Of course there are readers who gravitate towards fiction set in ancient times, with their battered Mary Renault and Robert Graves paperbacks, their beloved Rosemary Sutcliffe childhood favourites still lining their shelves.
But just as there were many readers who would never pick up a western but acclaimed the wonder of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, there are many readers who haven’t picked up a classical text but who have been struck by Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.
Why Madeline Miller chose to re-tell this myth from the perspective of Patroclus might seem odd to classicists, but as Odysseus observes, it’s unpredictable which of the old tales survive.
“We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise or lower us as they please. Patroclus may be such as will rise in the future.”
If Madeline Miller has anything to say about it, it would seem that’s true.
And this debut novelist knew, as soon as she discovered that she could combine her love of studying classic texts with her love of writing, that she would write from this character’s perspective.
“It was always Patroclus from the beginning.”
She was fascinated by this character who had been born a prince but lived as an exile, an ordinary person with an extraordinary love story.*
Of course other characters do play a role in the tale and there is a glossary at the back which could serve as an aid.
(It is placed at the end of the novel because the character summaries contain what will be seen as spoilers for those readers who do not know the story of Patroclus or Achilles.)
Not only gods and immortals (Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Chiron, Hera, Scamander, Thetis, and Zeus), but legendary mortals (Achilles, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Ajax, Andromache, Automedon, Briseis, Calchas, Chryses and Chryseis, Deidameia, Diomedes, Hector, Helen, Heracles, Idomeneus, Iphigenia, Lycomedes, Menelaus, Nestor, Odysseus, Paris, Patroclus, Peleus, Phoinix, Polyxena, Priam, Pyrrhus) play roles in this first novel.
One might think that, with a list this extensive, readers who are not already familiar with the tale would risk confusion, but that’s not the case. Madeline Miller has been listening to these tales since girlhood, and she can retell them with a simplicity that smacks of the familiar.
One aspect of Miller’s craft that speeds the novel’s pacing is her use of language. Not only does she focus on simple sentence structure and word usage, but she has worked so steadily at the rhythm of the prose that it seems effortless.
Consider this passage:
“Powerful strides took him swiftly up the beach. His anger was incandescent, a fire under his skin. His muscles were pulled so taut I was afraid to touch him, fearing they would snap like bowstrings. He did not stop once we reached the camp. He did not turn and speak to the men. He seized the extra tent flap covering our door and ripped it free as he passed.”
There is nothing remarkable about it at first glance, and certainly when the reader first encounters the passage it’s with a concern to discovering what happens. But take another look: the rhythm and pacing of the paragraph is as measured and taut as the novel itself.
As a novel about war, this is fitting. When “the glint of swords and armor is fish-scale beneath the sun” on the shores of Troy, one expects to move steadily through prose.
However, The Song of Achilles is also a love story. Sometimes it speaks of lighter things, and the language works for that aim as well: “Ifigenia. A tripping name, the sound of goat hooves on rock, quick, lively, lovely.”
This is not to say that the love story is without its sobering side. Patroclus’ love life is complicated by the fact that his lover is partially divine, complicated in epic and everyday ways.
“When he speaks at last, his voice is weary, and defeated. He doesn’t know how to be angry with me, either. We are like damp wood that won’t light.”
The figurative language is carefully controlled and consistently reflects images appropriate to the novel’s setting.
Frequently these are organic and sometimes they repeat. For instance, readers discover this passage later in the novel: “Only that seems large enough to hold all of my rage and grief. I want the world overturned like a bowl of eggs, smashed at my feet.”
It is an effective image on its own, but it also recalls an earlier image of Patroclus and Achilles being taught by Chiron to prepare eggs. And, similarly, there is a death of a young woman against a stone, which recalls this earlier event, the cause of Patroclus’ exile:
His head thudded dully against stone, and I saw the surprised pop of his eyes. The ground around him began to bleed.
I stared, my throat closing in horror at what I had done. I had not seen the death of a human before. Yes, the bulls, and the goats, even the bloodless gasping of fish. And I had seen it in paintings, tapestries, the black figures burned onto our platters. But I had not seen this: the rattle of it, the choke and scrabble. The smell of the flux. I fled.
Without an acquaintance with the source material, these repeated images resonate solely within the novel itself. (Perhaps someone with greater familiarity with The Iliad and other relevant mytholgies can suggest whether there The Song of Achilles is more multi-layered than it appears to be to me without that added reading experience.)
Nonetheless, the novel is as tender as it is entertaining, even for readers with very little experience of this story; The Song of Achilles takes a character who has not been afforded a central role in this tale historically and roots him in the hearts of Madeline Miller’s readers.
ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 3 of 20
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles
Originality Rooted in a traditional tale, but with a new slant
Readability Style, structure, form combined = relentless pacing
Author’s voice Consistently presented as a song of the ancients, gods and immortals and mortals
Narrative structure Chronologically told: uncomplicated and steadily progressing
Gaffes None spotted (I am no classicist and the presentation was clean.)
Expectations Debut novel but general consensus is admiring