A selection in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, I’m not even sure if Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was on my radar. I’ve read none of this year’s selections, though many have been highly recommended by friends. But this one I knew almost nothing about, and it’s this kind of reading experience that makes following the Tournament of Books (ToB) such a delight to this geeky reader.
The novel is narrated by Patroclus, who you might remember from Greek myths and the Iliad as Achilles’ best friend. Miller richly imagines the details of their boyhood, and how they came to be immortalized in Homer’s epic. I read the Iliad in my first year of college, in a literature course. It was one of just three books we read. We started with the Iliad, then War and Peace, then Hemingway’s In Our Time. In high school, I skipped reading the books I was assigned, and managed to pull off good grades anyway. In college, though, in that class, I felt the challenge of a semester devoted to just three books, and I read them all. And details of them all remain, these twenty six years later. So I knew how the story would end, but it didn’t diminish by one jot the urgency with which I read this story, consuming it quickly while still appreciating the backstory Miller was detailing, and the lovely prose she used to do it.
Divine blood flows differently in each god-born child. Orpheus’ voice made the trees weep, Heracles could kill a man by clapping him on the back. Achilles’ miracle was his speed. His spear, as he began his first pass, moved faster than my eye could follow. It whirled, flashing forward, reversed, then flashed behind. The shaft seemed to flow in his hands, the dark gray point flickered like a snake’s tongue. His feet beat the ground like a dancer, never still.
I could not move, watching. I almost did not breathe. His face was calm and blank, not tensed with effort. His movements were so precise I could almost see the men he fought, ten, twenty of them, advancing on all sides. He leapt, scything his spear, even as his other hand snatched the sword from its sheath. He swung out with them both, moving like liquid, like a fish through the waves.(45)
Like the film Brokeback Mountain, this is a love story between men that is more about the love than about them being men. And yet, I had two questions in the end. Throughout there is a great stigma attached to their love between men, especially from Achilles’ mother. I had thought this was a stigma now, but not as much in ancient Greece. Achille’s mother, the divine sea nymph Thetis, was an example of my other question. Miller depicts her as cold and frightening, which is fascinating, yet as one of only three main female characters, it gives what felt to me a painfully short and narrow window into women in ancient Greece. Another character, Deidameia, is selfish and cruel, while the third, a slave girl Briseis, is uncomplicatedly good. All other women are mentioned merely as prizes, objects, or occasionally as beloved of men.
I can’t speak to historical accuracy, but I was left with the nagging feeling that a more modern stigma against men loving men was applied to these boys retrospectively as conflict, while a nuanced portrayal of women was not. And while the latter point might have been historically accurate, I wanted something more from the females in this tale.