Sunday, January 29, 2012
Book Look: Song of Achilles
Within the first ten pages, Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles jumped into my favorite books list. She retells the Trojan War, using Patroclus as the narrator. As when the film "Troy" came out, we know how sadly this story is going to end. But in Miller's hands, the "Song of Achilles" is fresh, new, exciting, and still heartbreaking. The early chapters give us a chance to know the insecurities of Patroclus, who feels he is not worthy to be a prince. When he is sent into exile, he meets Achilles. They are just boys. Achilles is already at the top of the pack in looks and natural leadership. When Patroclus follows Achilles to the tutoring of Chiron, the centaur, their training draws them closer. Their adolescence draws them closer. They begin to understand the nature of love between them. Miller makes good use of our preconceived notions about the Greek and Trojan heroes, and then adds new details to set them apart. Odysseus loves his wife, Penelope, in a way none of the other men understand. Hector, the Trojan hero, is stalwart and good, placing family first. Paris, the pretty boy, gets less of the blame for stealing Helen, than the mischievous Greek gods do. The Iliad begins with the invocation to the Muse: "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation,. . . " In Song of Achilles, Achilles is not simply an angry, pouting, spoiled brat. He is a fully rounded figure, someone interested in music, his army, and even the conditions under which the slave girls are kept. Which brings us to the point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon, Briseis. She is more than a captured sex slave in Miller's telling. She is smart, funny, warm, willing to love the right man. That she falls in love with the wrong man, with all the hurt that entails, is wistfully told. Madeline Miller says on the back jacket, "It has been the deepest privilege and pleasure to spend the last ten years sailing Homer's wine-dark waters." It was certainly my privilege to read this new and compelling interpretation of the heroes of the Trojan War. Miller's style is spare, clear, innovative, and vivid. This is a book not to be missed, especially for those readers for whom the myths are the cornerstone of all storytelling. Some of my other favorite myth-based books are Atwood's The Penelopiad, George's Helen of Troy, Franklin's Daughter of Troy, and of course, the entire series by Mary Renault.