Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles, 2011.
I imagine Madeline Miller understands the ancient Greek world better than most classicists. I have only a BA in Classics, and she certainly does better than I do. I read her second book Circe before I read this. I think I read it after I started my blog, but I guess I forgot to blog about it.
It’s no insult to Achilles to say I liked Circe better. I think I preferred Miller’s Circe to her Patroclus (who narrates Achilles). They are both deep, complicated characters and narrators, well worth reading multiple times and probing for nuances. I preferred Circe because she is more of an anti-hero, less merciful, and more violent and destructive than Patroclus, and I’m also not as moved by love stories as some. Circe as a work is also more magical than Achilles, which is something I like.
But I’m writing now about Achilles. It is the story of Patroclus, his childhood, his falling in love with Achilles, and his experience of the Trojan War. Patroclus is sympathetic from the outset–Miller contrasts him with the viciousness of the Heroic Greek world just as she does with Circe. Indeed the characterizations are quite similar: Circe and Patroclus both are, in their childhood contexts, nothings to be spat on by the strong, and they are both early on exiled.
I have just two themes to mention about Achilles. Miller’s attention to them shows her skill both as a writer and as a classicist. The first is the presence of story: a favorite line of mine comes after Achilles has returned from a raid and is telling Patroclus about it. “how his first spear had pierced the hollow of a man’s cheek, carrying flesh with it as it came out the other side. How the second man had fallen, struck through the chest, how the spear had caught against his ribcage when Achilles tried to retrieve is. The village had smelled terrible when they left it, muddy and metallic, with the flies already landing. I listened to every word, imagining it was a story only. As if it were dark figures on an urn he spoke of instead of men.”
Anyone who has ever been to a Greek museum, or even done any research into ancient Greece, will have seen these vase designs. It takes not a smart classicist but a compassionate one to look at the frequent scenes of violence they depict and remember that, even if the scene itself is mythical, it was real human begins who wielded those weapons, and real human beings who died at their blades. The irony of the line is gorgeous: Patroclus may wish that the scenes of Achilles’ violence were merely aesthetic, but it is only to be painted onto a vase that Achilles fights. The images on the urn would mean nothing without slaughter they depict.
The second is the violence itself. Maybe the most moving scene was Patroclus in battle. He goes ostensibly to rally the Greek army, but even he, physically clumsy and morally nonviolent, gets swept up in blood. He has promised to hold back himself, and we believe him. We know he dislikes violence. We know the compassion he feels for the loss of both comrade and enemy. All the same he can’t help himself, driving all the way to the walls of Troy, even killing Sarpedon before he finally meets Hector, who twists “his spear inside me as if he is stirring a pot.” Patroclus in battle is hard to read: where we have believed we were following a character somewhat above the callousness of his society, we find that he is nevertheless easily victimized by it.