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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

September 17, 2012

Book Review: The Song of Achilles

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While I have not read The Iliad, I would like to think that Madeline Miller has done a great service to those like me, yearning for culture on a time crunch. Miller's New York Times bestseller The Song of Achilles, recounts the tale of the Trojan Wars from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' closest friend, rumored lover, perhaps both. Miller's work has been praised as "wildly romantic," "timeless," and simply "beautiful," among many other accolades. Not a bad go of things for a first novel.

When I began Ms. Miller's work, I was skeptical at best. My studies of classical works were more or less relegated to the Bible as authorized by God and King James himself. The only classical literature I encountered during my college days was the Cohen brothers retelling of The Odyssey via the bard George Clooney.

My relative ignorance notwithstanding, I came away from Ms. Miller's novel with a new appreciation for the ancient themes that make the novel an enduring part of our artistic and cultural fabric. In particular, Miller's skillful treatment of love and loyalty both merit a brief mention, for these are the things that make merely another retelling of the Iliad a truly memorable event. 

The key theme that makes the novel work is the relationship Ms. Miller develops between Achilles and Patroclus. From the press release and a few of Patroclus' descriptions early in the work, it was clear that the relationship would be a sexual one, rather than simply a deep platonic friendship. Typically, I recoil against such reinterpretations of ancient tales. Of late, society's joie de vivre is to reinterpret nearly every literary relationships between men as gay. From David and Jonathan, to Achilles and Patroclus, to poor Bert and Ernie, men cannot simply be good friends these days. 

But in The Song of Achilles, Miller makes the schtick work. In fact, were it not for the same-sex relationship, the novel would lose a part of what makes it so compelling - the theme of love. Miller develops the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus quite true to life, in a way that any adolescent relationship develops, awkwardly. From Patroclus' somewhat creepy leering at Achilles early in the novel (p.26), to the gratuitous comparisons that boys sometimes make in assessing how they have grown (p.94), to the couple's clumsy first kiss (p.63), Miller finds a way to turn youthful innocence into budding desire without sacrificing the story's progression.

To be clear, this is not an easy task. Contrast Miller's skill with E.I. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, which is so outlandishly sensual that it makes the plot almost moot. Ms. Miller's same-sex relationship works, because the novel is about much more than a physical relationship between two men. But the relationship is still essential because it establishes why these two characters' devotion to one another seems to transcend the rational. 

In this way, the relationship in the novel must be sexual because love makes us do strange things out of loyalty toward those we love. We see this theme in the novel again and again. The first instance is actually a stirring example of disloyalty on the part of Patroclus' father. Early in the novel, Patroclus accidentally kills a bully resulting in his prompt exile to Achilles' Phthia. What's telling about the father's act of disloyalty is that rather than explore the facts of his son's transgression, ensure him a fair trial, let alone show his son any compassion, Patroclus' father sends him away without a thought. 

The second important act of loyalty comes when Achilles is sent on a sort of exile himself to train in the arts of war and life with the Centaur King Chiron (p.65). Despite the consequences of leaving the place of his exile, lacking in athletic prowess, and without appropriate equipment for the long trek to Mount Pelion, Patroclus departs the relative comforts of Phthia to join Achilles (p.68). Miller describes Patroclus' devotion to Achilles as follows:

I could leave. The thought was sudden, arresting. I had come to the road meaning only to escape to the sea. But the path lay before me, and the mountains. And Achilles. My chest rose and fell rapidly, as if trying to keep pace with my thoughts. I had nothing that belonged to me, not a tunic, not a sandal; they were Peleus' [Achilles' father] all. I do not need to pack, even. (p.68).

And so, Patroclus leaves to find Achilles in the mountains without even a walking stick. I love my wife. I'm devoted and loyal to her. But given my penchant for climate control and wi-fi, I've never left our abode to go backpacking in the wilderness on her behalf. The simple lesson of Patroclus' devotion is that Love begets loyalty and loyalty makes us do strange things. 

There are, of course, many more examples, but I would rather not spoil Ms. Miller's retelling of them. The novel reads well, as all good novels should, and these two, enormous themes anchor the book in innumerable, infinitesimal ways, helping to bring the Greek myth back to the present.

It's easy to think of acts of love. It is easy to think of acts of loyalty and disloyalty and to recall these thoughts from the annals of our mind. The memories are not always pleasant but they are there. What Ms. Miller does is to help us recall these themes that have helped to forge a civilization, thereby allowing us to reinterpret them in a manner that is as diverse and as subjective as the reader. A tremendous accomplishment. 

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