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The Song of Achilles
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Gary | 1470 comments I mentioned this book in the thread about the monthly polls ending, and there was some interest, so I'm going to go ahead and start up this thread and see how things go.

Don't forget to use spoiler tags!


message 2: by Gary (last edited Sep 11, 2019 05:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments This was the first book I've picked up since we ended the monthly polls that I thought was particularly apt for the Girlz group. It could very easily have been on a monthly poll and, given the amount of attention it has attracted here on GR (4.33 stars based on 141k+ ratings as of this writing) I think it very easily could have won up against stiff competition.

I think the first question/point of discussion is whether one should read this book before reading The Illiad. Like a lot of things, it kind of depends on what you're looking to do, and a little info might help you decide for yourself. Probably the most important factor is that events of this text start well before those of Homer's account. If you're looking to do a chronological reading for the characters, then picking up this one first is the way to go. However, there's a good argument to be made that if one is familiar with the characters in their classic form then it's interesting to see how Ms. Miller weaves those things into her version of the story.

The other major issue I think is the relative approachability of the texts. The Iliad isn't particularly difficult reading, but it is a very dated bit of prose that's gone through a range of hands and translations, and depending on what version one picks up, that can be more or less of a problem. Since the story was really an epic poem in its original form, you're really meant to hear it spoken aloud to you by firelight surrounded by goats and guys named Nikos while you drink wine out of a bowl with a satyr's cock depicted at the bottom. Prose-alizations of that earlier work all lose something both in the translation and the transformation. Ms. Miller's version is in a standard narrative form that uses maybe a bit of affected prose here and there for flavour, but is much more approachable. A good argument could be made that starting off with her version will ease one into the subject.

The only other bit of advice/information that leaps to mind is to avoid watching that horrible Brad Pitt film. There's a lot right about that movie. The casting is generally good (though there are performance/acting issues, which I honestly blame most on the direction), the costumes look right to me, the sets are strong, and it does more or less cover the major points of the myth/legend, but it's one of the worst scripts composed by human beings this side of an Ed Wood picture. Somebody is going to get a particularly nasty afterlife in Hades for having penned that disaster. (I'm picturing them stuck in Plato's Cave, but instead of shadow puppets, that movie is running on an endless loop.)


message 3: by Gary (last edited Sep 10, 2019 02:50AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments I've engaged in something of a binge-read of this one, and I'm finding it very interesting. A few notes:

First off, it's an interestingly, and neatly structured book. It doesn't read overtly or expressly like she had a carefully structured outline, because the transitions in the sections are usually pretty seamless, but I think she did use such an outline, or she had an editor who used word counts for each section to make them match up evenly. Being at just the halfway point, I'm not entirely sure if it's a three act drama, a five act drama or just one that is carefully delineated, but it seems like the pie is definitely sliced neatly.

This isn't really a spoiler since I think folks will be familiar with the facts of the story/myth, but I'm going to go ahead and put the next section in spoiler tags:

(view spoiler)

Another thing to note (and this isn't a spoiler as it becomes apparent very early in the narrative) is that this isn't a modern retelling of the story in terms of making it a non-myth. There are modern adaptations of myths and legends that recast the whole thing without the supernatural powers in them, or that portray events that could be magic, or could have a scientific explanation. That's not the case here. There are gods and monsters. They are all are generally classified as "gods" in this story, though the range is from centaurs to the classic Greek pantheon. Immortality (or eternal youth) appears to be the deciding factor in determining "godhood" though the gods appear to be vulnerable physically to a range of depredations. At least, the "lesser" ones are.

The other major issue to discuss about this book is how sexuality is depicted. Now, there's occasionally debate about the nature of relationships as depicted in ancient stories. Or not-so-ancient ones, for that matter. Are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson repressed Victorian era homosexuals? Is Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby gay? Were Gilgamesh and Enkidu lovers? (The answers to those questions are no, no, and probably yes, BTW.) Is this character or that character bi-, or a lesbian, or asexual, or a furry fetishist? And that's not even getting to speculation about the actual author being a sadist or a sexist, a pornographer or a prude.

