The Song of Achilles

One of my professors once remarked that writing mythological fiction is a very easy and lazy thing to do. ‘You’re taking a plot that’s already laid out for you,’ she said, ‘and pretending that, by shifting to a different character’s view point, you’re creating something wholly new. What’s so interesting about that?’

By and large, I agree with her. The wave of ‘myth-fic’ seems to be cresting steadily over here in India, with more and more permutations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana coming out every year. The only one of these I’ve read, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni, tells the story of the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi, princess of Panchal and wife of the Pandava brothers. It was well-written, interesting and even featured tabooed love, but it wasn’t something I would pick up a second time.

I had a similar experience with The Penelopeiad by Margaret Atwood, which narrates the Iliad and the Odyssey in the voice of Penelope, the lonely queen of Ithaca. While the anthropological treatise presented at the close of the slim tome was thought-provoking in and of itself (it stated that the epic chronicled the death of a female-centric Moon Goddess culture and the rise of a patriarchal pantheon), the rest of the novel didn’t succeed to well in holding my attention. Maybe it was Penelope’s voice, which didn’t grab and hold me the way the original Homer (or his translators) did. Maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I expected more of Atwood, one of my favourite writers. Or maybe I just didn’t like the Odyssey and its characters enough to trawl through another version of the same thing.

ImageWhatever it was, it put me off myth fic for a while. This explains my lack of hastiness in picking up Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. I’ve got great respect for the Orange Prize (now the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction), and have enjoyed many of the books it’s been awarded for. Combine the prize with a focus on Achilles, one of my favourite characters of all time, and you would assume I’d have a winner on my hands.

And that assumption is correct. I don’t know why I dilly-dallied, but now that I’ve finally read Song, I will admit that it has reinstated my faith in myth fic and done justice to its source material. It’s a quick read, the language lyrical enough to echo the cadences of the epic (not that I’ve read it in its original Greek, but I have heard it in snatches). Its strength, however, are its central characters: Achilles and the narrator, Patroclus.

The book takes off with the marriage of Patroclus’s parents. The boy, the only child of their ill-fated marriage, is a disappointment to his stern sire, awkward, slight and shy. His exile and disownment comes, therefore, as somewhat of a relief, and he is sent to Phthia, the home of Prince Achilles and his ‘pious’ father, Peleus. Once here, Patroclus becomes the boon companion of his host’s son, a fact that makes his divine mother, the sea goddess Thetis, very angry.

The relationship between the two boys deepens when Patroclus flees Phthia to join Achilles on Mount Pelion, where he is to be tutored by the centaur Chiron. Here, on the mountain where Thetis cannot ‘see’ them, they proceed to fall, and stay, in love.

The rest of the story is predictable: Achilles is summoned back to Phthia, where he is asked to join the fleet put together by the Mycenean king, Agammemnon. The fleet intends to sail to Troy and avenge the rape of Helen, wife of Menelaus. Despite his mother’s best efforts to keep him from his destiny, Achilles, accompanied by Patroclus, join the band.

Everyone knows what happens next, and you don’t need me to rehash one of the most widely told stories of Western civilization. Miller chooses to focus on relationship between the two men, how it is shaped and pressurized by the weight of Achilles’ fate. Both Achilles and Patroclus know that it is only the continued existence of Hector that stands between them and death. Once Hector dies, Achilles, and therefore Patroclus, cannot be far behind.

Miller creates compelling characters and makes the relationship between the two men something of great beauty. In my opinion, it is Achilles, confident, heroic, no less sensitive than his lover for all his seeming divinity, who steals the show. As should be, perhaps, since we see him through the eyes of ‘the best of the Myrmidons’, Patroclus. Here’s an Achilles who is equally gifted in the musical and the martial arts, who has a wry sense of humour, who laughs easily only when he is with the one he loves the most. He is so much more than a butch hero. As Patroclus says to Thetis as she sits before her (spoiler) son’s tomb:

You are the one who ruined him. Look at how he will be remembered now. Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief…

Perhaps such things pass for virtue among gods. But how is there glory in taking a life? We die so easily…Let the stories of him be something more.

I conjure the boy I knew. Achilles, grinning as the figs blur in his hands. His green eyes laughing into mine. ‘Catch,’ he says. Achilles, outlined against the sky, hanging from a branch over the river. The thick warmth of his sleepy breath against my ear. ‘If you have to go I will go with you.’ My fears forgotten in the golden harbour of his arms.

The memories come, and come. She listens, staring into the grain of the stone. We are all there, goddess and mortal and the boy who was both.

Miller skates delicately over the gore and bloodshed (‘tasteless violence’ as someone memorably put it) of the war, never stinting in her descriptions but managing to infuse them with a sort of poetry that makes reading them irresistible. Whether it be a description of Achilles laying waste to the enemies around him, duelling the river god Scamander, or Apollo delicately plucking Patroclus off the walls of Troy, the images are crisp and clear. And yes, the gods are a part of the narrative. Since they are among the most entertaining characters in the epic, it seems only right that they retain their importance here.

The Song of Achilles is for people who like romance, who like heroes, who enjoy a well told story. It’s for people who know that Achilles is more than a golden-haired Brad Pitt, muttering sullenly about honour in his isolated tent. It’s for people who like the twisted humour of Odysseus and the politics of the Greeks, watching as their power struggles play out in the agora of a protracted siege camp. Most of all, it’s for people who, like me, enjoy a new spin on an old tale, seeing something new in a story you thought, two thousand and more years after its first telling, has nothing more to say.

Read it for the revelations. Read it for Achilles.