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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

annis
Bibliomaniac

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Postby annis » Mon September 26th, 2011, 7:55 pm

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Those who pick up this novel expecting the sort of rousing martial adventure usually associated with the name Achilles will be in for a shock. This is a same-sex love story; achingly tender and as fraught with fate as that of Romeo and Juliet.

Patroclus is used to being a disappointment. His father is “a king and the son of kings”, but his son is scrawny and unprepossessing: “I was not fast. I was not strong. I could not sing”. The ideal son is like handsome, talented Achilles, a boy his own age who takes the winner’s garland at the games held by Patroclus’ father. “His father comes to claim him, smiling and proud. My own father watches in envy. He turns to me. ‘That is what a son should be.’ I watch King Peleus embrace his son. I see the boy toss the garland in the air, and catch it again. He is laughing, and his face is bright with victory.”

Little wonder that when he’s exiled to King Peleus’ court at the age of ten, Patroclus bitterly resents charismatic, golden-haired Achilles with his preternatural skills and admiring sycophants. No one is more surprised than Patroclus when Achilles chooses him as his companion. Achilles recognizes a kindred-spirit, he too is lonely - who can a prince trust? As their cautious alliance develops into true friendship, Patroclus blossoms; for the first time in his life he has someone who values him, cares about him. The two grow up together, inseparable, and during three carefree years spent studying in isolation with the wise centaur Chiron, they become lovers as well as friends. But inevitable war with Troy brings an end to their idyll, and Patroclus must watch his soul-mate fulfill his implacable destiny as “the greatest warrior of his generation”. Their love remains steadfast, though as Achilles grows increasingly ruthless and iron-hearted, it will be tested. Patroclus recalls Odysseus’ warning words: “He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”

There is no sense of fantasy about Miller’s Bronze Age world. That gods walk among men is a reality taken as a given, if an unnerving and sometimes terrifying one. The Song of Achilles is a gem of a story, luminous and engaging, written with spare elegance and a heart-breaking ending which had me sniffling on cue. I loved it, but (and here I step into politically incorrect territory), I would - I’m a woman. Women will adore this tale. Irrespective of the gender of the lovers, it's pure, classic romance of the all-consuming sort which tragedy makes deathless - a love that time will never reduce to a state of comfortable mediocrity.

Did it ring true for me? Not with total conviction. Miller’s Patroclus is thoughtful and caring, a healer. He has no inclination or aptitude for fighting and avoids it where possible. Let's face it, however disarming, he’s frankly a bit of a nerd, a sensitive New Age Achaean. I had difficulty reconciling him with the image I take from the Iliad of a companion who is sword-brother as well as heart-brother. Can I see this Patroclus donning Achilles’ armour and flying into a battle frenzy, killing all in his path and attacking the very walls of Troy? Not really. Maybe I have to believe that he has stepped out of character at the will of the gods so that events can fall as predicted? The wonderful thing about the great, enduring stories like the Iliad is that they can be endlessly reinvented and interpreted in fresh ways. This is a very different vision, the quintessentially masculine world of the Iliad seen through the soft-focus lens of a romantic female sensibility; compelling, but at times disconcertingly alien.

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Achilles tends a wounded Patroclus
Last edited by annis on Thu September 29th, 2011, 6:50 am, edited 34 times in total.

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lauragill
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Postby lauragill » Mon September 26th, 2011, 11:06 pm

Alas! Another book to add to the TBR pile. ;)

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Tue September 27th, 2011, 8:15 am

Lol - yes, it's just one darn book after another :)

I'll be interested to hear what you think of this if you do read it. It's beautifully written and has glowing reviews (most of them from female readers!)

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Chiliarch
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Postby Chiliarch » Mon October 24th, 2011, 1:25 pm

I completely agree with your review of this novel, especially the last paragraph.

It has received glowing reviews, some reviewers have even compared Miller to Renault, but I will not go as far as that. It is a well-written book and the author has done her homework, but I am sorry to say that I don’t find it completely satisfying.


The characters do not come completely alive and the story does not have that truly ancient Greek feel that is the hallmark of Renault’s works. It is somehow too modern, both in its approach to the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and in its/their attitude towards women (Briseis). Miller also blends the different ages in her descriptions of clothes, armour etc. She sets the story in a world that is at one time the time of the Trojan War, the time of Homer and 5th Century Greece. This is forgiveable and is a writer's privilege, though I find it somewhat annoying to read about Spartan mores in a story about a war that took place centuries before said mores came into force.

But most of all I am so irritated at the fact that she falls into the same trap as many other writers of novels based on the Iliad in that she makes Patroclus a weakling. I just hate it! No weakling can impersonate Achilles on the battlefield and it is not in accordance with what Homer writes. That really spoiled the book for me. No matter how she tries to get around it, I still do not find that her explanation of Patroclus’ deeds on the battlefield corresponds with her portrayal of him. Or indeed the high regard and respect for him expressed by the other Greeks in Homer’s Iliad.