Personally, I think more than a few modernist ideas are expressed in such debates and discussions. Much more often than not they are more revelatory of the time and character of the person making the arguments than they are of times and characters they are discussing. They can still be enlightening in certain ways, of course, but one should always bear in mind that any such discussion comes with as much agenda attached as does the content of the literature being discussed. This one included.

One can certainly engage in that debate for the Patroclus and Achilles relationship as well. Lovers or bromance? Ms. Miller absolutely has no doubt about it in this telling of the tale. Her account is that they weren't just definitively lovers, but their story is that of an epic tragic romance in the classical definitions of "epic" and "tragic" and "romance" there. That is, the tale is "epic" in that it is about world-changing conflict, involving "great men" and gods, war and destruction. It's "tragic" in that we all know the end of the tale in The Illiad is that (view spoiler). And it is a R/romance in the big R sense of that word. Capital R romance as in the Romantic movement of high emotion and characters swept up in forces out of their control, as opposed to small r romance as in, romance novels. It's also got a lot of small r romance in it, as in romance novels, in terms of the storytelling itself. That is, the characters are occasionally described in terms that readers of romance novels will be familiar.

Patroclus is occasionally described in terms that echo the stereotypes of the protagonists in romance novels. We don't get the contemporary terms like "mousy brown hair" or those backhanded criticisms/compliments that romance novels occasionally use to describe the awkward, yet somehow sexy/beautiful, characteristics of the primary romantic lead whose hotness is always presented as incidental and unintentional. You know, so the reader knows she's not one of those slutty bitches. She's just an ordinary, kind, generous, likeable girl, who is trapped in the body of a prom queen, and even if her reflection in the mirror tells her something very different (and that's the self-image she overtly describes herself as having in the narration) we all know she's really a sexy sexy. The romantic lead certainly knows it, and sees it even if she doesn't. Cue the "Boom-chicka-wow-wow" music....

Patroclus is rife with the self-doubt and criticism that is the standard of such novels. He has a more or less absent mother, an overly critical father, so is riddled with self-doubt. We're told repeatedly that he has knobby knees and later (by someone who might not be reliable) a too short neck, and an ugly face, etc. Yet, somehow he manages to attract the otherwise inexplicable attention of a half-god manling of perfect proportion and heroic disposition, practically worshiped (and, eventually, in fact) by all and sundry. He's like a fast food restaurant where Wolfgang Puck is secretly the fry-cook. Sure, it looks like you got a cheeseburger, but one bite in you realize that it's freshly ground veal cooked in duck fat with aged stilton, artisan dressing, and baby greens on a brioche bun. Ugly duckling, meet sexy swan.

The "will they, won't they?" is more or less a given, and within that romance (small r) are several dynamics that track like tropes. Patroclus' parents fit into one stereotype, while Achilles' overweening mother and passive but wise father fit the other. While other characters are taking their sex and sexuality for granted, our lead characters strain and stress over their apparent difference from the norm and the tentative nature of the dance they engage in. The two meet. Two steps forward, one step back. They become friends. Two steps forward, one step back. They get closer. Two steps forward, one step back. They kiss. Two steps forward, one step back. They go off on a trip away from home together. Two steps forward, one step back. Etc.

Where I think this book falters from time to time in that dance is the particulars of the sex itself. For instance, though they are described as living in a very sexualized household where the young men and serving girls nightly pair off together, and all the other boys discuss their encounters lightly, both Achilles and Patroclus are virgins until they have sex. (At least, Patroclus is. We can't be sure about Achilles, but it certainly read that way to me.) That seems like a rather stylized choice to me, because Ms. Miller wanted her story to be all romance novel-ish in an almost YA way.

