for Helen’s hand. It is here that Patroclus meets many of the major players in the war that is to come; Agamemnon, Menelaus, most importantly Odysseus.
But the war seems far away for a great deal of the book as Patroclus is exiled to Pthia, as the two boys are sent to Chiron for training, as they fall in love. For someone unfamiliar with the source texts Miller’s lyrical prose would still be a revelation, but there’s a particular delight in noticing how its cadences and many of its metaphors echo Homer. Achilles’ eyelids are the colour of the dawn sky; Zeus’ thunderbolts “still smell of singed flesh and patricide”.
In keeping with the traces of Homer in the prose, the book is full of people telling stories of other heroes. We who know Achilles and Patroclus’ fates see a number of ominous parallels – Hercules’ guilt over the death of his wife (is it worse to be the one who dies or the one who must live on?); Meleager’s wife Cleopatra who convinced him to put aside his pride and fight for his people (“Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed”). “Name one hero who was happy”, demands Achilles early on, and the burden of his greatness hangs over the relationship thoughout. This is as much Greek tragedy as it is Greek epic – with immortality comes early death, but Achilles could never have chosen otherwise. Related to this is his contentious relationship with his divine mother Thetis, whose ambitions for her son are countered by her bitterness at the shortness of human life.
The greatest tragedy of all is war itself. The Song of Achilles drives home just how young some of these soldiers must have been – Achilles is sixteen or seventeen when he fathers his son and barely eighteen with thebeginning of the war. Patroclus speaks of Chiron’s students, “boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder”. Perhaps there’s a little too much applying of modern ideas here – Homer describes the horrors of war in moving, awful detail, but there’s an underlying sense that war is an inescapable way of life that is absent in Miller’s work. Some of Patroclus’ ideas on the rights of women, though distinctly welcome, also feel rather anachronistic.
But at its best The Song of Achilles manages to combine the immersive, character-centric structure of the novel with the music of the epic. It left me elevated and grieving.