My father was a king and son of kings.
Classical civilisation was one of my favourite subjects at school – I absolutely loved studying the Greek myths, legends and literature and still miss it greatly. So when Miller’s The Song of Achilles came to light, a coming of age novel built from the groundwork of one of literature’s greatest epic poems (Homer’s Iliad), a little seed of intrigue was sown.
The dominant focus of Miller’s award-winning novel is one of the most scrutinised and fascinating relationships in Greek mythology – Achilles and Patroclus. It has been billed throughout the years and interpretations as everything from an archetypal male friendship to pederasty, from unrequited love to a loving homosexual relationship and the historical fascination stems from its vast influence on the events of the Trojan War.
What I drew me specifically to The Song of Achilles was that Miller had chosen to narrate her novel, not through the eyes of the hero Achilles, but through a lesser known character, the gentle Patroclus. I absolutely loved this fresh take on the ancient text and revelled in finally getting to hear the voice of this integral character. Taking the story back to Patroclus’ childhood we are able to obtain a greater understanding of his personality and the motives behind his actions. Miller really manages to unmask Patroclus and round him out into a ‘living component’ rather than ‘feature of’ the War.
For the most part, I loved Miller’s portrayal of the central relationship as it was somewhat different from my own interpretation of it as read in the Iliad. Achilles and Patroclus are billed as two soulmates – boyhood companions grown into lovers – with a developed, defiant, and tender relationship that holds a realistic quality that draws you in. There were ‘factual’ issues in the choice of this portrayal when considering the ancient mythology of the story, namely the conception of Achilles’ son who is integral in ending the Trojan War. Miller just about scrapes through this minefield but it is close!
I also found that though this exploration of Achilles and Patroclus as a couple is fascinating, its beauty almost comes undone by the lovemaking scenes which sometimes bordered on the fan fiction-esque. I realise that Miller is writing as an inexperienced young man coming to terms with his emotions and exploring his first sexual encounters but the language and portrayal of Patroclus’ lust does slip on occasion a little too far into a ‘teen-drama’ (with longing looks, deep sighs and heavy breathing) to match the rest of the narrative.
Within the language itself, Miller is ultimately successful. She steps away from recreating the total poeticism of Homer’s original text (thus avoiding the pitfalls of a cheap copy) but retains a lyrical feel with a contemporary twist resulting in an incredibly accessible adaptation. However, be warned that the modernity does occasionally jar and the inclusion of phrases such as ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and ‘so I don’t f***ing kill myself’ really leapt from the page as unnecessary (and often unwelcome).
In spite of these slips, Miller’s narrative overall is engaging and exciting, a feat that is particularly difficult when considering that the plot was given away centuries beforehand! She manages to successfully walk the fine line of satisfying the readers with ancient Greek knowledge by including references and rituals but avoids the potential alienation of those who are new to the mythologies and culture by keeping the language vivid yet simple. (Not entirely sure how the die-hard classicists would react though…)
On the whole The Song of Achilles sings as a tribute to Homer’s Iliad and offers an interesting new take on the old legend, reintroducing the story of the Trojan War to a new generation of readers with the voice of a ‘new’ ancient character.