Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Song of Achilles (by Madeline Miller)


The Song of Achilles is a fantasy romance that tells the story of a marriage-in-all-but-name between Patroclus (the first person narrator) and Achilles. Major spoilers follow, so if you're not familiar with the mythology you might want to read the book before reading this review - it's definitely worth a read, especially towards the end.

Most of the blurbs and so on will call this a re-telling of the Iliad, but that's not entirely accurate. It's true that the story is certainly inspired by the Iliad, and it includes details in its interpretation of Achilles and Patrolcus' relationship that come specifically from the Iliad (I'd forgotten that they are described as growing up as brothers after Patroclus accidentally killed another boy, for example - I remembered he was exiled for murder, but in some interpretations he's thought to be older than Achilles).

However, the first two thirds of the book are not a re-telling of the Iliad, or even of the story of the Trojan War. That doesn't start for ages, and the meat of the Iliad itself doesn't start until p257 (of 368). Most of the book is a love story between two teenage boys, which reminded of Twilight more than anything else. Please understand that I do not mean this as an especially bad thing! Aside from having some issues with its attitudes towards men and woman in terms of stalking, sabotaging people's cars, 'imprinting' and so on, I really quite enjoyed the Twilight series - it may not be great literature, but it's fun. And for much of The Song of Achilles, the story is about Patroclus, who is quiet, clumsy, socially awkward, mysteriously attractive to everyone around him and would be bookish if they had any books, who falls madly in love with Achilles, who is a supernaturally beautiful, musically talented superhero who is the best fighter of all the Greeks and very protective of Patroclus. To be fair, when Patroclus admiringly describes Achilles as 'godlike' or similar adjectives he's not engaging in hyperbole so much as stating a fact, since Achilles is the son of a minor goddess, but still, the loving descriptions of how incredibly gorgeous and wonderful Achilles is didn't half remind me of Stephanie Meyer's descriptions of Edward Cullen.

In the last third of the book, though, the story moves on to the Trojan War, and this is where it really kicks into gear (after including Aulis - having said 'we were going to war at Troy,' or words to that effect, the next chapter starts 'But first we had to go to Aulis' and my heart sank as I was desperate for the war to actually start by then!). Miller finds a way to preserve the essence of Achilles' ancient motivation - anger at Agamemnon for stealing his war prize - without losing sight of the fact the 'prize' in question is a living woman, and uses Patroclus to keep our heroes just on the right side of likable without moving away from the ancient themes entirely. She clearly loves the Iliad and knows it like the back of her hand, and the final third of the book is a fast-paced and gripping re-telling of the basic bones of the story.

The Iliad itself leaves the exact nature of Achilles and Patroclus' relationship unspecified, and it can be interpreted as either 'very close like brothers' or as 'lovers' equally easily. In the Classical period in ancient Greece, a couple of centuries later, loving sexual relationships between youths (teenagers) and older men were especially common, so Achilles and Patroclus was assumed to be a couple (which led to some confusion concerning which was younger and which older, since Achilles should surely be the dominant partner, but was often thought to be younger than Patroclus). Here, they are a young couple of the same age who have grown up together, which works particularly well when re-telling the later sections of the Iliad.

The interpretation of Achilles' mother Thetis and the gods in general is especially interesting. Thetis is cold and intensely unlikable (as is Achilles' son Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus, a character I'd never given much thought to, but when you think about his story, he really is utterly horrible!). Her characterization emphasizes the often heartless and implacable nature of the ancient gods, who play as big a part in this novel as they do in ancient epic poetry. Here, priests do not choose to blame plague on the gods - the plague literally is caused by the gods for the precise reasons Calchas the priest gives, and you can see the soldiers shot as if by arrows as they fall victim to it. Miller makes the appearance of the gods on the battlefield work surprisingly well - the image of Apollo smiling down on Patroclus as he plucks him from the walls of Troy is especially effective. It's strange to read a modern novel that takes the gods so seriously and so literally, but for the most part Miller uses them to impressive effect.

