Based on Homer’s Iliad, Miller’s tale focuses on the requited love of the epic hero Achilles and his companion Patroclus, and their relationship before and during the Trojan War. Her tale is good for anyone in need of a romantic novel with love, blood, war, and all the ‘feels’. However, for any Iliad lovers out there, you may find yourself having a love-hate relationship with this novel.
I finally read this. After five years of having this novel on my reading list, I finally found the time to pick it up. I’m a little obsessed with this book, but maybe that’s because I study ancient history and Classical literature. This is a tale that recaptures the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus; in Miller’s retelling the romance is amped up and the two are lovers, not cousins (as blockbuster Troy also depicts them). As the Telegraph’s Philip Womack puts it, “Miller’s prose often reads like homoerotic slash fiction, but with heroes from mythology instead of Frodo and Sam.”
The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s debut novel and winner of the 17th annual Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 (the year Achilles was published). Miller spent ten years on this novel. After having a complete manuscript in the fifth year, she apparently discarded it completely and started again – now that’s dedication! Obsessed with the Iliad from a young age, Miller completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Classics at Brown University, and then continued on to become a teacher of Classical literature and Shakespeare. In an interview with publisher Bloomsbury she describes that, although we know very little of Patroclus from the Iliad, Homer describes him as ‘gentle’. It was this that sparked her interest in positioning the character as her novel’s narrator.
Yes, it may be called The Song of Achilles but it is told in the narrative voice of Patroclus, an exile who came as a boy to Pythia as a foster son of King Peleus (Achilles father), where he met and befriended the hero, their romance blossoming against the will of Thetis (Achilles mother and a rather sinister deity). Although Miller’s writing speaks volumes with its simplicity, her use of metaphors and airy-fairy tenses can be a bit, well, wrong. There are instances where her description can go too far and sentences are jutted into present tense, causing Miller’s rhythm to become clumsy. The narrative is also rather naïve and simplistic, possibly due to Miller’s focus falling predominantly on the first third of the book, during Patroclus’ youth and before the war. After this, when we enter Homer’s territory and the war at hand, people might be disappointed by the rapid quick fire of events, leading to the aftermath of (spoiler, but not really, you should really know the story!) Patroclus’ death and strange posthumous role as onlooker.
The Song of Achilles is both an autobiography of Patroclus and a romance novel. Perhaps Miller found the ‘action’ didn’t need as much time – Homer does have that part covered. But Miller is not the first to look into the relationship between the Achilles and Patroclus. Although Homer doesn’t go into it, later texts from Plato and the lost plays of Aeschylus mention the couple and their love, and we know that the ancient Athenians believed their relationship to be a romantic one. Alexander the Great and his lover Hephaestion are also said to have compared their relationship to the pair, and Aelian states that they paid respects to their tomb in Troy. There are many reviews that rave about Miller’s intricate and captivating narrative, including Joanna Trollope, chair of the judges for the Orange Prize, who described Miller’s novel to be a: “more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her.”
But would he? On the flip side, reading the negative responses to Miller’s, the opinion of its success falls down to taking on such a grand, epic, task that apparently she didn’t pull off all that well. Dylanwolf, from the Guardian review, was rather harsh in stating that Miller failed to match Homer’s eloquence and epic-style at all, with a lack of any psychological depth in her own two protagonists and a rather juvenile portrayal of their relationship. I must admit, moments of their intimacy were a bit cringe-worthy. I found myself fed up at times with Miller constantly addressing details of aesthetic and Patroclus’ downright obsession with Achilles features, taking too much time away from the seriousness of the plot. Mary Renault, an author critically acclaimed for her historical novels on ancient Greece, described in one of her works on homosexual love (1984) that:
“One should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter. Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or by the diner without a palate.”
In this sense, and as Daniel Mendelsohn from the New York Times describes, Miller takes too long, ‘feasting’ heavily on the condiments of skin, green eyes and breathing, as opposed to the Iliad’s origins: Achilles’ wrath, the question of honour and glory, and what fighting means. I found it unsettling also that our narrator takes on this dubious role of ‘housewife’ and not warrior whilst in Troy: staying at ‘home’ in camp whilst attending chores with Briseis, treating other soldiers in battle, and every once in a while coming onto the field by Achilles’ request to stand there and do nothing except describe the blood and anarchy around him – oh, and how great a warrior Achilles is. The contrast of healer and pacifist versus warrior and macho man is a bit stereotypically dubious for such characters in a romance plot. Plus, it gives no credit to Patroclus who was supposed to be a great fighter: Achilles’ Hetairoi (an elite warrior and companion). It is not that I question Patroclus’ role and call him effeminate for his lack of fighting, but as I read the novel, the conventions were nothing new in this genre: the strong, handsome protagonist protecting the weak heroine who remains infatuated and dependant. Doesn’t it sound like a high school Rom-Com? Despite this, Miller’s theme of anti-war is made explicit – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.
In fact, to end this review on a lighter note, Miller did well to incorporate and stitch together the classical myths of Achilles and Patroclus into a coherent timeline of their life, working with the traits of Homer’s heroes to build true personalities, which is believable and relatable to those who know them from the Iliad first. I agree with the appraisal from The Times which celebrated her retelling of the story for “demanding other explanations for the way in which other people behave”. The character Briseis is one of my favourites; Miller champions this somewhat formidable war prize, showing her to play a crucial role in the Myrmidon camp and using her as a clever device to highlight aspects of the protagonists’ personalities. Miller also highlights how significant Achilles’ role is in the Greek camp: when Patroclus isn’t idolising him, someone else is. Miller presents him as the ‘swift-footed Achilles’ we know; famous for his strength, combat and divine heritage.
The Song of Achilles, written as a Young Adult novel, is a modern revamp of an old and vague relationship-turned-love-story. However it may be excessive to call it something Homer would be proud of as Joanna Trollope has. In her interview with Bloomsbury, Miller said she would want people who read her novel to be inspired to read Homer. Part of a 21st century resurgence, Achilles reveals the author’s love and respect for Homer’s Iliad. Ten years in the making, it is clear that Miller tried to remain close to the original’s grandeur and grace.