It’s a hero’s task—in so subjective an art as literary adaption—to accomplish the significant act of honoring a work of written art while making it new again. Concerns of plagiarism or form aside, works that get adapted are typically important: their significant following, their cultural pull, places a kind of premium on the position they occupy which tugs at the reverent, the scholarly, even the audacious among us.
The criticism and acclaim around Madeline Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles, proves all this and more. Despite its prestigious 2012 Orange Prize, when researching for this piece, I came across article after article where the novel’s reception was glaringly polarized—and often disparaging. Some people love to love this little debut novel; others love to hate it.
Daniel Mendelsohn, writing for The New York Times in 2012, a Classicist himself at least to rival the author’s own pedigree, barbs Miller with what I estimate is her most common criticism: “the epic reach [needed for recasting the Greek classics] exceeds her technical grasp. The result is a book that has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the ‘Iliad’ and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland.” (Cartland is, unsurprisingly perhaps, a Romance novelist.) In another place, he calls the novel a “fast food” version of Homer.
This sentiment—that any artistic consideration of Homer should be literature, high and influential—was echoed by other reviewers, both professional and everyday. One critic, apparently Miller’s ex-boyfriend, according to journalist, Kira Cochrane, told The Guardian that the novel was nothing more than “Homeric fan fiction.” Ketchup need not apply, they seemed to say.
And I bring up condiments deliberately. Mendelsohn used a quote from writer, Mary Renault, the name dropped into nearly every review I read on The Song of Achilles for comparison (favorable and non); Renault’s own The King Must Die, a retelling of the Theseus myth, was widely-acclaimed and one of many such re-couchings of the ancient world into the modern novelistic setting. Renault on literary condiments:
If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter. Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or by the diner without a palate.
Even the novel’s extollers seem unsure. Steve Donoghue of The National says plainly that [i]t's a truism of Homeric studies that mortals pay a high, horrible price for their dealings with the gods, the overall thrust being that Miller can’t handle Homer directly and that her novel must then necessarily avoid the epic, formally anyway, at all costs. He says the novel prefers what he calls “psychological warfare,” showing us the heart of a much humanized Achilles instead of the one we know already from the western tradition. Donoghue may like the novel, but he suggests that Homer himself “might not have known what to make of it.”
To be blunt, I find the comparison to literary ketchup rather elitist. But I would also characterize it as a kind of giving-in to the demands of status. Elitism is nothing new, especially in literary circles; however, nowadays, where informed and uninformed opinions abound on every subject, I think the pressure for a reviewer to say something new and substantive (even click-baity) is greater than ever before. Establishing a reputation seems central to developing the kind of cult of personality, of Likes-garnership, necessary to keep a readership. All these concerns make it easier to bow to an ethos and an audience, which dovetails in elitist circles curiously: it makes these circles paradoxically less permissive, more snooty, and more snotty in their gate-keeping.
I first read The Song of Achilles on recommendation from a friend. As fellow Classics nerds in college, and both of us gay, Madeline Miller’s retelling was perfectly fitted to both my literary and more fanboy-derived interests. Apart from the pure fun of my favorite poem’s primary character poncing about in a dramatic gay romp—and, with even a tertiary understanding of the effect of representation, this particular pure fun should be evident to you—Miller handles the myth well.
As I read, however, I was surprisingly less reminded of Homer than I was of the poet, Sappho, of Greek philosophical ideas, of Plato, of the epigram tradition of the Hellenistic lyrics. To be sure, Homer is Miller’s primary source material. But The Song of Achilles draws from a number of different sources, well outside of the epic. Miller herself makes this clear in an interview for Lambda Literary, back in 2012. She speaks candidly about the novel’s origins:
One of my favorite parts about working with the Achilles tradition was precisely the fact that there weren’t any right answers, just different interpretations. Also, the tradition of Achilles and Patroclus being lovers is quite an old one, going back to Aeschylus and Plato. So it’s particularly absurd to claim that there’s no basis for it—it was well established nearly as far back as Homer, and continued all the way to Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” and beyond.
If anything, I feel the strength of The Song of Achilles, as a novel but also as an adaption, shows in the moments where Homer is invoked alongside some of these other sources. Homer’s Patroclus, who receives very little time in the epic beyond his death, was a kind of macguffin for the poem; Miller borrows from these other sources to complete a picture of the man, to give him voice (albeit sometimes cheesy), and, like a mirror, show us a very different (and more depthful) Achilles as well.
I don’t think this takes anything away from Homer. Au contraire! Like good buns can make a better burger, or a tasty aioli can complement the fries, it is Miller’s total command of story that makes The Song of Achilles so affecting.
I’ve included my favorite passages below, with a little more information about their effect on me—as both reader and (amateur) Classical scholar.
Achilles crested the rise and came to where I sat. He looked at my face and my bloodied skin.
“I heard you talking,” he said.
“It was your mother,” I said.
He knelt and took my foot in his lap. Gently, he picked the fragments of rock from my wounds, brushing off dirt and chalky dust. He tore a strip from his tunic’s hem and pressed it tight to staunch the blood.
My hand closed over his. “You must not kill Hector,” I said.
He looked up, his beautiful face framed by the gold of his hair. “My mother told you the rest of the prophecy.”
