I read the Iliad a couple of years ago, and was startled to find Achilles such a figure of conflict and indifference. His arrogance, pride and rage dominated my reading, and tainted his fabled heroics so that even his moving grief over the death of Patroclus was clouded by dislike. Still I felt sure that future readings would show me Achilles from other angles; that, as often happens, the reader I would be on another occasion would see an entirely different man. As it happens I didn't have to wait for a re-read of the Iliad for a reappraisal, because I came upon Madeline Miller's debut The Song of Achilles first.
I first heard about the book on BBC Radio 4. It was a cultural segment on a news programme, and Miller had been invited to defend her novel against the criticisms of a representative from a group that champions the Classics (which I forget the name of, and Google can't help me). He was arguing that contemporary novelisations of Homer's epics were counter-productive and even harmed the reputation of the Classics. Firstly because they misled readers about the plot, characters and themes by mixing in 21st century sentiment and morals; and secondly because they falsely raised expectations about the contemporariness of the material and dumbed it down. He was particularly offended that Miller had written a book that cast Achilles' as homosexual and Patroclus as his lover and partner. The sensible and fair-minded way that Miller - a teacher of Classics herself - responded to this provocation convinced me that I had to give the book a try.
Her version of the story is intimately narrated by Patroclus himself, and takes us from his childhood right up to (and beyond) his death at the battle of Troy over twenty years later. It begins with his exile to the kingdom of Phthia, then ruled by Achilles' father, Peleus. Despised and bullied by his own royal father, eight year old Patroclus was goaded into the manslaughter of a noble's son and then cast off and sent to grow up as an orphan in King Peleus' hall. He is small, clumsy and useless at the martial games that the other boys play; and yet for reasons he cannot fathom finds himself an object of Prince Achilles' interest. The pair are of an age but whereas Patroclus is unimpressive, Achilles is the golden son of a King and a Goddess, destined for greatness from the moment of his birth. Everyone wants a piece of his glory:
In the huge hall, his beauty shone like a flame, vital and bright, drawing my eye against my will. His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow. Seated, his limbs did not skew as mine did, but arranged themselves with perfect grace, as if for a sculptor. Perhaps most remarkable was his unself-consciousness. He did not preen nor pout as other handsome children did. Indeed, he seemed utterly unaware of his effect on the boys around him. Though how he was, I could not imagine: they crowded him like dogs in their eagerness, tongues lolling.
Patroclus is helpless to resist the attraction and watches Achilles 'like a fish eyeing the hook', with both fear and self-destructive longing. He can't understand why, in the fullness of time, Achilles starts to watch him back. The two become companions, and then inseperable friends, and then passionate lovers. In the eyes of the world their relationship makes no sense. Patroclus is an exile, a loser, while a prophecy foretells that Achilles will become the greatest warrior his people have known or will ever know. But although Patroclus accepts his lesser status willingly - I did not mind when I lost, he says, to such beauty - Achilles stubbornly holds him as his deserving equal. The all-consuming love they feel for one another shapes not only the course of their lives but the course of the war in Troy.
Love and the Gods drive the action. Patroclus and Achilles' love for one another; Achilles' self-love; and the terrifying love/hate of his divine mother and the rest of the Gods. The unexpected balance of the book reflects this. War is only announced at the mid-point and we are almost two-thirds of the way through before the Greeks arrive at Troy. The ten years spent fighting there flash in a chapter or two before the gut-wrenching final act is bearing down on us. The bones and sinew are recognisably Homer's - the events, the figures who act their parts in them - but the flesh and the feeling belong to Miller. She reads the epic through an intimate, personal lens. The question that fascinates her most is: who is Achilles? Is it possible for him to be both a man - son, lover, boy - and a hero? She spends a great deal of time watching him grow, gather strength and struggle to come to terms with his fate through Patroclus' eyes. With a lover's access she can gain insight into the two divergent aspects of Achilles' being. As here, on the morning of the first battle:
Achilles stood, and I watched as he strode towards them - the way the bronze buckles on his tunic threw off fire flashes, the way his dark purple cape brightened his hair to sun's gold. He seemed so much the hero, I could barely remember that only the night before we had spat olive pits at each other, across the plate of cheeses that Phoinix had left for us. That we had howled with delight when he had landed one, wet and with bits of fruit still hanging from it, in my ear.
This last a reminder not only of Achilles' of humanity but also his youth: he and Patroclus are just 18 years old when they arrive at Troy. His fate - 'What I was born for...' - only intensifies their relationship, as it pits them against the ferocious will of the Gods.
The writing throughout is strikingly beautiful, in a style that clearly echoes Homer's: Miller likes simplicity, colour, light. She likes to disrupt the gentle flow of her prose with violent images, so that when we first meet Thetis she is a vision of pallid divinity, except for 'her mouth...like the torn open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular.' At other times she plays with the opposite, interweaving grotesque descriptions of death in battle with strange images of tenderness. Patroclus describes Achilles' coming back from a day of slaughter: 'He is red and red and rust-read, up to his elbows, his knees, his neck, as if he has swum in the vast dark chambers of a heart.' Achilles' role as death-bringer and tender lover are rolled into one around the image of the heart. I was moved to tears more than once. (In fact, I haven't cried so much since The Book Thief.)
Miller's version of the story goes a long way to demystifying Achilles for me. Through her eyes I see clearly how he is backed into a tight corner: he has accepted his premature death at Troy in return for being remembered and honoured for all time. When his honour is impuned by Agamemmnon his legacy is placed at risk, and the possibility of a wasted sacrifice - wasted life, wasted love and the pointless loss of his innocence - drive him into a helpless rage. When Achilles' refuses to fight, and contributes towards the deaths of thousands of Greeks as a result, Patroclus abhors his hubris - Our word for arrogance that scraps the stars, for violence and towering rage as ugly as the Gods' - but Miller makes it explicable in a way that it wasn't before Miller has given me a reading of the Iliad that I can connect with, and work from.
Is it unethical of her to have created this reading? For her to have turned the Iliad into the greatest gay love story never told, and to have imputed motives and feelings to Achilles' that Homer couldn't have imagined? These are interesting questions, similar in some ways to ones we have asked before about the use of real historical figures in fiction. Achilles' is such iconic figure that radically reinterpreting his character is surely akin to doing the same with Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill. The Classics' advocate seemed to understand it that way at least. In his eyes Miller has harmfully distorted a literary truth with her story. Perhaps he would have preferred if she had written a non-fiction book instead, a critical analysis of the Iliad drawing the same conclusions. That would have been easier to dismiss I think. Fiction is a more dangerous tool, because it engages imagination and deeper emotions, and allows Miller to go further than she ever could on the evidence alone. In the same way that a novelist can go beyond the evidence of their historical sources in a way historians cannot, she can go beyond the text of the original. Going further like this can mean going very wrong, but it can also mean going very right; and The Song of Achilles falls in the latter category.
The Classics advocate is simply wrong if he believes that the reason we should read the Iliad in the 21st century is to experience the story as its first listeners did. This is both impossible and unthinkable because for it to mean something we have to reconcile our 21st century selves to its content and themes. Otherwise it becomes a purely academic experience. The Song of Achilles is an act of reconciliation, plugging me into Homer in ways I hadn't imagined. I'm sure I won't be the only one who revisits the original with better care and greater interest as a result. Now, if only Miller would do the same thing for the Odyssey.