The modern concepts and nomenclature of sex and gender aside (last I heard there were over 70 gender options on Facebook) the vagaries and particulars of sexuality have always been politicized and commented on to one degree or another. Particular sexual identities and even sex acts fall in and out of fashion. Ancient Greek culture is famous for a range of sexual practices that are sometimes held up as a model while being reviled at the same time. "The love that shall dare not speak its name" or some variant thereof. In the war-porn movie 300 we get King Laertes deriding Athenians as "boy lovers" which is more than a little laughable. I've read that Greeks from any number of rival states held the Cretan standard of harpagmos, in which a "philetor" or "befriender" ritually kidnapped a boy "kleinos" and took him off into the woods to introduce him to camping, fishing, hunting, and sex as part of a coming of age experience. Yet even in such states where those kinds of relationships were the norm or, at least, not unusual, the Spartans were sometimes viewed as being particularly enamored of the man/boy relationship. Taking 7-year-old Spartan boys away from their mothers to live with other boys under an older man's supervision wasn't just about training soldiers. In other words, methinks the king doth protest too much.

It's only after the angst and "will they, won't they?" that we get an assessment of male homosexuality as being socially acceptable in Greek society, and even then it is presented as the kind of thing that boys are expected to outgrow. It never mentioned again. The social anxiety can, thus, continue.

Whether that's historically or mythologically accurate is something of a matter for debate. Yes, sexuality exists on a spectrum, and any given society can view particular points on that spectrum one way or another over time, but I suspect that in the 18th-19th BC centuries, the post industrial ideas on sexuality that we have in the information age would be pretty alien to the ancient Greeks. I don't think they necessarily saw things in terms that were necessarily less politicized or socially acceptable per se. Making private behavior public and then blasting it on some affected moral grounds is nothing new. There are just as many stringent ideas about women being sexual property in ancient Greece, for instance, and when it comes to portraying any particular characteristic or behavior in derogatory terms... well, the Greeks pretty much devised political rhetoric in Western culture. However, the idea that physically fit young people in a group setting wouldn't be more in touch with sexuality and its fluidity is a bit hard to believe, even if we didn't know anything about the sexual dynamics of the period.

With all that in mind, a lot of the angst about the sexuality of Patroclus and Achilles tracked much more as a commentary on contemporary values than a retelling of the myth. Both are very worried that others will know or learn about their sexual relationship, and take pains to hide it, even when that relationship becomes common knowledge. In the histories that I've read, maybe it got some sort of negative attention, but in most narratives such things are assumed and presented without so much as a "Hm?" There are no blow-by-blow sex scenes in Homer like there are in this book. (He reserves such things for fighting.) We can read Homer to be indicating that Patroclus and Achilles were just super-bros on an extended weekend jaunt to Troy where they party down with rest of the boys, killing people and fighting over slave girls like the fellas at the Phi Delta Omega fraternity. Or we can assume that such standards didn't exist in a form we'd recognize thousands of years ago, and people had sex where and how they could given basic social standards, constant human needs, ever-present emotional wants, and a life expectancy in the mid-30s. That might not make for as much romance drama as Ms. Miller's presentation, however, and if her story-telling is influenced by more contemporary methods, that's the nature of her audience.


message 4: by Amber (new)

Amber Martingale | 657 comments To my mind, ANY Brad Pitt movie is sadistic enoug hthat even LUCIFER would attempt to put his eyeballs out if it were looped endlessly in Hell, Gary.

I haven't yet found a copy of this book, but I advise group members to SKIP the Iliad if they can't stand poetry in written form but enjoy listening to it. With the exception of Professor Tolkien, that's basically MY problem with poetry and why I can't even read Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf.


message 5: by Gary (last edited Sep 09, 2019 05:48PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments Amber wrote: "To my mind, ANY Brad Pitt movie is sadistic enoug hthat even LUCIFER would attempt to put his eyeballs out if it were looped endlessly in Hell, Gary."

Weirdly, I do think Ms. Miller saw it. Her description of Achilles seems informed by Brad Pitt's almost dancerly fight choreography in Troy and though it's been quite a while since I read The Illiad I don't remember Homer being quite so... flowery in his descriptions. My memory of that source material was more along the lines of "...and with a mighty blow did the great Achilles..." and "...so strong a cut as to slash his foe from neck to navel..." and such like. My memory could very easily be faulty, though, or the translation I read done by a zealous, but otherwise dull graduate student. Since I don't mind a little ancient epic poetry, a reread after finishing this text off (I'm almost done) might be in order.

