Madeline Miller's 'The Song of Achilles' had been sitting on the side of the sofa for a month. It looked like a big fat book that would take me a while to read so I put it off in favour of shorter reads. It won the Orange Prize, since renamed the Women's Prize for Fiction, in 2012 (I discovered on browsing the archive that I have read four of the twenty long listed books from that year, and five from 2013.) This is a wonderful and enthralling book, and a fascinating alternative view of a well loved Greek myth. It is not so much the story of the Trojan War as the story of Achilles and Patroclus; Madeline Miller takes a story of friendship and transforms it into a bond of love that spans from their childhood into the long years of the war. It is a multi-sensory book, filled with rich descriptions of the time and place and people of ancient Greece. In the opening chapters we meet the cream of the Kings and heroes as they gather to bid for the hand of Helen, and the atmosphere bristling with testosterone sets the tone for the whole book, the undercurrents of tension and distrust. Add in the tensions between gods and mortals and you have the basis for a pretty eventful story.
The young Patroclus is exiled after the death of a boy, so he is sent to be fostered at the palace of Peleus, where he is befriended by Achilles. As son of the goddess Thetis, Achilles is destined for greatness, but he is also a mortal and has human weaknesses. She does not approve of the friendship between the two boys and tries to separate them, but the bond between them almost has a destiny of its own and they try, pointlessly it turns out, to resist the prophesy.
I have dithered over this review for several days because much as I enjoyed the book it was overshadowed somewhat by the frustration and anger that it evoked in me every time any women appeared in the story. The concept of women as mere chattel pervades the tale, beginning with Helen who is being sold off to the highest bidder, though in an unexpected turn of events is invited to choose her own husband (I think so her father doesn't have to upset any of the very tough men congregating in his palace). Thetis is a goddess but is 'given' by the gods to Peleus (for being such an all round great guy), who proceeds to rape her and she is then obliged to stay 'married' to him for a year. Slave girls in the house of Peleus exist partly for the pleasure of whoever feels like it, and to produce offspring who become new slaves. On Scyros Deidameia is 'given' to Achilles by Thetis in order to ensure a son to come after him. The woman Briseis taken in battle is 'rescued' from ravishment by Agamemnon by Achilles who takes her as a war trophy, but she becomes a pawn in their macho confrontation game. The events paint Patroclus is a positive light when he intervenes to save her again, when Achilles was more concerned about his own honour, a truly flawed hero I felt. While I know that this is part of the cultural attitudes and therefore part of the legend I found myself bristling in annoyance as I read, and so was left with the feeling that Achilles was a bit of a self-centred arsehole.
" 'Do you not wonder why he did not prevent you from taking her?' My voice is disdainful. 'He could have killed your men, and all your army. Do you not think he could have held you off?'
Agamemnon's face is red. But I do not let him speak.
'He let you take her. He knows you will not resist bedding her, and this will be your downfall. She is his, won through fair service. The men will turn on you if you violate her, and the gods as well.'
I speak slowly, deliberately, and the words land like arrows, each to its target. It is true what I say, though he has been too blinded by pride and lust to see it. She is in Agamemnon's custody, but she is Achille's prize still. To violate her is a violation of Achilles himself, the gravest insult to his honour. Achilles could kill him for it, and even Menelaus would call it fair.
'You are at your power's limit even in taking her. The men allowed it because he was too proud, but they would not allow more.' We obey our kings, but only within reason. If Aristos Achaion's prize is not safe, none of ours are. Such a king will not be allowed to rule for long." (p.277)
If you add in the glorification of violence and senseless slaughter the actual context of the story left me cold. Patroclus tells the story in first person so it is his view of the situation that is most real, I came to care about him, and respect his love and utter devotion to Achilles. So, in conclusion, while it is beautifully written and true to the spirit of greek mythology, it's not really my kind of story.