“And you think that no one but me can kill Hector.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And you think to steal time from the Fates?”
“Ah.” A sly smile spread across his face; he had always loved defiance. “Well, why should I kill him? He’s done nothing to me.”
For the first time then, I felt a kind of hope.
If you know Greek vase painting, this scene should be familiar. Hailing from the Sosias Painter of 500 BC, known as Berlin F 2278, it is not unlike Miller’s scene above—Achilles tending to an injured Patroclus, after the latter learns the full extent of the prophecy concerning the War at Troy. The intimacy of the vase painting gains a new element here, chilled by the goddess’s immovability and the prophecy’s doom.
“Name one hero who was happy."
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason's children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus' back.
"You can't." He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
"I know. They never let you be famous and happy." He lifted an eyebrow. "I'll tell you a secret."
"Tell me." I loved it when he was like this.
"I'm going to be the first." He took my palm and held it to his. "Swear it."
"Because you're the reason. Swear it."
"I swear it," I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.
"I swear it," he echoed.
We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.
"I feel like I could eat the world raw.”
Certainly the sappiest moment to share here, nevertheless this passage contains an abundance of intertextuality and referential power.
First, there is this concept of limits—that is connected to the hubris Achilles will display later in the story, after Patroclus has died; a better definition than “pride” was offered once by one of my Classics professors, calling hubris “going beyond the bounds that the gods have set.” It’s not lost on the reader of The Song of Achilles that Miller will put nearly these same words again into the mouth of Achilles later—after Patroclus has died, when Achilles confronts Hector; “There are no bargains between lions and men,” Achilles says in that moment. “I will kill you and eat you raw.”
Second, is the concept of reputation, of famed story. The Greeks would call this kleos, having-your-name-on-everyone’s-lips. It is connected to hubris, of course: even demigods are not allowed to rise to the level of deities.
Finally, is the concept of happiness. The historian, Herodotus, says this of it: Now if a man thus favoured [with the blessings of a sound body, health, freedom from trouble, fine children, and good looks] died as he has lived, he will be just the one you are looking for: the only sort of person who deserves to be called happy. But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word “happy” in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only fortunate. Poor Achilles. Especially as Miller paints him, he leads a charmed life. The above exchange occurs between the two lovers deep in their childhood, at fourteen, early in their love and lives. But if Herodotus is correct, Achilles merely tempted fate by forswearing thus. If there is one lesson I take from Greek myth, it is not to mess with what’s fated.
I began to surprise Achilles, calling out to these men as we walked through the camp. I was always gratified at how they would raise a hand in return, point to a scar that had healed over well. After they were gone, Achilles would shake his head.
“I don't know how you remember them all. I swear they look the same to me.”
I would laugh and point them out again. “That's Sthenelus, Diomedes' charioteer. And that's Podarces, whose brother was the first to die, remember?”
“There are too many of them,” he said. “It's simpler if they just remember me.”
Back to kleos. It’s almost impossible to relate its full meaning. It is not fame, it is not glory—the two most common words in English used to translate this concept for our brains. It is not celebrity, either, for the Greek concept of arete—while permissive, even encouraging to a point, of ego—could not stand anything but perfect uprightness in physical beauty, prowess in battle, and power in speech. Status in its purer form, maybe?
I like what my professor said: having-your-name-on-everyone’s-lips. Kleos was the religious and social expression of your arete, your perfect manliness. Even your stuff was the embodiment of it, which is why Achilles is so deeply offended by Agamemnon's offense towards him (the action that begins the true Iliad story in Homer’s epic). (Miller at least gives Brieses something to do, beyond being a literal trophy.) Achilles literally spells out kleos here.
Afterwards, when Agamemnon would ask him when he would confront the prince of Troy, he would smile his most guileless, maddening smile. “What has Hector ever done to me?”
The above is only one example of Miller’s great and terrible command of dramatic irony. Achilles’ question, adolescently dismissive and almost aggravating in its optimism, serves as a kind of inside joke between Achilles and Patroclus—the latter never quite comfortable with the casualness by which Achilles serves up the punchline.
There’s something very human in this, to me. Not just the humanity of an inside joke that’s a little cringeworthy, but also inoculate in the idea of telling a truth humorously: one can do this to blanket the full weight of the truth, either to comfort yourself with the idea, or to camouflage yourself from its effect. Neither work for very long.
Miller gives us a Patroclus resigned to Achilles’ loss, resigned to his death. Knowing ahead of them both that fate will literally reverse them—going so far even as to put Patroclus in Achilles’ own armor when he dies—is devastating. Yet near the novel’s middle, they strike a bargain to go to Troy and leave Hector utterly alone: if Hector lives, then Achilles will remain alive; they think to steal time from the gods forever. And even this is very human.
Perhaps that is the joke of the whole novel, to tease the reader into loving these men as we experience them loving each other. We garner a wan hope that something will stay them from their fates. But know already that their fates will win out. When Patroclus, about to fall to Hector’s spear, sees the Trojan hero bearing down on him, all Miller can make him think is: “He cannot kill me. He must not. Achilles will not let him live if he does. And Hector must live, always...the final dam before Achilles’ own blood will flow.”
I recommend Miller's The Song of Achilles very highly.