It is interesting that that film took exactly the opposite stance from Ms. Miller's position on the "were they or were they not..." issue. Troy's Achilles seems to treat Patroclus like a slightly annoying younger brother. Again, it's been a while since I saw it, but the film adaption of Achilles is weirdly disinterested in such things as sex as I recall. Even with the war trophy slave Briseis he seems like he's doing her a favor by inflicting her with a little Stockholm Syndrome....


message 6: by Gary (last edited Sep 11, 2019 08:46AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments I just finished. I liked it. I think there's a lot of strengths to this kind of updated retelling of myths that make them more palatable to a contemporary audience, while still providing readers with the core ideas of the legend. It's the kind of thing that makes for an entertaining read, and still inculcates the core ideas that form the common language of culture, and that's always a good thing even if one finds some fault with the symbology and values presented in that language.

For instance, this is still war porn. The glories and honor of war are still the basic premise, despite the somewhat faint objections that occur in the narrative and in bits of the dialogue toward the end. We don't remember Achilles, for instance, as a great lyre player and vocalist, even though that's among the things the narrator would suggest he should be remembered for. We don't remember him as someone who spared the life of Briseis rather than the guy who took the life of Hector.

Hector, BTW, gets somewhat short shrift in this account. One of the more interesting aspects of The Illiad is that we actually get a few domestic and personal scenes of the Trojans, even though they are the "other" to Homer's audience. There's a memorable scene in Homer's account where Hector is off to war and his baby son starts crying not because his father is leaving, but because he puts on his helmet and the infant no longer recognizes him. There's a touching moment when the father and mother soothe the boy... then he goes off to war, and meet his fate.

I suppose that's the whole nature of this book. Most folks will know the fate of Achilles and Patroclus before even picking up the book, even if only because they only saw that Brad Pitt movie. There's been plenty of other adaptions, of course, and a lot of people will have had The Illiad assigned in AP English or whatever. But The Illiad isn't just an epic poem. It's an historical document. That's not to say that it is a history text. The factual basis of that book should be taken with a lot of skepticism. The book itself is history. It's as ubiquitous as an outright religious text. Only something like The Epic of Gilgamesh or the subsequent story of Odysseus rivals The Illiad for cultural significance. The Norse Eddas or Beowulf maybe.

In that sense, and contemporary update is interesting to go through. I think it's interesting, for instance, that a modern piece would not only assume the sexual relationship of Patroclus and Achilles, but would delve so deeply into the particulars of that relationship. This ain't your grandmother's Illiad....

I think some of the particulars of her adaptation in a modern milieu are similarly interesting, some of which is covered in spoilers, so I'll hide a list here:
(view spoiler)

At this point, I'm going to talk about some particulars, which are spoilers in the context of this book, but not really spoilers because they are standard plot events in a story that is several millennia old. However, if you're avoiding even light spoiler sauce I warn:

Warning! Specific Storytelling Spoilers Ahead

I'm not certain about some of the plot points in this particular account. For instance, at the time of the Trojan War in Ms. Miller's version, Achilles is a totally untried and untested warrior. He's only trained. His training is described as showing him to have god-like speed and agility, but when they go off to war, he's never fought, let alone lead, warriors in battle. His status as a leader, therefore, seemed implausible to me. The Myrmidons simply follow him without question. There's never even a scene to establish why that happens.

"I'm new here."

"Oh, we can tell you're a godling. We're with you...."

