I first encountered The Iliad through Roger Lancelyn Green’s accessible retelling for children, The Tale of Troy, and graduated as a teenager to Adele Geras’s excellent young adult novel, Troy, which focuses on the experiences of the Trojans rather than the Greeks. Perhaps this could be seen as the adult counterpart to those retellings, the third of the trilogy; it certainly illuminated aspects of the story I hadn’t considered or heard about before, despite my reservations before beginning this novel that I would find the siege of Troy over-familiar.
Unlike Homer, Madeline Miller starts her story long before Troy is besieged, when Helen is still unmarried and being courted by a number of suitors, amongst them Patroclus, who narrates the story, then a nine-year-old boy who has been forced to join the group by his forbidding father. The courting of Helen was the first of the scenes that I had never seen played out fully in a retelling, and it forms an elegant beginning to this book, which opens almost in folktale mode. ‘My father was a king and a son of kings’, Patroclus tells us, and the formal procession of suitors, and Odysseus’s ruse to allow Helen to choose for herself, reminded me of a traditional tale-structure; one expects the setting of three tasks, a search for a golden apple, rather than the simple awarding of Helen to Menelaus. The closing of this scene makes the first of Miller’s frequent, and seamless, switches between different modes of storytelling. As Patroclus grows up, we embark upon a more naturalistic apprenticeship narrative, as he is exiled from his own kingdom and befriends the young Achilles, and they both go to train under the centaur, Chiron – although the ever-present threat of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, adds a supernatural element that occasionally seems jarring when Miller is focused on the more mundane growing pains of two boys.
And after Achilles and Patroclus fall in love, the story frequently foregrounds the lyric, the style that Miller has said that she sought for Patroclus’s voice throughout the tale, rather than writing an epic Homeric pastiche. There is, indeed, very little of the epic in this story, primarily because of Patroclus’s intense human sympathy and fellow-feeling for those suffering. In his world, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, for example, is no longer a voluntary act, but coercive: ‘She choked, tried to speak, could not. Her body thrashed and writhed, but the hands of the king pinned her down... Iphigenia had known, [Agamemnon] said, had agreed to do it. Most men had not been close enough to see the startled panic in her eyes. Gratefully, they believed their general’s lie.’ This softening of the harsh classical belief systems of honour and sacrifice is also evident in a scene much later in the novel, when Achilles refuses to fight for the Greeks, and Patroclus puts on his armour and goes in his place. In The Iliad, Achilles is worried that Patroclus will take the honour that should be his, but in The Song of Achilles, he’s simply concerned for the safety of his lover: ‘You cannot fight... it is too dangerous... Swear to me. Swear to me that if you go you will not fight them.’ Patroclus’s humane retelling also casts new light on Briseis, Achilles’ captured slave-girl; he explains that Achilles only took her as part of his division of the spoils because Patroclus wanted to save her from rape by another soldier.
I wasn’t sure what I felt about Miller’s decision to reinterpret the classical tale in this way. On one hand, as Victoria noted in her excellent review at Eve’s Alexandria, the story must be re-interpreted for a modern audience, or there is no point in retelling it at all; we no longer understand stories in the way the Ancient Greeks did, and Miller is enormously successful in recreating a gripping epic in a very modern voice. On the other hand, I would have liked to see her face head-on the importance of honour and sacrifice in this culture, and made Achilles and Patroclus sympathetic in spite of this, rather than simply removing the obstacles to our identification with them. She shows that she is capable of this in an earlier scene, when Achilles wrestles between his very human love for Patroclus, and his godlike destiny. He has been told that if he goes to fight at Troy, he will die there, but if he does not go: ‘“... your godhead will wither in you, unused. Your strength will diminish. At best, you will be like Lycomedes here, mouldering on a forgotten island... He can live out his years in some corner eating the bread they soften for him, senile and alone. When he dies, people will say, who?” The words filled the room, thinning the air until we could not breathe. Such a life was a horror.’ And we believe that it is; and we understand Achilles’ choice to go to Troy, even when he might live a long life with his lover.
My objections here are not because I think that this retelling is historically inaccurate – what does that mean, in this context? – but because I felt that Miller could have made this story even more interesting than it already is. Patroclus’s modern values make Achilles and Patroclus feel sundered, set apart from the rest of the classical-minded Greeks, and I wanted to feel that they were part of that culture, even if their homosexual relationship differentiated them from the other men. But to say this is not to imply that this novel is a failure. I enjoyed it immensely. Miller has a wonderful command of the pace, letting the story lull and loiter, at certain points, only to engage the reader’s interest more strongly when the next part of the tale kicks into action. There are several mini-stories told throughout the novel; Patroclus’s childhood; training with Chiron; journey to Troy; the saga of Briseis; Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon; and Miller unites them beautifully, but lets each tale complete itself before going onto the next. The most resonant scene in the novel, for me, was the well-known sequence where King Priam comes to beg Achilles for his son’s body; a scene that is powerful because it has equal resonance for a modern and classical audience, I imagine. ‘It is right to seek peace for the dead,’ Priam tells the bereaved Achilles. ‘You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.’
This book is a worthy contender for the Orange Prize, and the only reason it isn’t my instant favourite to win is because I loved State of Wonder even more. Nevertheless, I’ve heard Miller is working on a retelling of The Odyssey, and I’m very excited, not least because Odysseus is fantastic in this. Highly recommended.