Despite enjoying the novel, Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein has a feminist bone to pick with this year’s winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction
“Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls…”
Thus begins Homer’s Illiad, with a raging argument about pride and honour that reaches its peak in plague, defeat and, ultimately, the death of Achilles, once heralded as the “greatest of Greeks”. Doomed Achilles is stubborn and intractable, proud and cruel; when he’s finally roused from his refusal to fight and kills Troy’s brightest star, Prince Hector, he then drags the corpse around the city several times a day – in full view of Hector’s family and in blatant defiance of the Trojan funeral rites – until finally aged King Priam braves the Greek camps to come in person and beg for his son’s body.
How does such a character become sympathetic – especially to modern eyes? This is classical scholar Madeline Miller’s challenge in The Song of Achilles, and for the most part she succeeds convincingly by taking his story back to its roots, and imagining the development of Achilles’ relationship with his beloved Patroclus.
Although not explicitly stated in the Iliad, some accounts have placed the two men, always depicted at least as close friends, in a romantic relationship and it is on this that Miller’s novel rests. Her strengths lie not so much in evoking the passionate love story, although she does so elegantly, but in creating an almost distressingly real setting in the ‘age of Heroes’ – despite the matter-of-fact intervention of gods and the lauding of values that seem alien to modern eyes. In her hands, the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon evolves from a petty spat between raging warlords into an inevitable clash of personalities driven by prophecy, love and loss.
Miller’s writing has more than a hint of Homeric poetry about it, and she knowingly throws in some of his common descriptions (“rosy-fingered Dawn”). Many of the more familiar figures are rendered skilfully, exactly as expected; Odysseus in particular stands out with the mixture of cunning and arrogance that develops the strategy that wins the Trojan war yet costs him ten years of suffering as he tries to return home.
Using Patroclus’ gentle narrative voice, Miller deftly paints the picture of a boy, and later a man, in love, and the way in which he is stunned and grateful for that love being returned. It’s all too easy to ridicule the intensity of young love, especially when it comes attendant with dramatic gestures, but Miller makes it completely appropriate to the high drama and romanticism of the setting. Add to that parental disapproval courtesy of Achilles’ stone-cold sea goddess mother, Thetis, and all the elements of star-crossed love are solidly in place.
It is with Thetis that my only discomfort rests – or, at least, where I am unable to suspend my disbelief in spite of the skill of the author. In recreating the ancient Greek world, some truly horrifying events are cast in a soft-focus lens. Thetis makes her scheming hatred absolutely clear, and though she shows hints of a gentler nature it is usually when it’s in her own interest to do so. Yet, as Patroclus narrates, the conception of Achilles is the result of a rape by mortal Peleus, plotted by gods to protect them from the threat of a son prophesied to be ‘greater than his father’. Calling it a ‘ravishment’ and describing Peleus’ cleverness and Thetis’ disdain for mortals – as if that was her only objection – are undoubtedly true to Patroclus’ dreamy tones, but it makes for uncomfortable reading.
To be fair to Miller, she is constrained by women’s lack of agency in the world she has chosen for her setting. A war is waged over a woman being taken from her husband for the sake of his pride, not to establish her consent – and even if she had been willing to escape her marriage, she would have been dragged back to it. In this society of (male) heroes, women are only applauded for modesty and beauty – an attitude that obviously still persists.
More perniciously, when women are not the paragons of perfection and virtue they’re expected to be, they veer to the other end of the scale, mired in violence and pain. Clytemnestra is famous for butchering her husband, yet even in Miller’s telling the murder of Iphigenia at her own father’s hands is not tempered by the intervention of Artemis but turns into almost a brief footnote, included merely to underscore Agamemnon’s ruthlessness. Women have no accepted outlet for rebellion or redemption – the possibility of choosing a heroic end on the battlefield is denied to them – and so their desperation becomes either comically ludicrous or shockingly brutal.
Sadly, Miller does not take the opportunity to offer a different perspective here; instead most of the women edge perilously close to stereotype at times, such as the ridiculous figure of spurned Deidamia. There are a very few attempts at balance, mainly in the close relationship that springs up between Patroclus and Briseis, along with Odysseus’ talk of his beloved Penelope. Still, a chaste Briseis is eventually most clearly defined in terms of a burgeoning romantic love for Patroclus. The brief glimpse into Penelope’s world is frankly frustrating; given that she’s still elevated as the ultimate symbol of the faithful wife, it’s disappointing to only gain access to her life through her husband’s feelings about her.
In addition, some will undoubtedly complain that a few liberties are taken with the traditional story, particularly Patroclus’ innate pacifism and gentleness, which are more often portrayed as immaturity and youthful exuberance. Others will perhaps expect more of a war story, or perhaps a ponderous history. The Song of Achilles is not, despite Miller’s roots in academia, a scholar’s retreading of familiar ground, neither is it a (dare I say tediously?) detailed epic. Personally, in spite of the misgivings mentioned, I was moved by Miller’s take on the story which brings intimacy and warmth to characters that others have struggled to portray sympathetically, and I felt that as a whole the novel was an authentic addition to the genre. I can only hope that for her next foray into the ancient world, Miller will turn her attention to rehabilitating a female figure.