By Januschka Veldstra
Madeline Miller’s ‘The song of Achilles’ was ten years in the making – but the hard work has paid off. The winner of the 2012 Orange Prize retells the classic tale of Achilles and Troy, giving it a new perspective: that of Patroclus, Achilles’ faithful lover.
Patroclus is the exiled prince, the loser who disappoints everyone, most of all his father. Achilles is the hero-to-be, the demi-god who exceeds all his peers in strength, beauty, and skill. This unlikely pair becomes friends, and ultimately lovers, when Patroclus ends up at the court of Achilles’ father. At times, it may be hard to understand why, as explanations for their infatuation are somewhat lacking. Achilles, the “greatest of all Greeks”, has little going for him until he can show his prowess at warfare. Even more baffling is Achilles’ interest in Patroclus. The latter remains rather nondescript throughout, maybe because as the narrator, he focuses most of his attention outwards.
However, keeping in mind that Miller is no Homer, and this is her first work, much can be forgiven. With a background as Classics teacher, she knows the tales she is rewriting well and manages to brilliantly tweak them to accommodate the love story fully. After all, this still is the epic tale we all know from the Iliad, and has much to offer to anyone with an interest in mythology. There is glory to be won, honour to be fought for, fate to be suffered, and most of all love to die for. We know from the get-go that the story ends in tears, yet the suspense remains.
So take the time to enjoy this story during winter break and see how familiar characters are presented ever so slightly differently, giving an entirely new twist to the myth. It is worth it.
For other modern takes on Greek mythology, check out ‘Ransom’ by David Malouf, and ‘Ilios & Odysseus’ – a children’s novel by Imme Dros, one of the best reasons to learn Dutch.