The Song of Achilles ~ Madeline Miller

imagesI’ve been waiting to read Miller’s novel centred on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles ever since it won the last Orange Prize back in the summer of 2012.  Unfortunately, it seemed such a good fit for my Wednesday evening book group that I made the mistake of adding it to the list as my next choice and it’s taken until now for our turn to come around.  However, the timing has also proved to be serendipitous because this week has seen the start of the Coursera MOOC on historical fiction and one of the questions we have been asked to address is how you define the historical genre.  Consequently, the first question I posed last night was whether or not we should regard a novel that counts amongst its list of characters a sea-nymph, the god Apollo and a crotchety old centaur as history or myth and where did the dividing line between the two come.

Miller has taken the story of the Trojan War, familiar to many of us through Homer’s Iliad, and used it as a means of exploring further the relationship, only hinted at in the sources, between the demi-god, Achilles, and his companion, Patroclus.  Most particularly, she has tried to understand Achilles reaction when his friend is killed: a reaction so extreme that in many ways it is the point that turns the fortunes of the entire war.

In order to do this she has created a shared boyhood, education and early manhood that encourages a growing physical and emotional attachment that blossoms into a love that transcends everything else that happens to them and thus leads to that moment on the fields of Ilium when Achilles finally calls out Hector despite knowing that by doing so he is sealing his own doom.

But is it historical fiction or is it myth?

At least one of our number last night found it very difficult to see anything that had ‘gods and talking horses’ in it as history.  However, I don’t have that same problem.  Certainly the eighth century BC Greeks would have thought they were listening to an account of their own ancestors’ story and more recent archaeological evidence tells us that certain elements of the tale were very probably true.  Troy did exist at the time that Homer describes and the city has been destroyed on more than one occasion.  I wonder if we are not inclined to see it as myth rather than history simply because the Greeks, when telling a story, would automatically include the gods as that is the way their culture worked.  The fact that they attributed various events to those gods doesn’t nullify the events themselves it just says that they hadn’t yet looked for another way of explaining them.

History or no, the novel does have a lot to say about our own times, especially in respect of the act of war.  We think of the ten year siege of Troy as a never-ending conflict in which countless men from both sides suffered, not to mention thousands, tens of thousands, of innocent civilians who simply got in the way.  But how is that different from what has happened in Iraq or Afganistan?  When Patroclus says:

All of us, the lowest foot soldier to the general himself, began to think of Troy as a sort of home.  Our invasion became an occupation.  Before now we had lived as scavengers off the land and the villages that we raided.  Now we began to build, not just the wall, but the things of a town: a forge, and a pen for the cattle we stole from the neighbouring farms, even a potter’s shed.

he could be talking about any invading army settling down for the long term, possibly even for ever.  And Miller considers too, what war does to the individuals involved.

I knew he killed men every day; he came home wet with their blood, stains he scrubbed from his skin before dinner.  But there were moments, like now, when that knowledge overwhelmed me.  When I would think of all the tears that he had made fall, in all the years that had passed… He seemed to sit across the world from me then, though he was so close I could feel the warmth rising from his skin.  His hands were in his lap, spear-calloused but beautiful still.  No hands had ever been so gentle, nor so deadly.

Perhaps it’s because the books and theatre I’ve been experiencing recently have all been to do with war, but I can’t help seeing the parallels here with all the conflicts down the ages and thinking about the fact that history is often just a recitation of our repetition of the same old mistakes.

In terms of style we had all found the book very ‘easy’ reading, and I don’t mean that to be in anyway pejorative.  One element that I was impressed by was the way in which Miller used some of the same techniques as the original writer.  Just as he drops in teasers about events that he realises his audience know are to come, so Miller does the same thing with the prophecy that Achilles will not die while Hector lives.  In order to avoid having to face the Trojan champion in the field and thus hasten his own death, Achilles coins the mantra ‘What has Hector ever done to me.’  And those of us who know the story already experience a chilling sense of prophecy from being able to foresee precisely what it is that Hector will do to provide a deadly answer to that mantra.

All in all, then, this was a book that we very much enjoyed.  However, whether or not we ever answered the question,The Song of Achilles, history or myth, I’m not sure and I would be very interested to hear what anyone else thinks.