I found the introduction of the war slave Briseis whose "ownership status" is a major plot point of both this account and the source material to be more than a little hard to swallow, even though it started strong. Patroclus takes pity on her as the first woman to go up on the block as it were for distribution to the army, so he gets Achilles to claim her as a war prize. That's OK, all things considered. She had to get her in somehow or the other. Introducing a slavegirl to their camp is something of a problem given that she's leaned so heavily into the sexual nature of Patroclus and Achilles relationship, and there's not a great way to go after establishing that which a contemporary audience won't find touchy. I mean, it's just as plausible that Patroclus would have grown tired of cleaning Achilles clothes, and wanted a slave to do the polishing, but since Patroclus is our protagonist/narrator and such a nice guy, him taking pity on her is as good a reason as any other. She doesn't speak their language. Again, that's cool. Makes sense that she wouldn't. A lot of versions of The Illiad assume that Trojans and Greeks speak the same language... usually a somewhat stilted British English, in fact.

I did find the actual storytelling fumbled quite a bit there, though. Once they get her into their tent, she's naturally scared out of her wits, and when Patroclus wants to cut the ropes that bind her hands, she shrinks away. Rather than mime what he's wants to do, he assumes she's worried about being sexually assaulted, and to show that she's safe from such things, he starts making out with Achilles.

Huh?

First off, I don't know how that would necessarily convince her that she's safe from the sexual depredations of some of the men who just slaughtered her kin and neighbors, looted her community, beat and kidnapped her, then gave her out as a war trophy. These people are barbarians to her, just as she is to them. For all she would know that's just how they start off the ritual of assaulting war captives. Second, Patroclus and Achilles have been bashful about showing any physical affection at all throughout the book. She's got a whole affected gay rights agenda going on that she's spent most of the book developing. Again, I'm fine with that. It's a modernization. But after developing that anxiety for the first half of the book (and she won't really let it go ever in the story) she tossed all that out in a throw away scene in a throwaway moment in which it wasn't necessary at all. Imagine for a moment that you're beaten, bloodied, kidnapped, traumatized, etc. in a tent with two dudes and instead of one of them just raising his hands with his wrists together, then miming them quickly separating to show he wants to release you from you're bonds... they start making out. Would that make you go, "Oh, they're gay. Whew! I feel better now..."? That's what Patroclus appears to think it'll do. And he's the more empathic and sympathetic one.... I actually blurted out, "What the fuck?!" when I read that.

Then they immediately set her up in her own private tent, even though they knew everyone thought that Achilles claimed her as a camp slave/sex object. That not only tracked to me as a very modernist take on how nice our protagonist is meant to be, but it also contrasted very badly with all the efforts Ms. Miller took to make sure we all know that their sexual relationship was something they were trying to hide. Sure, Achilles is a killer, but he's not rape-y, and Patroclus is basically a pre-modern social worker trying to treat war refugee's PTSD....

That wasn't the only point where I thought the storytelling was "trying too hard" as it were, but it was one of the more egregious.

The other big plot/storytelling problem I had was with Patroclus wearing Achilles armor when he refuses to fight after Agamemnon takes Briseis. If I recall my reading of The Illiad the original source material is that he does so without Achilles approval or even knowledge. He just decides on his own to put on the armor and "lead" the Myrmidons into battle. The Myrmidons don't know either. Everybody is surprised when Hector kills "Achilles", takes off his helmet and finds Patroclus instead.

In Ms. Miller's account, Patroclus talks Achilles into letting him wear the armor, and Achilles even helps him put it on while giving him advice on how to stay safe in the subsequent fake out. It's all for Achilles further glory. Just little Patroclus wearing Achilles' armor is enough to rout the Trojans, the argument goes. Won't that be glorious?

My problem with this and with the subsequent sequence is that throughout the novel, Ms. Miller has been portraying Patroclus as specifically NOT a warrior. He's a healer and all around nice guy. He might be physically fit more or less, but he's not a good soldier. Suddenly, he's not only able to

1. Fit into Achilles armor.

2. Despite being told not to stand out as his lack of talent as a warrior will give away the subterfuge, Patroclus quickly ignores this advice and goes "full Achilles" if you will.

3. Despite going "full Achilles" nobody notices.

4. He's actually really good at it. He loves it, in fact. Suddenly, killing people is fun. For the entirety of the book, Patroclus has been avoiding martial training. Instead, he's become a medic. But suddenly, yay killing people!

