It wasn’t the bookies favourite, but it was the bestselling book of the Orange Prize shortlist and as I discovered, Madeline Miller’s
‘The Song of Achilles’ had much to entice a multitude of readers, being a contemporary narration of an age-old tale drawn from the Greek Myths, published in the lead up to the Olympic Games and touching on issues that echo President Obama’s recent stand on equality for same-sex couples. Very 21st century then.
Inspired by Homer’s classic ‘The Iliad‘, Miller focuses on Achilles, the half God, half mortal son of Peleus and Thetis and his friend, the young exiled Prince, Patroclus, about whom little is known. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea-nymph and fears for her son’s future; she will do everything she can to protect him given his fate as the greatest warrior of his generation, and to avoid his death which it the oracles say will follow his killing of Hector.
The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus fires Miller’s imagination and the first half of the book beautifully depicts this at first distant relationship, blossom into a feverish loyalty. Not surprising to learn the author has been listening to and reading the Greek myths since she was 5 years old, a passion that carried her into studies of Greek and Latin, which comes across in this oeuvre.
Though I have only cursory knowledge of the Greek heroes, I have long been intrigued by their stories and archetypal symbolism, much in the same way I loved to learn about Maori myths and legends during my childhood; the legendary Maui, a demigod from Hawaiki, fished up New Zealand from the ocean.
I am reminded too of the child in A.S.Byatt’s ‘Ragnarök’ who relates to the Norse myths more than anything else anyone teaches her. So too, in my imagination do these legends of childhood come back to me and explain nature and humanity in a more primal way than anything else I was later taught – what we learn and how it affects us isn’t so much chosen as absorbed into our being when we are very young.
So ‘The Song of Achilles’ inspired me to pick up my ‘Myths of Greece & Rome’ by H.A.Gueber and read all the references to Achilles, Patroclus, Thetis, Peleus, Hector and more. Within its pages I found this reference to a word and metaphor we all know to refer to the tendon in the heel, but whose origin is much less known.
Thetis loved this only child so dearly, that when he was but a babe, she had carried him to the banks of the Styx, whose waters had the magic power of rendering all the parts they touched invulnerable. Premising that her son would be a great warrior, and thus exposed to great danger, she plunged him wholly into the tide with the exception of one heel, but which she held him, and then returned home.
In the original story an oracle foretells that Achilles will die from a wound in his heel after his dispatch of Hector; ultimately he will be remembered and perhaps even more renowned for this insignificant but fatal weakness, than for his epic courage and strength.
I liked this book as much for its inspiring me to look at other books and references to find out more about the legend as I did for the story itself. I came to it without much knowledge of its content and found the first half totally intriguing, reading it in one sitting. It did slow and almost lose me once they set sail for Troy and the ensuing battle scenes were a little two-dimensional, but when Patroclus found his healing abilities and tended to the wounded soldiers, the story refocused on the lead characters. The action played off the battle field was more captivating and I was gripped throughout the last quarter.