Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.10 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.06 / 5.00

It is Greece in the Age of Heroes. Young Prince Patroclus accidentally kills another boy and is exiled to the court of King Peleus. There he meets Achilles, Peleus’ son born of the cruel sea-goddess Thetis. They are the total opposites of one another because Achilles is the epitome of all that is desirable in a Greek man: beautiful, graceful, strong, intelligent and gifted. Nevertheless, Peleus’ golden son is drawn to the troubled Patroclus and the two become firm friends despite Thetis’ antagonism to the friendship.

All too soon they have grown to manhood and are drawn away from their training with the centaur Chiron to join the battle against Troy to retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta. However, Achilles learns that he is destined to either be the ‘Best of the Greeks’ and die young or live a long life of no distinction. Achilles chooses to live a brief but glorious life, while Patroclus tries to prevent the death of his lover.

I was very eager to read this title because I have a fascination for the Greek myths and the literature associated with them. As part of my BA in Classical Studies, I studied both The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer in some detail, so I am fairly familiar with them as both texts and evidence for life in Ancient Greece. As such, it was rather difficult for me to approach this work as a layperson with only a passing knowledge of the Achilles / Patroclus mythology, and, unfortunately, it seems that my familiarity was actually a hindrance. The blurb on Goodreads says:
. . breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination . .
However, to my mind, there is little originality in the book because it is so heavily based upon the works of Homer, and the praised imagination is also simply a recreation of the world based upon the evidence that can be drawn from Greek literature and other sources. This led me to be somewhat disappointed with the rather dry approach that the author chose to take in retelling this ancient tale.

I often enjoy a new approach to a familiar story, but this author did not seem able to breath life into the heroic characters at her disposal. The only one who comes across as a truly three dimensional person is Odysseus, while the others are sadly lacking. This is especially true for the two leads, who do not show much change or development over course the story. I imagine that this was because the author has had to extrapolate them from their last days at Troy to the days of their youth, but it was ultimately unsatisfying. Patroclus was almost exclusively a stereotypical underdog, crippled by self-doubt, whilst Achilles was all easy success and heroic magnetism. Their relationship always seemed to be unequal, with Achilles somehow slightly ‘absent’ emotionally and often oblivious to his effect on Patroclus and the other people around him. This feeling was probably heightened by the first person, present tense used to give us Patroclus’ view of events.

I was particularly disappointed by the choice to make their friendship into a homosexual romance. This is not because I have an aversion to reading an exploration of homosexual love, far from it, but I had hoped that the author would try to show how the great love between these two characters could have been based upon friendship alone and not sexual attraction. I know that their relationship, and its exact nature, has been the source of many millions of words of scholarly discussion, but I sometimes feel that to simply write off their feelings as homosexuality makes light of the strong bonds that men can develop that have nothing to do with sexual feelings. Yes, we know that the Greeks did have a culture of Pederasty, but this does not mean that all male-male friendships were sexual in nature. This reminds me somewhat of the dilemma that some people had with The Lord of the Rings films and the physical affection shown between Frodo and Sam: why is it so difficult for people to believe that men can have deep feelings for one another without it being sexual?

Unfortunately, this has become a rather negative review, so I will try to finish with some positive notes. Firstly, I was very pleased with the ethereal, other-worldliness of Thetis. Unlike the gods and goddesses that we often see on television or in films, she is terrible and awesome, with a legitimate grievance against Peleus and the gods that helped him to rape her. Their uneasy relationship is well drawn and yet she loves her son with a total fierceness that is only really revealed in the last few pages of the book. Indeed, I would say that the final two or three chapters are the most successful of the entire story and are genuinely moving.

Also, for those readers who are unfamiliar with Patroclus, this is a great way to discover much about Ancient Greek culture and learn some the less famous stories behind the Trojan War. The world building is relatively subtle and does not feel too heavy handed when it introduces unfamiliar ideas, morals and traditions. The way that these great heroes are depicted as real people is quite refreshing, as are the descriptions of the War itself. This is no glossy epic, but a gritty story full of blood, sweat and tears, which makes it all seem much more approachable.

Other Recommended Reviews:

I read this title as part of a couple of Challenges:


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