Strength and weakness

The song of achilles
Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury
2011, pp 352

Achilles was a greek prince, son of a goddess, and foretold to be the greatest warrior of his generation. The legend goes that Achilles’ goddess mother dipped him in the river Styx to make him an invulnerable warrior. Since she held him by the heel while arrow-proofing him, he could be killed only by a wound to the heel. During the Trojan War, Achilles came close to winning the war single-handedly, but met his end due to a heel injury.

In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller focuses less on the legend and more on the person Achilles was. She takes us through his life right from childhood, his hesitation in joining the Trojan War, his prophesized entry into it, and his eventual, foretold, death. The primary source of this story is the Illiad by Homer. But Miller provides two twists to the familiar tale.

She chooses Patroclus, an exiled prince  who had trained along with Achilles, as the narrator, and portrays his relationship with Achilles as being homosexual. As there has been previous mention of this close relationship in some accounts of the Trojan War, Miller’s ‘twist’ is not new, but certainly novel in its approach.

Risking the propensity to be mistaken for a romantic novel( at least within the first 100 pages), Miller describes in detail, the friendship and love between the two boys. A Bollywood touch is provided by Achilles’ mother being strongly opposed to the relationship.

The book really begins to gather pace only halfway through, when the kings of Greece begin to assemble, to fight the Trojan War. As we are viewing the war through Patroclus’s eyes, we get a grounded view of the major actors involved. Incidents like the abduction of Helen, and the Trojan Horse are only mentioned briefly, but the intrigues between Achilles and the other kings, Achilles’ decision to stop fighting midway through the war, the friction between various members of the camps are covered in a lot of detail, since Patroclus sees them himself.

Miller has depicted Achilles as ‘normal’ as possible — there are no divine powers, none of the aforementioned magic armour, nothing, but excellence in battle. However, considering the world the story is set in, she can’t make everything completely rational. Various greek gods and other supernatural creatures like water nymphs and centaurs are mentioned casually throughout, and Apollo himself appears in the story.

There are other characters besides Achilles who are children of gods, and they speak to their parents on a regular basis. Priests seem to have actual powers, and Achilles’ mother regularly reports on intrigues between the gods. Miller never quite manages to demarcate the rational and the fantastic, leaving readers confused. If she was fine with introducing centaurs into the story, for example, why not just make Achilles invulnerable as well?

Overall, the book is worth reading as a layman’s introduction to the Trojan War and its major characters. As much as possible, Miller has humanised the characters and given them understandable motivations. Some readers may not like the initial focus on the lead characters’ homosexual relationship, but this is up to individual taste.

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