The Song of Achilles: A Review & Four Fragments
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 La