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The Song of Achilles: fresh take on Homer's Illiad

Debut novelist Madeline Miller¿s remaking of Homer¿s Iliad is marvellously fresh, daringly conceived and beautifully written.

It's a truism of Homeric studies that mortals pay a high, horrible price for their dealings with the gods. They get abducted, metamorphosed, deceived, torn to pieces, and they can't retaliate in any way - not only because they lack the power, but also because they lack the emotional parity: the gods of Greek mythology have only the simplest, most childish passions. They can be momentarily fascinated by mortals, but for any deeper emotions, the mortals in question must be fundamentally changed, raised to godhood in order to be loved.

The closest mortals get is loving the offspring of gods, and that, too, has a high, horrible price. The long ordeal suffered by the Trojans and the Greeks in Homer's Iliad is brought about entirely by the fascination exerted by two demigods, Helen of Troy and Achilles. These two are unlike any of Homer's other characters; they're more beautiful, more constantly aware of their own place in myth - and they revel in their power to make things turn around them. They feel deeply, but there's a callousness to them as well. "She can do anything at all, or have the most tragic things happen to her, and not be disturbed in the slightest. She's without feelings," says the Greek king Menelaus of his famous wife Helen. "If she elopes from her home and gets caught and brought back, she says 'My mistake!' and goes on as though nothing had happened, and she doesn't always say it's her mistake."

Aggrieved Menelaus says that in The Private Life of Helen of Troy, John Erskine's massively popular 1925 novel ("utterly delicious" was the Boston Transcript's verdict at the time), the book that began the modern era's new exercise of fictively remaking Homer's world in the idiom of the present. In dozens of pastiches since, we've seen anti-totalitarian Iliads, anti-war Iliads, pro-feminist Iliads, and pro-environment Iliads, and all leaning to a greater or lesser extent on the irresistible pull all mortals feel for Helen and Achilles.

In Helen's case, the primary victims are always easy to identify: Menelaus, her abandoned husband, Paris, her handsome abductor, and by extension Troy, the city that pays with its life for giving her sanctuary. The case of Achilles is trickier; his primary victim is himself - he intentionally makes the decisions that will shorten his life but bring him posthumous glory. The Achilles Homer gives us is a paradox: he's a great hero, but he's also an utterly unlikeable spoiled brat. He withdraws from aiding the Greeks in their siege of Troy because the Greek High King Agamemnon takes away Briseis, the slave girl given to Achilles as war-spoil of an earlier campaign, and yet we never get the impression he cares about Briseis. He's lionised by the Greeks as their greatest warrior, but he's willing to let them all die if it will hurt Agamemnon.

In The Song of Achilles, debut novelist Madeline Miller aims straight for the heart of the human Achilles, and she uses the best weapon Homer left us: Patroclus, Achilles' beloved comrade-in-arms. Frustrated by Achilles' refusal to fight, horrified by the damages the rampaging Trojans are inflicting on his friends, Patroclus dons the god-forged armour of Achilles and tries to halt the rout - only to be cut down by Hector, greatest of the Trojan warriors, whom Miller describes as "a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct". In Homer, famously, it's Achilles' grief and rage over the death of Patroclus that propels him back into the fighting and turns the tide permanently in favour of the Greeks. Commentators have puzzled over that grief and rage for centuries, and with good reason - in Homer's verses prior to that point, there's little to suggest Achilles thinks any more of Patroclus than he does anybody else; the howl of grief seems to come out of nowhere, and readers have speculated on it ever since.

In Miller's novel - daringly conceived and beautifully written - Achilles and Patroclus are boyhood friends and become something more intimate when they're teenagers. The two intend to join the massive Greek army sailing to Troy in order to avenge the abduction of Helen, but their relationship hasn't escaped the notice of visiting Odysseus, who tells them it's common knowledge among the men and drops some hints about the trouble it could cause. Patroclus warns Achilles "Your honour could be darkened by it."

The answer Miller puts in Achilles' mouth is one of the only false notes in her entire book: "'Then it is darkened.' His jaw shot forward, stubborn. 'They are fools if they let my glory rise or fall on this'." Even in a modern novel written with a progressive agenda, there is no imaginable version of Achilles who isn't first and foremost concerned with his own pride. Indeed, it's that pride - Miller's Patroclus uses the term hubris - which sends Patroclus to his death.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a rich ground for speculation and always has been, ever since Homer has a grief-stricken Achilles reveal the bizarre fantasy he had before Patroclus' death, that he and his friend would conquer Troy in blazing triumph. It's by far the most human glimpse of Achilles that Homer gives us, and in its turn it has prompted Miller to give her readers a far more human hero: headstrong, yes, and slightly otherworldly, but not the unlovable monster of Homeric tradition. "He was like a flame himself," Patroclus tells us, "He glittered, drew eyes. There was a glamour on him, even on waking, with his hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep."

That glamour brings many victories, and in Miller's novel as in Homer, it prompts the jealousy of Agamemnon, who uses a flimsy pretext to demand Briseis from Achilles. This is the famous quarrel that opens the Iliad, in which the anger of Achilles almost leads him to kill his High King in front of a tent full of Greek leaders. In Homer, the goddess Athena invisibly stops Achilles from running Agamemnon through; Miller is generally chary of letting gods walk into her narrative (although her portrait of Thetis is chilling. "I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping," Patroclus recalls of their first meeting. "I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf"), so she has Achilles restrain himself.

In Homer, the hero unleashes a torrent of insults at his commander before storming off - Miller's Achilles is better-spoken and much more coldly vindictive: "Your words today have caused your own death, and the death of your men," he tells Agamemnon. "I will fight for you no longer. Without me, your army will fail. Hector will grind you to bones and bloody dust, and I will watch it and laugh. You will come, crying for mercy, but I will give none."

The pages that follow in Miller's novel are thick with psychological rather than physical warfare. Like the 20th century historical novelist Mary Renault whose work she clearly knows in chapter and verse, Miller is preoccupied with the subtleties of personal interaction. When Odysseus comes on his doomed embassy to talk Achilles back into the war, the dialogue is sharper than swordplay. "'Tell me,' Odysseus asks, 'why is Hector not dead?' He holds up a hand. 'I do not seek an answer. I merely repeat what all the men wish to know. In the last 10 years, you could have killed him a thousand times over. Yet you have not. It makes a man wonder.'"

Odysseus is hinting that Achilles is trying to put off his preordained early death in order to increase his glory, and although Miller's Patroclus can never believe this of his friend, he's eager enough to put on Achilles' armour and fight, especially if it inspires the downtrodden Greeks: "I screamed again, his name boiling up out of my throat, and heard an answering cry from the Greeks, an animal howl of hope. The Trojans began to break apart before me, scrambling backwards with gratifying terror."

That terror doesn't last, of course, and soon afterwards Patroclus meets his fate. Miller handles all this often-handled material with a marvellous freshness and a clean rhetorical virtuosity exceedingly rare in first-time novelists. Hers is not a broad canvas - this is very much the drama of Achilles and Patroclus, with the larger drama of the Trojan War serving only as backdrop - but the story she tells, of heroism, isolation, fate, and even love, repurposes the human elements of the Iliad for a 21st century audience. Homer might not have known what to make of it, but modern readers may well be hypnotised.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: April 27, 2012 04:00 AM