“The Half-Life of the Unburied Spirit”: Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles”

Among the many controversies that swirled more interestingly than the film itself around Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004), some were more visible than others. That by casting Saffron Burrows as Andromache, the flick fatally wounded its conceit that Diane Kruger’s Helen was without rival across the Aegean; that by casting Sean Bean as Odysseus, it likewise managed to make its Achilles, played with a plastic seriousness by an uncomfortable Brad Pitt, look like the playground dandy rather than the hardest man in Mycenae; and that, most howlingly, by describing Patroclus’s relationship with Achilles with rapidly muttered, perfunctory words to the unconvincing effect of, “he’smycousinyouseeandwedocousinlythings”, Troy opted for a laughably heteronormative interpretation of this most endlessly fertile of homoerotic Classical pairings.

It’s not that Homer confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that Patroclus and Achilles are at it like rabbits: in fact, the later tradition of pederasty which so influenced the vision of Aeschylus or Plato would have likely been unknown to Homer, and almost certainly to the hosts of Agamemnon’s army; rather, in the intensity of Achilles’s feelings for Patroclus (“most loved of all my comrades” he calls him in Book 19), there is something of rather more depth than the filial bonds of the extended feudal family, or the duties of a foster brother. This is the sort of relationship forbidden or snickered at by our contemporary culture. Either that, or turned into slash.

Enter, then, The Song of Achilles, the debut novel from Madeline Miller which narrates the life of the titular hero from the perspective of the man whose death will inspire his most famous feats. Miller’s Patroclus is the winsome, at times slow, son of Menoitius, King of Opus. From the first, he is attracted to the physicality of men – “I remember the runners best,” he tells of his first games, “nut-brown bodies slicked with oil” [pg. 2] – and it is therefore fitting that he feels the magnetism of Achilles, son of the king to whose court Patroclus is exiled after accidentally killing a childhood friend (in Miller’s version, in self-defense). Indeed, fully half The Song of Achilles is the leisurely story of the pair’s unconventional courtship – their meeting in the palace of King Peleus, their tutelage under the centaur Chiron. Some of Miller’s best writing is saved for these tender, langurous scenes:

Achilles returned to his strings, and the music rose again. This time he sang also, weaving his own accompaniment with a clear, rich treble. His head fell back a little, exposing his throat, supple and fawn-skin soft. A small smile lifted the left corner of his mouth. Without meaning to I found myself leaning forward. [pg. 33]

Miller’s echoing of the Homeric tenor – those compound adjectives, that lyrically oral style – is sly in these passages, but so too is the simple directness of her prose. The difficulty, though, is that, even when these allusions to the source texts and culture are allied with an at times impressively immersive evocation of Mycenean society – for example, the scene in King Tyndareus’s throne room, in which the great men of Greece compete for the hand of Helen, is charged with archaic hierarchy and honour (“we knew how to ape civilization” [pg. 7]) – Miller’s treatment of her central love story doesn’t quite scan. Early on, Patroclus tells us that the opinion of men on ugly wives is that “there were always slave girls and serving boys”, yet time and again Achilles’s mother, the god Thetis, seems to resent Patroclus precisely for the homosexuality he shares with her son; indeed, only the other-worldly Chiron – Miller’s is no historicisation of the Greek myth, and here he is presented as an “impossible sutute of horse and human” [pg. 67] – seems to have no objection at all to Achilles and Patroclus’s companionship. Miller seems to want to evoke the alien culture but retain the tensions of contemporary sexuality.

Alas, this attempt to give her narrative relevance through social comment in practice hobbles it somewhat: it confuses the setting and the characters. Achilles is still very much the proud and vain hero of the Iliad – “She’ll hate me now,” he sighs of his mother at one point, before adding for Patroclus’s benefit, rather lightly for so hurtful a truth, “She already hates you” [pg. 105] – and Patroclus’s devotion to him therefore makes little sense by the contemporary standards Miller seems to imply. Indeed, Miller’s novel is in fact most interesting on the rather old-fahsioned concept of heroism. Throughout the novel, Achilles is torn between his divine inheritance and his humanity: Thetis is desperate for her son to be a god, or if not at least to have immortal fame, and yet Achilles himself asks rhetorically of Patroclus, “Name one hero who was happy.” [pg. 98]  Nevertheless, Achilles revels in war – “What he lived for were the charges, a cohort of men thundering towards him” [pg. 228] – and kills with such glee at Troy that Patroclus is shocked. He is dismayed, too, by his lover’s famous wrath, his refusal to fight for and protect the Greeks as long as Agamemnon declines to apologise for taking the captive priestess Briseis as his own. “Look at how he will be remembered now,” pleads Patroclus. “Killing Hector, killing Troilus. For things he did cruelly in his grief.” [pg. 349]  The purpose of Patroclus’s narrative thus becomes to return the warrior to the memory of the boy.

He doesn’t quite succeed, in no small part because of Achilles’s cruelty to the women in his life. When Achilles resolves to allow Agamemnon to curse himself by taking Briseis – “We both know what will to her in Agamemnon’s tent. Achilles knows too, and sends her anyway” [pg. 271] – he is behaving in the same way he acted more than ten years before, whilst in hiding as a woman at the court of Lycomedes. There Achilles meets and courts the King’s daughter, Deidameia, whilst still loving Patroclus. “You do not have to humiliate her so thoroughly,” Patroclus thinks. [pg. 132]  Indeed, it is the presumed coward, the reputed weakling, who ultimately stands up for the women of the novel – even Thetis, Patroclus’s great nemesis, is ultimately treated with more respect by her son’s lover than by Achilles himself. When Patroclus bargains successfully with Agamemnon for the life of Briseis, however, Achilles simply sneers: “Her safety for my honour. Are you happy with your trade?” [pg. 280]

Indeed, in following the traditional depiction of Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, as a cruel tyrant, Miller has him inherit the sins of the father: in particular, his sacrifice of Polyxena, the youngest daughter of the vanquished King of Troy, is brutal and unthinking. The novel demurs, however, from offering the usual explanation for this slaughter – the appearance of Achilles’s ghost demanding it. Miller is both having and eating the cake here – again, her contemporary love story project would have been derailed by following through on the alien cultural mores she depicts around it. On the other hand, rarely does she steer far from the established stories, and as this review may have already made clear at times the novel descends into a game of Homeric Pokemon, with the reader running around in an attempt to catch all the famous heroes and their scenes. The Song of Achilles isn’t quite sure what it is – straight retelling or subversive queering – and since Patroclus’s YA voice never quite dovetails with the Mycenaean milieu, the book never quite happens.

Nevertheless, some have found Miller’s book to be deliciously heady wine – in particular, Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria was ecstatic. She’s right to dismiss the blinkered objections of dry Classicists, but on the other hand it’s hard to refute Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Times when he writes that The Song of Achilles has problems “of both structure and tone”. Ultimately, perhaps, I’m closest to Aishwarya at Practically Marzipan, who is complimentary about the novel’s positive qualities – its sense of immersion (having read Miller, I feel ready and eager to dive back into Homer, and for this Miller is to be applauded), and its strong characterisation – but is ultimately left at least somewhat ambivalent by its curiously uncomfortable balancing of Homer with Home and Away. It is not undeserving of its place on the Orange shortlist, then, but it surely lacks the completeness of vision, and elegance of execution, to win.

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