The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Forget Helen: the Iliad's true love story
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The Independent Culture

From the mannered, well-mannered Augustan rhymes of Alexander Pope to the jagged cinematically hyperbolic rants of Christopher Logue, we find endless ways of making Homer's Iliad ours.

Part of the point of being a classic is that, however many times we change our view, the essential truth of the original remains itself. One of the ways in which Madeline Miller's new treatment of the Matter of Troy both endears and impresses is that, when she has to deal in moments that are part of the collective consciousness of Western culture, like Priam's appeal to Achilles for the return of Hector's corpse, she doesn't screw them up.

Every age has its own take on Troy, its own way of colonising the material. Miller is a good enough scholar to know that, in a sense, we cannot find our way back to Troy as it actually was; we are dealing in a consensus Troy, a literary conceit, as far away from the truth as Tennyson's Arthuriad is from any actual Dark Age chieftain. This is an ancient world in which gods and centaurs are real and moderately terrifying, in which you do not deal with plague by public-health measures but by handing back a ravished priestess.

The important characters of the myth are what we assume – Odysseus is a sensible pragmatist, Agamemnon a tyrant and a bully – in a way that avoids both revisionism for its own sake and simple slavishness. (There is a running joke in the way the uxoriousness of Odysseus is both rather touching and endlessly mocked by his peers.) But the core of Miller's version is her decision to tell the love story of Achilles and Patroclus, a couple assumed to have been lovers as well as sworn companions since classical times. If this is a radical reading of the text, it is the Ancient World's rather than ours merely.

We have the demi-god Achilles, born to be the greatest of warriors and with little choice about getting dragged into a war in which he has no interest, and his lover Patroclus, a nondescript young man trying to find dignity in a world in which the extraordinary rules. To centre Achilles's story on his lover's view of him makes for fascinating ironies that become deeper the better we know the story.

Patroclus assumes that the dislike of him felt by Achilless' mother, the sea goddess Thetis, is a mixture of distaste and disdain. Whereas we know that, at least in part, she knows that Patroclus is destined to die, and that his death will help cause those of Hector and Achilles. This sense of destiny, and how attempts to circumvent it trap us further in the web, is central to Greek drama and epic. Miller's sad gay love story escapes the mawkish because it inhabits so successfully that tragic view of life.

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