Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review: Madeline Miller's The Song Of Achilles

Madeline Miller's The Song Of Achilles is The Iliad fan fiction. I don't mean that derisively; I've enjoyed many hours of reading (and writing) fan fiction. Miller is evidently an avid fan of Homer, and laces her work with fun Easter eggs for the readers familiar with the canon. The scene in Tyndareus' court, for example, was fun to watch unfold recognizing that the man with the leg scar named Son of Laertes was actually Odysseus before his name was given. Her descriptions of sacrifices and tributes, her use of epithets to describe gods and heroes, and the casual, strange way that gods walk in and out of the narrative, all felt very familiar coming hot off the heels of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey (to which Miller contributed a blurb). 

Her retelling of the events of the Trojan War, was, if anything, too faithful to the source, in that it really only heightened how unsatisfying the plot and themes feel. The inciting event for the war is a woman chooses to have a different lover than her husband. (Or, possibly, she was kidnapped—we learn nothing of her wants and desires in The Song Of Achilles.) The motivations of the kings and heroes are clear: Helen's scorned husband Meneleus and his brother Agamemnon fight for pride, Ajax and Odysseus fight to honour their oaths to Helen's husband, Achilles fights for personal glory (more on that later...). In turn, their men fight unquestioningly for them for years before starting to grumble. Their brief, unhappy muttering is mollified for another half decade by promises of Troy's treasure. The question of "what motivates a man to fight?" is happily examined at great detail without a further nod towards what inspires the masses.

The pointlessness of the war (I'm now inclined to ship Helen and Paris out of spite) makes one of the main sources of inter-character tension in The Song of Achilles fall completely flat: who is a justifiable casualty in war, and when is it okay to kill them? It's one thing to have casualties in a war against oppression or in self-defense, quite another to have peasant girls raped or killed so Achilles can be remembered in stories and Menelaus can re-capture his wife.

The story starts quite pleasantly. Patroclus is a lonely, rather lost boy, Achilles is dazzling but grounded prince, and watching them fall in love was really very sweet. However, as the characters leave the island of Phthia, I found the story started to unravel. Patroclus spends about half the book with no personality or drive outside of his love for Achilles. In turn, Achilles bases his life decisions around a desire to be a hero worshiped through the ages. There is, I think, a way to make fame-seeking a motivation that feels modern, relatable. This wasn't it. And so the second main source of inter-character conflict—should one choose life and love and obscurity, or an early death and eternal fame?—also felt hollow. Knowing that he won't die until after he kills Hector, Achilles chooses to extend the war for a decade, trading hundreds (thousands?) of lives for a few extra years of his own life. The ethics of this is dwelled on very briefly by Patroclus.

I read this novel after Miller's follow-up, Circe, which I adored. I found myself wondering how a similar premise—Circe is a re-telling of The Odyssey—landed so differently with me. A major structural difference is that in Circe, the events of the epic unfold in the background rather than constitute the main climactic events. The main character, the titular Circe, is a minor, mysterious character. 

In my experience, this formula tends to lead to better fan fiction! The author has more leeway to explore different themes and flesh out their characters. Circe is introspective and passionate. She learns to carve out her own niche in the world, and how to see the beauty of other societies than the callous, hedonistic world she grew up in. She stumbles through motherhood. She struggles with overcoming trauma and betrayal. All relatable, interesting types of tension! We get to explore Odysseus through Circe's eyes: he's smart and charming, and cold and cruel. The parts of The Odyssey that felt overly, uninterestingly, vengeful were re-woven to be, well, at least interestingly overly vengeful. (Is it wrong to slaughter a house full of guests and half your slaves? Yes, yes it is, and your loved ones will hate you for it.) All this without colouring outside the lines drawn by Homer.

Indeed, The Song of Achilles finds its footing again in the final chapters when Miller has space to play with her characters more, after she finishes her faithful portrayal of the epic poem. It was emotionally satisfying to read of Patroclus, reduced to a restless ghost, making peace with Achilles' mother Thetis, convincing her of the value of mercy and love. Miller's upcoming novel, Persephone, might hew closer to Circe than to The Song of Achilles in terms of fan fiction formula; the 'canon' has to be assembled from multiple, lesser known sources than The Illiad. I'm excited to read it, but less excited than I was before The Song of Achilles.

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