I did get a little tired of Thetis' constant complaints about how much she hates Patroclus, but as I reached the end I realised that there was a good reason for this particular interpretation of their relationship, relating to how Miller deals with the fact that (spoiler alert) her narrator is dead for the most dramatic and interesting parts of the story. In Miller's version, Patroclus is not properly memorialized for ages (in the Iliad, of course, Achilles sees to this after killing Hector) so his spirit is stuck hanging around Troy and sees the significant events that occur after his death. The horse is only referred to in passing, but Achilles' story is properly, if a little hastily, finished - though I was very disappointed to see that even in this version, which includes so much more of the ancient material than most, we still didn't get to see Ajax carry Achilles' body (with its armour) from the field while Odysseus fights off Trojans around him. This is probably because this Achilles doesn't really seem to like anyone except Patroclus very much, and doesn't really get on with Odysseus, but still, I'd have liked to see it.

On the other hand, some parts of the novel try a little too hard to cram in a little too much of the huge body of myth surrounding the character of Achilles. The story of him hiding out dressed as a girl on Skyros, for example, is not referred to in the Iliad, which is a serious war story. Ancient myths were told and re-told in so many different contexts that there are numerous stories surrounding the important figures, some more suited to a serious treatment, some lighter, maybe for a comedy or romantic piece - Skyros strikes me as the latter. Miller also has to do some narrative acrobatics to squeeze in and justify the existence of Neoptolemus as well as including the story about Iphigenia being tricked into thinking she's marrying Achilles at Aulis (who is, in this composite version, already married). On the other hand, from within the Iliad itself, I would probably have omitted the bit where Achilles fights a river god, which always sticks out a bit in the poem (possibly as a result of different oral poems being stitched together into one big whole) and slows the narrative down - Miller spends ages on this fight, whereas poor Hector is dispatched in a line or two. At least she left out the talking horse.

Patroclus is a mostly likable narrator, though I was a bit disappointed that he was written as a bad fighter - the Patroclus of myth is nowhere near as good a fighter as Achilles, but he's decent enough and shouldn't need Achilles to jump around him protecting him whenever they're in battle together. Here, Patroclus is given what in a more modern war story would be a more traditionally female role, working as a nurse/surgeon in the medical tent (I'm thinking of world war one stories in particular, where this is usually the way in which female characters experience war). He's utterly awful at fighting, except for a bit of luck and maybe some divine assistance right at the end. Personally, I'd have liked to read a love story between two talented ancient warriors, but maybe that's sexist of me. Or something-ist. Probably.

Overall, this is a fascinating interpretation of certain Achilles-related highlights of ancient mythology. There are some scenes which seem a bit odd and don't really sit comfortably with the rest of the narrative - the river-god-fighting, and a very odd scene in which Patroclus has sex with Achilles' wife, thereby cheating on his boyfriend by committing adultery with his boyfriend's wife, which seems Not Okay to me - but for the most part everything comes together towards the end as the book moves into the Trojan War sections and really starts to build up steam. I'd definitely recommend it, especially for its fascinating depiction of ancient gods in a truly active role, and for a sweet and moving romance.

Thanks to Troy, I am incapable of picturing Achilles without mentally picturing Brad Pitt. Which is also not necessarily a bad thing.

Before I finish talking about The Song of Achilles, there's something I have to get off my chest, which has less to do with the novel itself and more to do with general trends, so to avoid me ranting about my pet peeves, skip to the bottom now!

It's quite a long rant. Sorry about that. Keep going, it ends eventually...

Goodreads lists Madeline Miller's work (this and her new novel Galatea, also based on ancient mythology) as 'historical fiction.' USA Today lists The Song of Achilles as 'General Fiction'. Various other sites go so far as to refer to its genre as 'mythology.' I borrowed the book from a friend, so I don't know where bookshops usually shelve it, but I know that in all the time I've spent browsing the SFF section of various branches of Waterstone's recently, I haven't seen it.

This bothers me, because The Song of Achilles is a fantasy novel.

It has a centaur in it.