Of course, Patroclus has to die for the source material, but this change struck me as problematic on several levels.

My first problem with this whole section, aside from Patroclus' sudden transformation, is having Achilles in on the trick. I don't necessarily see Achilles buying the "just your armor striking fear into the enemy will bring you much glory!" argument in the first place. You'll get much glory not sitting this out but pretending not to, but really just hanging back, is rather convoluted. But even if he does buy it, there's a major issue in that it doesn't have to be Patroclus wearing the armor. There are perfectly good, battle-hardened, well-trained, very loyal Myrmidons standing around waiting. Any one of them would have been a better choice than Patroclus for this subterfuge.

There's two counter arguments to my issue with this plot change. First, Achilles could think, "Oh, I'll send a little, softer guy in my place to make sure the glory all goes to me and my armor." That's possible. It's not something that appears in the text, though, so I'm not really inclined to give that to the author, and I'm not so convinced it works on it's own anyway.

Second, there's the gods/destiny argument. No escaping destiny. Patroclus and Achilles lack of guile could be both the forces of fate at work, and a sudden influx of godly power to make Patroclus much better at the war fighting. Again, maybe, but that's also something that's not in the book, and I'm not inclined to fan service that away. There's plenty of divine intervention in the story. (We get Apollo helping out Paris later, which comes straight from the source material.) I don't think that flies as an explanation either.

Overall, I liked this one on a storytelling level, but I have a few major critiques plot-wise.


message 7: by Amber (last edited Sep 10, 2019 04:39PM) (new)

Amber Martingale | 657 comments Yeah, there's way too damned much "war porn" in the American culture generally.

The only poetry we had to read in my high school English classes, other than the sonnets of Shakespeare, were the tragedies like Oedipus Rex and Antigone. We did not actually have to read either the Iliad or the Odyssey YAY! Thank Good for small miracles, though we DID have to read TKAM. UGH!


message 8: by Gary (last edited Feb 23, 2021 11:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments I have one other major objection or issue with this adaptation, which is in the timeline. I should start off by noting that the mythical versions of Achilles/Trojan war don't really have a great timeline, and the concept of a timeline is pretty alien to such things in the first place. In myth and legends they dash off 10 years here and there. The Trojan War goes on for 10 years. Later, it takes Odyseus 10 years to get home. Ten years might be some sort of euphemistic way of saying "a long time" in ancient writings. There's no reason we have to assume that myths culled together out of a range of sources and almost certainly written in a much looser way than anything like a chronological events calendar should be taken as a lockstep timeline of events... like those Biblical scholars who have "done the math" on the generations and accounts in Genesis to determine the Earth is 5,000 years old. It's only when we get a more detailed and personalized biographical telling like this one that such things stand out.

In the timeline of events as presented in this text, Achilles fathers a son at 15-16 (or so) and immediately goes off to war at Troy. It takes a while to get there (the winds are calmed and there's a (view spoiler) to be done to motivate the gods) so he could be 17 by the time they get to the beach. Now, personally, I had some trouble picturing Achilles, even as the son of a god, and the best of the Greeks, leading hardened Myrmidons at 17. I can picture it, but just barely. A 16-17-year old just taking command of an army tracks as hard to believe, but I can justify it given things like lifespan, the mores of the day, his godly heredity, etc. Just barely.

It's a lot harder to picture his (view spoiler) showing up to take over, and the amount of influence he has on the leaders of the Greek army at Troy also struck me as a bit unlikely given that the exact same people didn't show his father that much deference. Again, he's got a godly heredity, and in her account he's raised much more by his godly grandmother, but I still can't help but visualize a 12-year-old, and it just doesn't work for me.

Incidentally, an 8-part miniseries has been green-lit for her book Circe, which makes me wonder if we're going to ever get an adaption of this book. If that does happen, and they stay true to her text, we're ALL going to see a 12-year-old doing some pretty horrific things. It'll make the Game of Thrones adaptation look like Bambi.

https://deadline.com/2019/07/circe-fa...

