“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller (2012) – 369 pages
The old ancient Greek myths and stories of the Trojan War are our earliest recorded literature. The epic poem “The Iliad”, attributed to someone called “Homer”, is a history of the Trojan War written about four hundred years after the war which occurred in the 12th or 13th century BC.
One of the fascinating aspects of ancient Greek literature is their division of society into three distinct groups. First there are the Gods who are all-powerful and immortal with Zeus the father of the Gods. Then there are those who are half God and half human like Achilles who have their super powers but are vulnerable and mortal in some way. There were many of these half God/half humans, because the Gods seemed to reproduce like crazy Finally there are all the rest who are just mortal humans. The world of the ancient Greeks is bigger than human life.
Thus when I heard that “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller had won the Orange Prize for fiction which is awarded to the female author of the best original novel written in English for the year, I decided to read this novel. As the title indicates, this is the story of Achilles who is the lead soldier of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Achilles is half human, half God with his mother being Thetis, the goddess of water. Achilles has supreme fighting powers.
The focus of “The Song of Achilles” is the story of the strong love between the young Achilles and the human youth Patroclus. The two boys meet when they are thirteen and are inseparable from then on. Their love is not only a platonic love but also a very physical love in the novel with the two boys sharing the same bed for most of the same novel. Two pages (page 100-101) are devoted to their first sexual encounter, and some of the writing there could very well qualify for this year’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ Award. Judge for yourself.
“It was not enough. My hand reached, found the place of his pleasure. His eyes closed. There was a rhythm he liked, I could feel it, the catch of his breath, the yearning. My fingers were ceaseless, following each quickening gasp. His eyelids were the color of the dawn sky; he smelled like earth after rain. His mouth opened in an inarticulate cry, and we were pressed so close that I felt the spurt of his warmth against me. He shuddered, and we lay still.”
Get a room, Achilles and Patroclus.
A couple of the blurbs on the back of the book say “a book I could not put down”. This was true for me for the last 150 pages when the Greeks are actually fighting the Trojans. However, before the War there are 200 pages devoted to the growing up of Achilles and Patroclus. Many of the scenes begin or end with Achilles and Patroclus wrapped up in each other’s arms in bed. It seemed excessive while I was reading these chapters, but I wasn’t familiar with the story of these two. Given the final resolution of the story, I’m sure the author decided to show just how close Achilles and Patroclus were to justify the conclusion. To me while reading the novel, the depiction of the physical relationship between the two seemed overdone.
The depiction of the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans is always high drama. I just thought that the novel centered too much on the two characters when there were many other stories going on. One advantage of this modern telling of the ancient Greek story is that you become much more familiar with all of the characters and events that take place.