Historical fiction is a much maligned genre, when it’s bad it’s shockingly bad, but when it’s good it’s breathtaking. I am notoriously picky with my historical novel (praying this doesn’t come back to haunt me) and I must admit, the only books I have ever abandoned reading-save Moby Dick-have all been historical novels…for diplomacy I am not going to name names! However, when I do enjoy a historical novel I get a little obsessed with it and tell EVERYONE I know to read it. I’ve done that with Pillars of the Earth, Pure, I Claudius, Wolf Hall, Blood and Beauty and many more. Today I’m going to talk about a book that I wholeheartedly think is one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
As you can probably tell by the title, the book is set in Classical Greece and serves as a retelling of the mythological Trojan war. Beautifully written and impossible to put down, Miller’s retelling of The Illiad is inventive while remaining faithful to the original Greek characters. The book focuses on the life of the legendary warrior Prince Achilles, starting from his life as a young prince, through the war and then the after-effects of the bloodshed. The book is not written from the point of view of the charismatic figure of Achilles but from the point of view of his companion Patroclus. While he is not as well known as Achilles: readers of Shakespeare/Homer/Chaucer will recognise Patroclus as the companion whose death spurns a stubborn Achilles into action after months of sulking. As somebody who has studied both classical and medieval literature centred on the Trojan war, I didn’t think it was possible to come at such a familiar tale with a new angle yet somehow Miller has achieved this.
Writing as the voice of Achilles’s companion-and possible lover according to Greek texts-was a stroke of genius as he is more of an enabler and less of a fleshed out character in previous retellings. Patroclus’s voice is sensitive, the tone of the novel from the beginning to end, aches with emotion. Memories are beautifully woven together, we can almost smell the Greek countryside, taste the dates and honey the characters eat, without the text seeming forced and superficial. Miller’s dedication to her period shines through, subtle references to mythological figures teach the reader about the period yet these references are never forced, not once do you question the idea that a centaur teaches Achilles and Patroclus how to fight!
Thankfully Miller has decided to treat the ‘friendship’ between Achilles and Patroclus as the love affair the classical records describe it as, and not the bromance that modern portrayals have demoted it to. Achilles is the swaggering, brooding figure that Brad Pitt played in that car-crash of a film Troy but there is a fragility, a sense of insecurity from our hero. Patroclus serves as counter to Achilles constant instability, he is the human-side of the Demi-God he is so dedicated to. The homoerotic relationship Patroclus shares with Achilles is sensitively written, and at no point one full of clichés or awkward erotica. Patroclus’s sense of awe regarding Achilles and his own lack of self worth, creates a realistic portrayal of a love that is not unrequited, but one that is certainly one-sided. The love affair between the two men not only effects their lives but also of those around them.
For example, Achilles’s goddess mother Thetis is against the relationship as she believes that mortals are beneath her son. Thetis has spent a lifetime constructing a reputation for her son, and to say that she hates Patroclus for intruding on Achilles’s charmed life would be an understatement. Achilles and Patroclus make very little effort to hide their relationship as a relationship between two men was not looked down on by the ancient Greeks, however at one point Odysseus-yep he’s in it-comments that usually boys grow out of it. The character of Achilles is oppressed by a reputation that quite frankly precedes him. Achilles is taken to Troy with the hope that as the next great hero he will give the Greeks the upper-hand against the Trojans. Achilles is still young and unproven, yet an entire army places their faith in him. Unsurprisingly, for all his front, Achilles is uncomfortable with this expectation, at one point asking Patroclus: ‘can you think of a hero that was happy? Patroclus cannot answer his question. After all, the classical nerds among us will know that Heracles went mad and killed family, Jason’s first wife killed his second wife and their children and that’s just two of them! In a poignant effort to placate Patroclus and to a degree himself, Achilles assures Patroclus he will be the first one to be happy. SPOILER ALERT: obviously this is not the case.
Unlike Shakespeare, who robs Achilles of his bravery in the play Troilus and Cressida, Miller makes his faults believable and human. Shakespeare’s Achilles is lazy, petulant who -SPOILER ALERT II-rather controversially does not kill Hector. Miller’s Achilles is equally petulant, but he is stupidly brave and equally rash. Achilles is angry, conflicted by his desire to reach the heights of a Greek hero and his devotion to Patroclus. What we are given is a nice balance between the hero we’re familiar with and one that the reader can actually like.
It would not be right to review this book and not mention the supporting characters who are also as vividly drawn as Miller’s protagonists. No character is not fleshed out into something beyond either a background player of a two dimensional classical figure. Miller examines the classical figures we all know- Odysseus, Menelaus, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector et al -and expands upon the characteristics that Homer originally them. Traditionally, Agamemnon is painfully cruel, he is a loathsome individual and Miller draws on this by expanding on this, through his dialogue and extended actions. Similarly, we know that Odysseus was a wise man who loved his wife, so Miller has the famed Greek repeatedly telling an anecdote about his wife much to the frustration of his fellow Greeks. The Gods and Goddesses are deeply flawed, angry characters who seem to resent humans for living. They resemble biased parents who pick a favourite child, before pitting them against each other. Thetis, the most featured of these divine beings, is deeply maternal but in a destructive and sinister way. She is devoted to her son, yet she seems to loathe everything we find endearing about Achilles. It is Thetis who encourages Achilles’s arrogance and entitlement as she considers this more godlike than humility.
One of the most poignant things about the characterisation of the loud, wholly masculine Greeks and the divine Gods, is just how out of place Patroclus seems to them. Patroclus is somewhat of an outsider in the many places he travels to. Even in his childhood home, Patroclus seems out of place his own father viewing him as nothing more than an inconvenience. This feeling of hindering those he loves never seems to disappear and throughout the book, Patroclus struggles to make peace with the separate life Achilles lives as a soldier and these struggles provide a tragically beautiful love story with a backdrop of the most abhorrent situation.
Despite the traditional use of classical imagery and plot devices there is nothing clichéd about this debut novel. The things that we associate with the Trojan war: horses, ankles, Gods and of course brutality, are all threaded together in a rich tapestry that leaves the reader wanting more. For the sake of plot some touched upon more than others, but this does not leave the reader unsatisfied. I know this plot inside out, I knew what the ending would be and I was still shocked and moved.
What’s your favourite historical novel? Is it Tudor, Classical, Renaissance…let me know in the comments!
Over and out!