From what I understand from my recent boning up on the various myths/legends after reading this book, the Greeks first gather a fleet/army, but don't know how to get to Troy (or just get lost), so they wind up in Mysia, ruled by King Telephus, and there's a whole subplot with Achilles giving the king a wound that only he can heal, and he needs to be tricked into doing so. They then head off to Troy, but the fleet gets scattered by a storm and, in the way of Greek myths, they basically just give up on going to Troy for eight years. Achilles goes back to Skyros during the interval and then the Greeks work up a second fleet and make it to Troy.

That eight year gap makes the ages of the characters much more plausible to me. Achilles isn't 15-17 leading men in at the beginning of the actual onset of battle at Troy but 23-25, and when Pyrrhus shows up, he's around 20.

So why didn't Ms. Miller do that? Well, I don't think eight years of relatively domestic married life fits into her characterization of Achilles and Patroclus as devoted lovers. And she really embraced that as her major thematic story motivation. There's an argument to be made that such a pause in the action isn't good for the plot, but she didn't mind skipping over a lot of years during the education of Achilles and Patroclus under Chiron, and there's a whole yada, yada, yada of the years spent fighting Troy, so I don't think that second explanation holds up real well. There would be ways around the whole issue of Achilles spending eight years married while still really in a relationship with Patroculus, but her account already tries to vitiate the contradiction of her "devoted lovers theme" when it comes to the Skyros/Deidamia/Pyrrhus section, and I think that was a middling success. In her relationship with Achilles, Miller portrays Deidamia as the aggressor. In the myth, Achilles is usually depicted as having first assaulted her, or at least seducing her. Miller also has Deidemia (view spoiler) too, just to balance the sexual scales as it were, and show how meaningless was that Achilles/Deidemia sex and marriage. She's just a sexual "middle man" for both of them, as it were.

All of this is culled together from a range of sources, some of them later Roman, as is Ms. Miller's plot. The whole Skyros section, for instance, does not come from Homer at all. It's a later Roman construct, supposedly based on earlier sources, but those sources are lost, so who can say? From what I can tell, the whole section about his education under Chiron comes from Hesiod, not Homer. And, despite embracing in many ways a more magical/mythical version of the story with gods, centaurs, and the like, she ignored entirely the mythical content about Achilles being dipped in the Styx and being physically invulnerable.

To me, parts of that thematic content read as more than a little strained. In part, I think that's because she was either herself unconsciously influenced by more contemporary attitudes towards sexuality, or was consciously acknowledging that her readers were. I'm not sure which of those it might be. (Some combination is probably the case.) But in either case, I found the end results were some dynamics which were pretty significant to the believably of the story (most the ages of the characters, her characterization of Deidamia, and the whole section with Pyrrhus) and those things took me out of the story in a way that cascaded through the whole text.


message 9: by Amber (new)

Amber Martingale | 657 comments No such thing as destiny. If there were, Anakin would have destroyed the Sith w/o first becoming a Sith Lord himself.

Sounds like there's far too much actual sex in Song of Achilles to suit me...like an FSOG influenced by the Greco-Roman mythology of the Classical world!


message 10: by Gary (last edited Sep 12, 2019 01:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments Amber wrote: "Sounds like there's far too much actual sex in Song of Achilles to suit me...like an FSOG influenced by the Greco-Roman mythology of the Classical world!"

IIRC, there's three sex scenes. Two between Achilles and Patroclus and one between (view spoiler). They're handled pretty well. I often find the language of sex in prose can be inadvertently hilarious, but none of the stuff in this book got me to laugh except maybe that last one, but mostly because of the identity agenda stuff in the book went a little over the top there. There is an awful lot of Patroclus mooning over Achilles, which gets to be a bit much, but again she went with a kind of theme there, so she kind of needed to stick with it.

