Achilles: Lover or a Fighter?
First, let me state that of all the books that I've ever read in my life, HOMER is my favorite author...the Iliad and the Odyssey are my most prized books. So, when I found the Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller I was, shall we say..."stoked." Superficially, I liked the ancient helmet of raised gold on the cover. I read the back and thought, "okay" this should be a decent portrayal of a beloved character...Achilles.
It's hard to talk about this book and Miller's particular view of Achilles without making comparisons to a more widely-known portrayal of Achilles in the movie TROY. The only things I loved about that movie were the costumes and the casting of Brad Pitt as Achilles (with the exception that he was too old, but he was definitely the "golden" type and hunky...). In the film, the story was butchered beyond repair. They could never do a sequel without eliminating other mythological stories, say the bathtub murder of the cuckolded Agamemnon by his estranged wife Clytemnestra, because OOPS! Hector killed him in the movie. And Achilles chopping off the statue head of Apollo when he knew damn well his mother was a sea nymph was an act tantamount to him snubbing his nose at the arbitrary nature of the gods' will, which he knew existed because his mother was one of them. I highly doubt that Achilles would ever do that. And Orlando Bloom as a mewling Paris made me wish Legolaus, a worthy warrior-prince, would show up and target him with an arrow in the heel. And the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus...cousins? No. No. No. What David Benioff did to Homer was nothing short of sacrilege, as far as I'm concerned, and since this is less about how awful I thought the adaptation of the Iliad was in the movie TROY and more about the adaptation of that story in the Song of Achilles, I will stop now.
Miller's story of Achilles was much more on point with the basic mythology of Achilles. I enjoyed her inclusion of Achilles young wife, the ruse almost wedding to sacrifice Iphigeneia, his education by the centaur Chiron, and the eventual arrival of Achilles's little-spoken of son, Neoptolemus. I applaud her for taking the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus into a more appropriate love-zone. They definitely shared a close loving bond, a bond close enough that Patroclus's death caused Achilles to lose all his marbles and fly completely in the face of tradition and the gods. The best evidence we have by Homer about their mutual affection is the extent of Achilles's grief regarding Patroclus's death. That said, Miller takes us right into their bed, a literary interpretation that made me realize I was NOT reading a YA novel, but one meant for a more mature audience of women, non-homophobic men, and classical Greek mythology lovers. I suppose that is one of only three criticisms:
1. that it read like a young adult novel
2. that Patroclus was as mewling as Paris in the movie TROY
3. that Thetis was a grotesque, shining blob with a grating voice and gnashing teeth
Why did Miller make Patroclus such a thin and weak sounding character? Was it too hard to conjure the image that two warriors might be boon companions and in love? At least in the movie, Patroclus was a much more sturdy character visually and more militaristic, which is more in line with the Patroclus of the ancient Greeks. I find it hard to believe that Achilles, the greatest among the Greeks, the captain of the Myrmidons, would find a love interest in a "mewling" anyone. Patroclus becomes the physician, in Miller's novel, who in the end begins to seem more like a man.
Thetis. Sea-nymph. Lower-level goddess. Love interest of Zeus. Neither the movie nor this book do justice to her at all. Miller makes her out to be grotesque, frighteningly eerie...which raises the question: Why would Zeus want to bed anything that hideous? Or Peleus for that matter? "Her mouth was a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular. Behind it teeth shone sharp and white as bone." I sort of envisioned the Sea-Witch from the Little Mermaid...how would this vision make Hera jealous? It was a weak point for me.
All in all, I liked the book. I liked her story. It fell short of the "epicness" we expect for anything related to Homer. Achilles and Patrolcus's relationship, the primary focus of this work, was a step in the right direction paying homage to a love story between warriors (okay, one warrior and one tent-wife-turned-physician). And because Miller was brave enough to write this love story, as a love story, I liked it enough to give it five stars.
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