The Library Fantastic

On “The Song of Achilles”

I really ought to write a proper review, but with everything being so busy right now, I don’t feel as if I can collect my thoughts enough. But I do need to write something.

This Friday, Elio and I picked up the Kindle edition of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles on a recommendation from a friend. Now, retellings are a sensitive business for me. There’s a couple of stories—or rather, story cycles—that I feel so strongly about that the “wrong” interpretation will, without fail, set my teeth on edge. One such is the Arthurian legends. Another, even more dear to my heart, is the Trojan cycle. These story cycles are among the first stories I remember reading (or having read to me) and they are at the heart of my love for myth and history. If I had not fallen in love with them, I don’t think I would be a reader of fantasy or a student of classical history.

So, perhaps it is not so strange that I have a very strong image in my head of what the “true” versions are like. It’s obviously not completely set in stone, the variability is part of the stories, but there are certain things that are unthinkable for me. For example, I am very fond of—I probably do still love, in fact—Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. Yes, it does have its issues, but even before reading Bradley my version of the Arthurian legend involved a misunderstood rather than evil Morgana. I was also convinced that Guinevere was a no-good blonde. And Lancelot and Arthur were definitely more than just good friends.

Of course, I also love Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry—perhaps my favourite books of all time—for even though I struggle a bit with Jennifer the relationship between Arthur and Lancelot and the love triangle as a whole is so heartbreakingly beautiful. So, there is absolutely room for variations. But sometimes, it goes horribly wrong. The Arthurian example would be Stephen Lawhead’s increasingly preachy Christian take on the legend—even if I did like the first book and his very Minoan Atlantis—and the Trojan example would, oddly enough, be Bradley’s The Firebrand. Same writer, different legend, and a take on it that outright offended me. As with Mists, she’s coming at the story from a female-centric point of view, but the portrayal of Achilles in The Firebrand as a savage killer just made me furious.

Since then, I have been exposed to a few retellings of the Trojan cycle in various mediums and all too often I see the same trend. Achilles is just a killing machine, no attempt is made to understand him in the context of his setting.

Fortunately, since some years back there’s Eric Shanower’s brilliant and superbly researched Age of Bronze comic. It leaves out the gods but works at getting everything else in there and, most crucially, has to far portrayed Achilles in a wonderful way. It also, thankfully, does not shy away from his relationship with Patroclus. It still has a long way to go before it even reaches the start of the Iliad proper, but I have every confidence in Shanower’s handling of the characters.

And now, now there is another story as well. The Song of Achilles. Given my worries about retellings, I approached the sample that we downloaded with some trepidation, but after reading it I felt both relief and excitement. This was going to be a very good read. So, we bought the whole thing and I dove in.

A few chapters later, I reached the point where I knew that this was perfection. This book would not disappoint. Its a key scene, where Patroclus (who is the narrator of the book) tells Achilles of why he was exiled, of the boy he accidentally killed as the boy tried to take something from him. It leads to the following exchange:

“What would you have done?” I asked.

Achilles tapped a finger against the branch he sat on. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine it. The way the boy spoke to you.” He shrugged. “No one has ever tried to take something from me.”

“Never?” I could not believe it. A life without such things seemed impossible.

“Never.” He was silent a moment, thinking. “I don’t know,” he repeated, finally. “I think I would be angry.” He closed his eyes and rested his head back against a branch. The green oak leaves crowded around his hair, like a crown.

“I think I would be angry.” Oh dear. Oh no. Such heartbreaking tragic irony. “The rage sing, oh goddess, of Achilles the son of Peleus…” I knew at that point that Miller really got the story and got these characters and the rest of the book just confirmed this. Its a wonderful read. The concept of tragic irony, so loved by the Greek playwrights, is employed with consummate skill throughout the book and it builds up towards the inevitable end, making you feel so much more for the characters.

The only thing I could possibly have wished for—but that’s me and my particular love for the hippoi athanaoi—is for more of a presence of Xanthos and Balios. Patroclus, in Miller’s version, is not their charioteer as his presence on the battlefield is limited—the only really significant departure that she makes from the source material—and thus we do not get the poignant scene of the horses grieving for his death as a precursor to Achilles’s own grief. But its a small, small quibble in the grand scheme of things and I can always read Judith Tarr’s “Classical Horses” for my Xanthos and Balios fix.

I am now thinking I will definitely be taking another semester of Literature, perhaps even going straight for a 1-year Masters, just to get the opportunity to write something on this wonderful book. Because I think it will be stuck in my head for a long, long time.

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