The tales told about the heroes of Homer’s The Iliad provide much meat for novelists. Though the story of the Greeks’ siege of Troy is familiar to most of us, the psychology of those warriors is alien, so we love to shade in motivations and character facets to help us understand those men whose mothers came from the sea.
There was Barry Unsworth’s eerie The Songs of the Kings, which re-imagined Achilles, the best fighter of the Greeks, as a near-psychopath, someone who “enjoyed homicide as a leisure activity”. Another more thoughtful version of him appeared recently in David Malouf’s Ransom.
For the publicity material to call Madeline Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, “breathtakingly original”, is disingenuous to say the least. Nevertheless, she has written something enjoyably game, with moments of intelligent invention, tension and pathos.
Miller tells the story through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles’s cousin and lover. A gawky boy, and son of a provincial king, he dishonours his name by killing a nobleman’s son. He is shunted off to the palace of Peleus, who runs a sort of Hogwarts for princelings, where the boys fight and romp with serving wenches.
Not Patroclus, though, who is immediately taken by Achilles: “His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow.” The pair throb with repressed sexual energy – they can’t consummate their love, as Achilles’s goddess mother, Thetis, is always watching.
When they finally manage to couple, they do so with some anatomical strangeness: “Our mouths opened under each other.” Alas, though, their idyll is short: the Trojan prince Paris kidnaps Helen, and Patroclus, because of an oath, must join the rest of the Greeks as they sail against Troy. Achilles didn’t swear, and goes with Patroclus because of his love. This adds to the desperate sadness of Achilles’s knowledge of his fated death.
Some will not admire Miller’s style. She is overfond of unnecessary perhapses. “Make up your mind!”, one wants to shout. There is also nothing of the numinous, as Thetis with her black eyes feels more like a thing of CGI than the sea nymph of myth. But the story is forged from strong stuff, and Miller’s version manages to achieve its own clean and plangent resonance.