Picture somebody who knows things. They know about soil, and the Battle of Agincourt. They know about chemical compounds and can quote Shakespeare freely. They speak passable French, can use equations to solve mysterious sequences, and can whip up a watercolour at the drop of a hat. They can explain the finer points of peristalsis and war poetry. They are me, the June that I took my GCSEs (apart from the soil – I had an unspeakable hatred for Geography and dropped it and the first sniff.) They are probably you, too, when you took your GCSEs. at least if you were an insufferable geek like I was.
I often think that I never have, and never will, have quite such a strong range of general knowledge as that June. I say June, not Summer, advisedly. My well honed cramming technique ensured I had forgotten it all come July. But for those few short weeks, I knew it all.
Unfortunately this pattern of extreme knowledge into zero memory has returned throughout my life, never more dramatically than my university Classical Literature module, in which we covered civilisation’s finest western historical literature – the Bible, The Iliad, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and others which, to prove my point, I have forgotten even the names of. It was such a mission simply to get through these things that I didn’t stop smell the roses: I aimed solely to have technically read it. Thus, although I have indeed read Paradise Lost, I only have a vague sense of the Devil being a bit of a machiavellian genius who liked to talk a lot. The Odyssey is a vague mix of whirlpools and sea monsters. The Iliad, the mighty tale of the Trojan War? I don’t remember a damn thing. At least this meant that I approached Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles with no greater Trojan war knowledge than your average layman.
The book tells the story of Patroclus, best-mate-and-more of Achilles. The book feels like a game of two halves: Patroclus’s childhood, meeting of Achilles and growing together in adolescence, which is more loose and “fictional”, and the Trojan war section, which draws heavily from that classical literature I’ve forgotten. The first section, with less classical foundation to go on feels more like usual fiction territory: observations, feelings, settings. The young Patroclus is exiled to the court of Achilles’ father, and this world of competition, insecurity and yearning is well established, as is the halcyon section of training with the centaur Chiron in the mountains. (Did you catch that? Yes, I said centaur. Set at a time when the Greek gods were active, you wonder how the author is going to deal with it – until you realise bam – they’re just going to walk in. It takes a bit of adjusting to.) Miller’s writing of the seasons and sensations of mountain cave living are delightful, and the pivotal Patroclus/Achilles relationship is firmly embedded.
In the Trojan War section, we’re in a territory well covered by the classics and well pored over for the last few thousand years. It’s chock full of the famous names – Paris, Hector, Ajax, Agamemnon, Briseis – and there’s less space for imagination. For me, the result was that it became little more than a telling of the old story in modern language. Because this isn’t a thousand pages long, there was so much to get through that it felt like Miller was panting to keep up with The Iliad’s story, trying to fit in her own agenda (Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship). But perhaps that’s too harsh – Miller does a great job of showing the tensions in that relationship as Achilles increasingly becomes the godlike hero he is destined to be and Patroclus remains a pacifist, committed to healing.
Ultimately Miller may not really have the mastery to make you fundamentally see this old story with new eyes – but it’s a damn good telling of the old favourite and very readable. This was a recommendation from a kind friend when I asked for good-but-not-too-tough reads, and it does a fine job. I might even remember it.