Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles

A side door into The Iliad that is 
simultaneously contemporary and timeless

Madeline Miller, Winner of the Orange Prize…I Like That!
     When The Song of Achilles came out a couple of years ago, I picked it up in Joseph-Beth and started skimming it.  I really liked it and thought that I needed to read it soon.  Other books battled for my attention and I didn’t think about it until
Bryce visited last month and it was one of the half dozen books he finished off in three days.  Luckily, he leant it to me and I made it through more quickly than my regular slow-but-steady speed.

Achilles and Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David
     Madeline Miller retells the legend of Achilles through the eyes of his companion Patroclus.  Their relationship is understated and somewhat ambiguous in Homer’s The Iliad, but Miller puts it front and center as a bromance that turns into an emotional and physical love story.  Patroclus’s point of view is compelling because of Miller’s style.  Or rather, her scrupulous lack of style.  She does everything possible to remove any trace of authorial idiosyncrasy.  She establishes and maintains a rhythm in her sentence length and construction that suggests Richmond Lattimore’s translations of both The Iliad and The Odyssey in a prose, rather than poetic, form.  She wrote a draft that took five years and then threw it out before starting on what eventually became this book.

     Miller earned degrees in Latin and Greek and has assiduously maintained relationships with Classics Scholars.  The evidence of this background shines through in The Song of Achilles, but there are two instances where she uses a curse word that doesn’t feel like it would have been used either in Homer’s time or, more importantly, in the context she’s created.  However, this is one of the few missteps in the novel.

     The most intriguing parts were the back story of what Chiron the Centaur taught Achilles and Patroclus (and Heracles and Jason before them), but also her frightening portrait of Pyrrhus, Achilles twelve year old son who’s a dictator from birth.  Characters that are part mortal and part god wrestle with a control and coldness that are inhuman.  Not surprisingly, the most modern character – though secondary in this story – is Odysseus.  Intellectual brilliance trumps physical might, which was the underlying theme of The Odyssey.  Here it is the basis for political strategy, whether directly acknowledged or not.  

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