My Preconceived Notions
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have some conception of Achilles’ legend. It’s the kind of story that you feel you’ve always known, even though you can hardly remember the first time you’ve heard it. Certainly it has influenced tons of media (a personal favorite of mine being Led Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand which apparently is more about tax evasion than Greek warriors), and will continue to do so for eternities to come.
But for me, I think my first look at the Iliad was probably in the sixth grade although I’m not certain how much of it we actually read, or whether or not it was just summary. At some point I had a paperback of it on my shelf, but which edition or when I actually read it, is as shrouded in my mind as the facts surrounding the ancient city of Troy itself.
In college, I read more pieces of it for a Western Literature class. The thing I remember most is that according to whichever translation we were reading, the very first line of the poem is simply the exclamation to rage! I was newly accepted into a fraternity that semester, and it seemed a very “Greek” thing to yell. Especially when listening to the speaker busting dial-up modem that is (was?) Dub-Step.
It was probably during that course that I was starting to put together my first inklings that Patroclus and Achilles may have had something more going on than friendship, but I can’t say that I really gave it much thought.
But even with all of that floating around in my mind, the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom — and I feel like I should hate to admit this, because in general everyone hates the movie Troy (especially Roger Ebert), but I absolutely love it — is probably the strongest image thus far in my mind, of who Achilles was and how his story went.
My only other entry into this comparison is Jesse Beeson-Tate’s Achilles vs Mecha-Hector which I will continue to talk about fondly on this blog, but will probably never re-read to do an actual post about. That it exists at all is half of what makes it so wonderful . . . I digress.
All of this to say, by 2021, I did not think there would be much I could glean from another retelling of the Trojan Myth. Surely I’ve heard every telling conceivable, or if not, the nuance between the next retelling and what I already knew would be so similar as to be nearly imperceptible. In fact, I need no longer waste my time with tired old Achilles and his stupid pride. I had wrung every last drop from that myth, and could better use the time elsewhere, with newer, more modern stories.
Obviously, I was wrong.
Enter Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles . . .
Told from the perspective of Achilles’ best friend and lover, Patroclus, Miller sings a song that sounds familiar, but feels completely new. It’s as if I know the notes, but not in which order they will come, or how fast they will go.
Each moment I was reading this book, I could feel myself checking the scenes before me against the story as I believed it should go, but instead of Patroclus’ beautiful catchphrase when describing Achilles – This and this and this – I found myself asking: What’s this? And what’s this and this and this?
Somehow, this book manages to buck so many assumptions at once, that there is a temptation while reading to become hung up, to want to stop and check whether or not the legend of Hercules really included him going mad, and killing his wife and children (because the Disney version did not; and now I’m also wondering if this core element of our beloved Greek God slayer Kratos, was ripped from Hercules’ myth who in-game is supposed to be his brother but again I digress. Yeesh!)
Resist this temptation! And also resist the urge to try and figure out how and when the parts that you know are gonna happen, will happen, and how. Because it’s a Greek Tragedy, those parts will come. They will get that same effect from you they always have, but you’ll be so busy worrying about it, that you will not enjoy the parts you weren’t expecting.
Like Achilles playing the lute, and Patroclus being awkward, bony, and terrible at fighting (although he does pretty well for himself a few times). Or the two of them being happy together and not caring what others thought about them, for these things truly are what make the book so enjoyable to read.
To put it shortly, this book is a beautiful, if somewhat (expectedly) sad love story. It is well told and engaging through and through. I highly recommend it to anyone, but especially those whose conception of the Achilles, Troy, and the Trojan War matched anything I talked about at the beginning of my post.
Anyway, thanks for reading this, and give Song of Achilles a shot!