Saturday, February 02, 2013


The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller, Ecco, 2012, 369 pp

Here I go again. The lone dissenter. It seems that everyone but me LOVED this modern fictional account of Achilles and the Trojan War. (I am not saying that The Iliad was not fictional. Even Homer is considered fictional by some.)

In any case, Homer's classic about the great war of ancient Greece, written in the style of his times, was an ode to Greece, its heroes, its glories, and its close relationship to the gods. I read it five years ago just because I thought I should and did not enjoy it much. Dick Lit, the original example, I thought.

I wanted to read The Song of Achilles because I had so admired The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, a story about Alexander the Great as a youth. When Song of Achilles made the 2013 Tournament of Books list, I just sat down and read it.

Madeline Miller says it took her a decade to write her first novel. She teaches Latin and Ancient Greek. She obviously poured her knowledge and love of the period into her writing.

Because this version gives a portrait of Achilles through the eyes of his companion and lover Patroclus, it paints a much different picture of the hero from Homer's. Reading The Iliad, I found Achilles to be a spoiled mama's boy. Mama, the Goddess Thetis, the sea nymph who made Achilles partly immortal, does her best to keep her son under control but Achilles comes across with more of a mind of his own in Miller's treatment.

I admired the writing and the somewhat idyllic narrative of the first half morphing into the battle scenes of the second. But I could not get past the clearly feminine voice of the entire book, the opposite problem of what I had reading Homer. A snarky suspicion kept creeping into my mind as I read: if the same sex love between Achilles and Patroclus were not the heart and engine of the story, would the novel have been so well received? Is there an agenda underlying both the efforts of the author and the adulation of readers, if not all reviewers?

I am not sorry I read it. I am glad I had read The Iliad first. Currently I am also reading Caesar and Christ by Will Durant, the third volume of his Story of Civilization. Because of reading The Life of Greece, Vol II, I finally read The Iliad. Granted that Durant was writing history, not fiction, but he hoped to reach an audience of regular readers as opposed to academics. In writing about people and life in such long ago times, he always managed to make a distinction between what he had gleaned from his own studies of the past and what were his views from the present.

Perhaps a certain lack of that distinction, sorely missing in The Song of Achilles, is what tainted my view.

(The Song of Achilles is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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