Homer explicitly states that Patroclus is the eldest and the wisest of the two and that it is up to him to counsel Achilles, which means that he is someone whose counsel is worth quite a lot. As for the fighting, if you count the deaths in the Iliad you will find that Patroclus kills more men that anyone else except Hector. More than Achilles. He scales the walls of Troy three times - something no other Greek does - and almost takes the city single-handedly. He must have had quite a reputation as Euphorbus, after wounding him, flees before him even though he is wounded and unarmed. And Hector knows his name. How come? He must have made quite a name for himself earlier in the war for Hector to know who he is.

I like the love story, the setting and the writing, especially the similes, and I am truly happy that another novel set in ancient Greece has seen the light of day, but this is not the Iliad as I know it, and it is certainly not "my" Patroclus.

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Mon October 24th, 2011, 8:25 pm

Although everyone admires Miller's writing, Song of Achilles has aroused a certain amount of controversy, with some people having problems with Achilles and Patroclus depicted as lovers, and others seeing her portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus as a couple being too much like a modern gay relationship.

True, Homer never says directly that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers. It's a point that readers and scholars have been debating for centuries, puzzling over what exactly Homer meant when he had Achilles describe Patroclus as "polu philtatos hetairos, dearest companion by far". However the ancient Greeks didn't have the problems dealing with bisexuality and homosexuality which we still seem to have, and the Classical Athenians certainly saw the two as lovers.

I guess it's inevitable that readers form an impression based on their own cultural experience - thus the Classical Athenians saw Achilles and Patroclus within the framework familiar to them of erastes/eromenos and Miller depicts them in a modern gay partnership. I think it quite likely that they could have been lovers, but as I see it, in an egalitarian relationship springing from the close bond formed by brothers-in-arms. As I've said, Miller's Patroclus just doesn't ring true for me - as far as I'm concerned he must be seen as a warrior.

One good thing about reading this, is that it got me dragging out my ancient copy of the Iliad for a re-read, and also Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy, because it's impossible to think of Achilles and Patroclus without seeing Alexander and Hephaistion. And no, Miller is not Renault.
Last edited by annis on Mon October 24th, 2011, 11:23 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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lauragill
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Postby lauragill » Sat March 10th, 2012, 9:15 pm

"annis" wrote:Lol - yes, it's just one darn book after another :)

I'll be interested to hear what you think of this if you do read it. It's beautifully written and has glowing reviews (most of them from female readers!)


I did like the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, but did find the mishmash of different eras troublesome--the Greeks didn't know how to make cast-iron spearheads in the thirteenth century B.C. I also agree that Patroclus is too much the New Age Achaean pacifist; he doesn't match Homer's portrayal in the Iliad. I do recall that Patroclus and Briseis got along quite well in Homer, and also that Patroclus had his own girlfriend. For all that's been said about the Greeks, male lovers like Achilles and Patroclus would have been considered quite odd if they didn't also sleep with women.

Odysseus was my favorite character, by far. All the other Achaeans, like Agamemnon, were woefully two-dimensional.

I also thought the book was way too short, and that events went by way too quickly.
Last edited by lauragill on Sat March 10th, 2012, 9:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Sun March 11th, 2012, 1:37 am

Posted by lauragill
I do recall that Patroclus and Briseis got along quite well in Homer


Susan Curran makes use of this relationship as well in her novel The Mouse God, with Patroclus and Briseis being both friends and lovers.

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lauragill
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Postby lauragill » Sun March 11th, 2012, 5:26 am

"annis" wrote:Posted by lauragill


Susan Curran makes use of this relationship as well in her novel The Mouse God, with Patroclus and Briseis being both friends and lovers.


I must find and read this book.

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EC2
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Postby EC2 » Sat June 2nd, 2012, 8:08 pm

Thanks for the comments Annis and Chiliarch. I was wondering whether to read this one and probably will. One of my bugs is mindset so I will probably have to be prepared abandon it on this journey and just concentrate on the story.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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Margaret
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Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
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Postby Margaret » Sun June 3rd, 2012, 1:33 am

Hmmm. I would have a hard time with Patroclus being anything but a fairly bloodthirsty warrior. There was a Greek tradition of warriors pairing up as lovers; it was thought that they fought more fiercely when they fought alongside a beloved companion whose life was at stake (and they very likely did). That doesn't mean an author's subtext would have to show bloodthirsty warfare in an approving light. Mary Renault's novels are particularly skilled in portraying the people and cultures of the ancient Greek world authentically while also showing the complex emotions that surround violence and the ultimate barrenness of devoting one's life to it. But not every writer can be Mary Renault!
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