***Note: this post assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: You will never root more fervently for two characters who can't possibly have a happy ending than in this fine novel. Brava, Madeline Miller.
I loved The Song of Achilles--it was among my top three books of 2012. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus felt deep and real, and the sense of a couple's love being manipulated by outside circumstances (in this case Achilles's fate and the desire of the gods) rather than the actors' feelings and agency was poignant. I loved reading something that felt like an ancient Greek tome, but was more personal, more novel-like.
As usual I had small questions while I read; for instance, it felt out of place to me that Patroclus slept with Achilles's wife. The motivation wasn't there because Patroclus had been militantly monogamous until that point, and absolutely unwavering about his sexual orientation. (Wait, that's wrong. It's not even a sexual orientation with Patroclus. It's an Achilles-orientation. He is deeply, committedly in love with this one person, sort of regardless of gender.) But anyway, Miller had not set Patroclus up to have the attitude about sex that many ancient Greeks had--namely, fluidly moving from men to women, with no word for "gay"-- or even a casual attitude about sex. In other words, Patroclus wasn't the sort of man who would say, "What the hell, she seemed to want it. It's no skin off my teeth." It took me out of the action, wondering what Miller was trying to say with it (which I never figured out). Was Patroclus deliberately trying to experience something that Achilles had experienced, to be closer to him? It didn't seem so, since it was never explored again in those terms. Was Miller using Patroclus precisely to demonstrate that loose attitude toward sex in ancient Greece? If so, Patroclus is the dead wrong choice for that. What, then, was she saying?
Another question came up later, when it won the Orange Prize: how did I feel about the Orange committee's explicit commendation of its originality? In fact, my teenage daughter had nearly destroyed my reading experience mid-way through when she pointed out that The Song of Achilles is "essentially fan-fiction for the Iliad." I put her comment aside while I was reading, but it resurfaced because of the award; viewed in the "fan-fiction" light, was Miller's achievement diminished? My daughter had a valid point, I thought: Miller took Homer's awesome characters and settings and myths as her own, and shipped two characters who weren't clearly lovers in the canon versions. Everything Miller needed--from the cast of characters, to the war, and right down to the armor--was laid out for her. Yes, she had fleshed out personalities and relationships, but all within someone else's (epic) framework. Why did the Orange Prize laud her originality, rather than what I thought was great about the book: the writing and the characterization?
I brought this up with a friend, and we had a fun e-mail exchange over it, which the friend has allowed me to reprint here (the friend's comments are in bold). I learned a lot from our discussion, and came to a better peace with Miller's achievement.
Friend: Yes, I read someone else refer to this novel as fanfic (or maybe even slash-fic), and I have to say I’m very puzzled by the accusation. Absolutely, most of the plot is taken from other sources (although by no means only the Iliad – there’s quite a bit of stuff taken from other myths and plays about Achilles – and it is actually pretty impressive the way she weaves together many different strands of stories about Achilles to make one consistent one), but it seems completely in line with the kind of adaptations and reimaginings I was discussing on my blog last week. If Song of Achilles is fanfic, then isn’t The Aeneid basically fanfic too? Or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? Or Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida? I think Miller is incredibly original in the way she reworks the story into one about a forbidden gay relationship, rather than an epic story of anger and war.
Me: Oh, certainly, Miller is extremely creative, weaving together a palpable world and empathetic characters and telling her own story by reworking a much less personal original narrative. And you're right, blending the different Achilles stories shows she has incredible mastery of the subject (her training in Classics shows). And her prose is by and large outstanding. But I think I'm not feeling as negative about the word "fanfic" as you are--certainly it's not an accusation. What I'm trying to get at is the question of "What is originality?"
For instance, Miller is currently working on a similar project about the Odyssey, which means once again she's choosing these incredibly compelling (existing) characters and running with them in her own way (OMG is any character more amazing than Odysseus). But the fact remains that they are someone else's compelling characters that have stood the test of not just centuries, but millenia--no small feat! (And is "millenia" a word?) And the framework of Homer's stories will be for her next book, if not a skeleton, at least all the bones laid out that she can use as the armature of her novel. Many authors think that's the hardest part of the writing process--creating the world and the characters, and the "epicness" of the overarching story (if epicness were a word)--so it makes me wonder whether she's bypassing the greatest challenge for a writer, which would frankly be a pretty sweet handicap to have.
Also, scholars have speculated about the gay relationship between Achilles and Patroclus forever, so I'm not sure how original I feel that is, either. Sometimes their relationship is explained in terms of pederasty, because there's some evidence that Patroclus is older. But I gather it's an impossible task to decide whether it really is supposed to be a sexual relationship because, well, we never see any sex between them, ever, in the ancient literature. There are just hints that allow us to guess, like the fact that they're buried together, which has always had people scratching their heads because of how unusual it is. So the premise, "Achilles and Patroclus in love" is not unheard of.
Friend: “What is truth?” I didn’t mean to imply that Miller was the first to imagine P & A as a gay couple (you’re absolutely right that it’s a much discussed topic), but that she was the first that I’m aware of who made that relationship the fulcrum point of Achilles’s whole story.
I don’t know anything about her Odysseus project, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that SOA is narrated by and primarily about Patroclus, a character who does not have much of a compelling story that has stood the test of time. He’s known simply for being Achilles’s friend. So, at least in SOA, Miller is primarily working from scratch in terms of characterization, if not plot. And interestingly, I thought, if anything, she was trying to leach out some of the epicness (Epicicity? Epicity? Epicdom?) of the story, not piggyback off of it.
I do think the question of “what is originality?” is an important one. I wonder if there are authors for whom the opposite of what you describe is true: those pieces of world building, etc are the easy part, and they struggle with characterization, style, whatever? From a reader’s viewpoint, it’s a balancing act, because it is certainly easier to sell a book to me by saying: “this is a new version of your favorite story in the world!” rather than trying to describe a brand new world, etc. But on the other hand, you’ve got to be a pretty damn good author to get me at all interested in reading yet another reworking of Beauty and the Beast.
In the end my friend convinced me that Miller's work does count as original, particularly because of that key point: this book is really about Patroclus, a marginal character in the original tale, and it gives him a rich, complete life, both external and internal. In subsequent e-mails my friend even managed to convince me that originality may not be something a reader should care about, which has really shifted how I approach my reading.