There's also a lot of implied sexuality and off-hand references to the brutalities of the sexual politics of the time as well. The slave girl Briseis must deal with a lot of menacing physical assault from Agamemnon and later from Pyrrhus, which is can be unsettling even if such threats never come to fruition.


message 11: by Amber (new)

Amber Martingale | 657 comments Well, I've said I'd read it if I could get it, despite what I just said in my previous post. If I start feeling squicky about the sex, I'll stop reading at that point.


message 12: by Gary (last edited Sep 16, 2019 08:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments Having had a little time to think about this one, I have a few more thoughts.

First, I've read Ms. Miller compared to Mary Renault. Given Renault's career, and the focus so far of Miller's, such a comparison is, I suppose, inevitable. For those who may not know already, Renault is the author of a bunch of prose adaptations of ancient history and myth, including The King Must Die, The Last of the Wine (my personal favorite of hers that I've read) and The Persian Boy. That last seems like the most apt comparison to this particular book given the theme of a relationship between a heroic, god-like figure and his male lover. I'd argue that there's more evidence for a relationship between Alexander and Bagoas than between Achilles and Patroclus if for no other reason than what we know of Alexander is a bit more historically based than mythological. But Alexander appears in a lot more sources and some are pretty forthright about Alexander's sexuality. That's not so much the case for Achilles.

Though such a comparison is probably inevitable (female author, female author, ancient Greece, ancient Greece, modern adaptation, modern adaptation, etc.) it fails on several factors. Renault stories are non-mythological, for instance. There are no active gods and magic in her accounts. Such things are discussed, of course, but the presentation of them remains secular and objective. No centaurs or sea maids appear in person to influence events. As such her stories are more "believable" to me personally, because we know her intent and efforts are meant to portray how she sees these historical events as having actually played out. They are historical novels in the sense that they are novels about history (rather than "historical novels" in the sense that they are important too history) and she weaves what we know of history into her plots.

To me Miller's work read much more like she'd come up with a premise regarding the sexuality of her Achilles and her protagonist and then filled in the story with the mythology. She picked and chose from among the historical and mythological accounts that she felt supported her interpretation and presented those that were more antagonistic to that theme in a way that made them fit. For me, in certain cases that read as more than a little forced. Patroclus having sex with Deidamia after she and Achilles marry, for example. Both the details of the description of that scene, and the appearance of that scene at all, struck me as her forcing the story to fit into her theme.

Ms. Miller further has the plot for Patroclus to disguise himself as Achilles happen as a result of a rather hamfisted political intrigue in which Achilles is trying to portray Agamemnon as unreasonable and incompetent so he can sway the rest of the Greeks. He's only convinced by an appeal to his vanity and love of glory. Again, this read as more than a little of the author forcing her interpretation on the existing myth to me. There are other little tidbits here and there that I found strained, sometimes in the dialogue and sometimes in the characters. Achilles relationship with his father, for instance, struck me as a bit of a waste. His mother is a goddess and kind of the ultimate, pre-historical stage mother. His father is mostly characterized by being a sort of doting and kindly old man, whose sexual assault of Thetis was a kind of pious/destiny sort of thing, and that doesn't pair up very well with being a more or less single parent father raising the world's greatest warrior on a pathological quest for glory.... But, again, theme.

My point is that where Mary Renault read the history and weaves a story out of it, Madeline Miller came up with a theme and forced the myth into it.

The end result is that I think we learn a lot about the history and historical figures from Renault's work. We still learn something from Miller's... but less. It's still an interesting take on the myth, and the retelling of such myths is always important because it both updates them and contextualizes them for modern audiences, but it doesn't work as well to come at things with an agenda first and make the storytelling fit that.

The other important thing to note here is that from what I understand this is Ms. Miller's first book. That's a pretty astounding thing given the scope and size of the story, and while I have been pretty critical in this thread, I do think this book is quite an accomplishment overall, especially in light of that.


message 13: by Gary (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gary | 1470 comments Inspired by this read, I'm listening to Archaeology and the Iliad: The Trojan War in Homer and History right now. It's an interesting take on the archeological evidence for the Trojan War, and discusses several of the sources, particularly Homer. Pairs up neatly with this book in a myth/reality kind of way.


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