I feel like I don't need to say much more than 'it has a centaur in it' to justify this claim, but it also features gods - heavily - completely inescapable prophecies, nymphs and restless spirits who can't go to the underworld until properly buried and memorialized. You might just get away with accurate prophecies in a non-fantasy book, as prophecy is one of the areas for which we suspend our disbelief a bit, even in more realistic genres. You could even make an argument that the inclusion of gods and spirits is more indicative of a spiritual aspect rather than 'fantasy' per se. But the use of the gods here, literally shooting people and throwing them off walls, combined with the prophecies and nymphs and spirits and, most importantly, the centaur, marks this out clearly as fantasy - for fantasy is not just the name for cheap sword-n-sorcery paperbacks, but for any story engaging in a speculative world that is not part of our understanding of our everyday experience, and not explained using current or imagined future technology (which would be science fiction).

And yet, aside from the odd reference to Thetis' divine nature, you wouldn't know that from the book's cover, or its marketing. It won The Prize Formerly Known As The Orange Prize For Fiction, and as far as I can tell (though I confess I haven't actually read any of the others) it is the only SFF winner of that prize, unless you count Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which apparently involves 'magic realism' (another way for authors to try to avoid claiming they write fantasy, in my opinion). I was so unprepared for full-on, active-gods-and-centaurs fantasy that I was completely taken aback when they appeared, as I had assumed when Patroclus first mentioned Achilles' divine mother that this was just a rumour because she was particularly beautiful or something. As a reader, I had to make a sort of mental adjustment into a different world and a different level of suspension of disbelief when I realized what the story actually was. Historical fiction, this is not.

The reason this bothers me is that I think the reluctance to label this book as what it is, is part of the continued wider dismissal of fantasy (and science fiction) by mainstream media. Now that Game of Thrones is a big success on HBO, readers are discovering George RR Martin's books and saying, in great tones of surprise, 'oh look, it's fantasy but it's got well drawn characters and interesting human-focused plots - so it's not really fantasy', or it's unusually good fantasy. Actually, as much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire very much, other fantasy authors have been doing just as much great character work and fascinating human stories for years - my favourite is Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, but you only have to read Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett (especially the later books; if you want character drama, I'd recommend Night Watch) to see how great fantasy can be. (And that's without even mentioning quite possibly the most successful book series of all time, which is doubly discounted as literature for being both fantasy and intended for a younger audience).

I think when people dismiss 'fantasy' what they often have in mind is the sort of cheap, overly formulaic stuff (all young baker boys getting the Sword of Whatsit to the Stone of Thingummy) that is to fantasy as a genre what Mills and Boon is to romance, or a cheap and overly formulaic detective story is to crime fiction. Yes, there is bad fantasy. There is also good fantasy, and instead of hiding behind the veneer of respectability offered by Homer - because apparently fantasy is OK as long as it's 'mythological,' or based on a recognized literary great like Homer, Virgil, Dante or Shakespeare - we should all call a spade a spade and recognize a good fantasy novel for what it is.

And (here's where everyone who skipped the rant can re-join us!) The Song of Achilles is a good fantasy novel. For me, it's not a great fantasy novel - it takes a bit too long to get going and there are too many sequences that sit awkwardly with the rest of it - but it's very good, especially in the last third. I'd recommend it - and do persevere if you're finding it slow. Or skip to p257.

3 comments:

  1. It's fantasy as far as I'd be concerned. And it does sound like a good spin on the original story.

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  2. I thoroughly agree with and share your loathing that Fantasy, especially, but also SFF is somehow seen as not 'proper' literature. It has always galled me that this snobbery seems to ignore some, as you have used as examples, authors whose characters, plots are as intricate and deeply thought through as any other genre of literature (I found the Stephen Lawhead, arthurian cycle of novels, excellent in both Celtic research and storyline). Your pet peeve is right and you have justice on your side!

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  3. It is so frustrating when fantasy is dismissed as a genre! I don't deny there's plenty of very bad fantasy out there, but that's true of every genre...

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