The retelling and reworking of myths is as ancient as myths themselves. Milton’s Paradise Lost, of course, reworks the story of creation and the Garden of Eden. Jeannette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s “Myth Series” is an enjoyable example, so too is Jim Crace’s absolutely incredible Quarantine. In all, the basic plotlines of the original myth are used as a framework to push new and interesting ideas. The myth is redirected from its original purpose to something else. In Crace’s work, for instance, the historical truth of the original myth is undermined to explore mythmaking itself, how an ordinary man is turned into a god.
Madeleine Miller has chosen for her framework the myth of Achilles, one of the most well-known and most-oft told and re-told myths of ancient Greece. The focus of her telling is the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In her telling, their relationship is a romantic one, but this interpretation is not original to her. Plato, in his Symposium, holds up the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as a romantic ideal. Whether Achilles and Patroclus had only a close male friendship or a romance has, apparently, been an interpretational argument from ancient times through today. Miller sides with romance, but this decision does little to reinvigorate the myth. There is nothing particularly daring or inventive in this recounting of a famous myth. Miller seems to have been preoccupied with getting it right, sticking closely to the script and only letting her imagination bloom in the gaps.
Her aim then, was not to re-invent the myth and give it new meaning, but to tell the myth well. She succeeds. While the myth itself leaves the modern reader incredulous at times and the love story is fairly conventional, Miller is a good stylist matching imagery with character and story:
His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow.
This image of Achilles’s face as a drawn bow is beautifully unexpected and quite appropriate for the greatest warrior of all time. Or this:
Scyros’ great rocks that beetled over the sea…
Miller’s vivid imagery and the inherent narrative pull of the story (it is oft-told for a reason) makes this an easy read. The novel is stylistically pleasing, but not ambitious. The Song of Achilles does not achieve what Paradise Lost or Quarantine did. If you are looking to break that sort of ground this is not your book. However, retelling an important myth, and doing so well, is a valuable contribution to literature on its own. The book did win the Orange Prize for good reason.
Because I have little else to say about the content of Miller’s work, let’s talk Tournament of Books.
In my estimation, Dear Life, The Orphan Master’s Son, and HHhH all have considerably more ambition than The Song of Achilles. The first two of those are at least equally accomplished in terms of prose and structure. I cannot imagine The Song of Achilles actually winning the Tournament. It is too conventional, too safe, and the plot too well-known to beat out books with more exciting plots (Gone Girl), more intellectual heft (HHhH, The Orphan Master’s Son), and/or more consistently elegant prose (Dear Life). Consistency may get The Song of Achilles out of the first round, but I do not see much music for it beyond that.
My dream matchup for The Song of Achilles is HHhH, where an interesting discussion about the similarities between Binet’s passionate concern for fidelity to historical truth and Miller’s apparent passion for remaining true to the “facts” of an ancient myth (for instance, she rejects Achilles’s supposed invulnerability in favor of the “more realistic” and “older tradition” in which Achilles is simply a preternaturally gifted fighter but is not invincible). Binet was trying to write historical fiction while pointing out the impossibility of doing so while resolutely reporting only known facts. Miller was writing mythology as historical fiction. Both authors lost something by being too concerned with factual accuracy and not being concerned enough with giving the important details a voice. Binet was the more courageous, but Miller more certainly achieved her less ambitious goal. My nod is to HHhH because, as infuriating as Binet’s work sometimes is, it provoked. In comparison, The Song of Achilles felt like one of those amusement park cars that ride, slowly, on rails.