Madeline Miller's debut novel sparkles with the sun-kissed waves of the Aegean Sea, yet shows her readers the graphic, gritty reality of the sandy shores of Troy and its great war. It is a gentle love story and a history of the stupidity and viciousness of war. Who is to say that Miller's story is any more or less historical than Homer's version? A copious glossary of the gods and mortals helps keep the relationships straight.
In this instance, you know how the story ends. After all, it has been around for a few millennia. There is little reason to read it again unless some feature catapults the ancient story into new realms. Miller has done that, and more.
She has taken the traditional skeleton found in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid and recreated it with new living flesh. Achilles and Patroclus have been reborn and reinserted into their world as living, breathing, loving human beings. They are the characters of old, the arrogant hero and his lover, but in this splendid retelling, they are alive in a way that no translation of Homer or Virgil has ever captured. The focus here is on two young men and the development of their relationship from forced companionship to trusting friends to enduring love and the final hollowness that occurs when one dies and the other is left behind. We know the prophecy of death early on so the death of Achilles comes as no surprise. The Song of Achilles is the best, most accessible account of the legend of Achilles.
Patroclus tells the story from the grave, and the language is rich in description, especially of Achilles. He is "what a son should be" according to Patroclus's father. Patroclus says that Achilles was "like a flame himself. He glittered, drew eyes." "His face was sweet with evening." The description of the gathering of the fleet at Aulis puts the reader there-the brightly colored sails, the tree-tall masts, the figures carved on the bows, the soldiers bedecked in glittering armor. A wounded soldier's "face was foamy with sweat scum…." Then, we hear Achilles formally introduce himself to Agamemnon: "I am Achilles, son of Peleus, god-born, best of the Greeks. I have come to bring you victory." As Patroclus says, "Pride became us-heroes were never modest." And, it is important to note, the half-god Achilles is afflicted with hubris, "Our word for arrogance that scraps the stars, for violence and towering rage as ugly as the gods." He becomes an unlikable figure on whose shoulders rest the unnecessary deaths of thousands.
Perhaps there is no time in history when The Song of Achilles is more appropriate. The United States is involved in a war of length comparable to the Trojan War. As Patroclus says-it could be of both wars-it is "not a bard's song." Many of our states are considering whether to approve the marriage of same sex couples. The Greek standard held that the occasional liaison was fine, but long-term relationships were not. The novel is ancient and contemporary, a tribute to the enduring beauty of the old stories and the dazzling pace of Miller's debut. There is no doubt as to why it won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction.