The Greeks have always been seen as leaders in the world, the inventors of things which are now so intrinsically a part of society. Whether it is the Olympics, mathematics, psychology, geometry, science, medicine, democracy, astronomy, language, coinage, Macedonian calendar, the list goes on. Even today as I write this piece, the Greeks and their Cypriot cousins are at the forefront of European fiscal instability.
Before all that though, there was one thing we have that they gave us, which every country has in its own unique way. But Greek Mythology is read and recognized across the globe. We’ve all heard of and maybe read all or parts of the Greek Iliad and Odyssey. If you haven’t, why haven’t you? Maybe you didn’t realize you were reading Greek history? Well, now here’s a great opportunity to get into it in an easy way. In 2011 Madeline Miller wrote her debut novel The Song of Achilles and in 2012 it went on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction beating a shortlist which included such household names as Irish author, Anne Enright and American author, Ann Pachett, who’d previously won the competition ten years earlier.
The book tells the story of Patroclus a shy prince who is exiled from his father’s kingdom after murdering the son of a courtier in apparent self defence. He strikes up a friendship with Achilles the heir to the throne of the kingdom he has been sent to in disgrace. Achilles is the son of a mortal father, King Pelus and the sea goddess Thetis. Realising that unlike him, not every Greek prince is interested in fighting, he takes Patrolus under his wing, much to the disapproval of his mother. Achilles then is sent up into the hills to be tutored by the centaur Chiron and it is here that Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship develops. Then the Trojans kidnap Helen of Sparta and Achilles must go to war with his reluctant consort in tow. The war will test their relationship and fulfil a prophecy and their destiny.
This book is a fantastic read, a real page turner from start to finish. If I had to describe it in one sentence, it’s Brokeback Mountain in Greece. They basically go up a mountain as young boys and come down men and lovers. In ancient Greek this type of socially acceptable relationship was known as “pederasty“. Although if the thought of reading a book that describes in detail the pseudo erotic ways of the Greeks back then, maybe you should steer clear. However, we are well aware the way they did things back then. The body was honoured and toned – you oiled it up regularly and went wrestling or running with just a loin cloth on and bare feet. Sex was encouraged and like the Romans they indulged in orgies and didn’t really care whether you loved men, women or both.
Times were different back then, hence the term a “Greek Tragedy“, death was always at the fore front of the stories, the taking of life whether it was justified or innocent was a norm and in this book there is nothing different. In an earlier book group discussion about Rendezvous with Rama I stated that for that type of genre it was unusual for no one to die. Well in this story the body count starts well before page fifty and climbs steadily after that, not just men and soldiers, but women and young girls are sacrificed.
As for the characters in this book, the only ones who really matter are Patroclus, Achilles and his mother Thetis, who comes across as your archetypal mother in-law always interfering in things that don’t involve her, but this is ancient Greece and the gods have to have a hand in everything. If this was a pantomime she’d be a cross between the Ugly Sister and the Wicked Witch of the West and all the way through the book, I felt like shouting, “She’s behind you!!!“. Her role only goes to support my view that if this was a modern story Achilles would come across as real mummies boy.
There are two things that go against the book, the first is what appears to be the glaring inaccuracy of Achilles’ death, everyone whose anyone knows that your “Achilles heel” is your weak point, a chink in your armour so to speak and the term derives from Achilles being killed by an Arrow to his heel which was his weak point. But according to Miller’s book, it was an arrow that pierced his armour, not his heel. Secondly the ending of this book is a bit of a let down, it’s rather Disney-esque. As the final pages are narrated by Patroclus in spirit form and describes how after his death Achilles wanted to be buried with Patroclus, but his son Pyrrhus refuses. Suddenly a page later Thetis moves from in front of the tomb where Achilles ashes are buried and there on the headstone is both their names where before it had just been Achilles.
This book is a work of faction; Miller has a BA and MA in Latin and Ancient Greek so sense she knows what she’s talking about. This is an abridged version of Homers Iliad of sorts and more or less tells the story or a facet of those books. As to Whether Achilles and Patroclus where really lovers is an ongoing dispute among experts, what I can tell you is that these three hundred and fifty pages of Greek influence will not threaten your long-term bank balance.
(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2013)