I really wish I’d stumbled across Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles before I enrolled in my Classical Literature course last year. We read both Homeric epics, as well as The Aeneid, the plays of Aristophanes, and Apuleis; the intense reading list made for an excruciating semester and while I felt I’d earned my stripes as an English student by reading the classics, I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the texts. They all seemed to depict a world completely alien to mine, with its foreign code of honour and hospitality and its petulant gods. The Iliad was by far the most enjoyable of the texts. The principal heroes, Hector and Achilles, are simultaneously both demi-gods and beasts on the battlefield, and the epic’s depiction of war more generally is far from glorious. If I’d read The Song of Achilles before taking the class, I think I’d have enjoyed The Iliad even more. Miller interjects a much-needed sense of humanity into the myth without straying too far from the source material.
The Greek gods are probably the most problematic aspects of the Homeric epics (and of most classical literature, which follows in the Homeric tradition). The gods can be understood as natural forces; for example, Poseidon could be seen to personify the will of the sea. Or the gods could be seen as late additions to the original historical events, added in to present the outcome of the Trojan War as divinely ordained. If, however, it’s always the gods who inspire their favoured mortals with heroic qualities or lift them out of an arrow’s path, then to what extent are the heroes truly heroic at all? The exact nature of the gods is never clarified and presents a significant stumbling block to modern readers. Miller offers a unique solution to this problem: in her retelling of The Iliad, Thetis exists in the flesh and can walk among the living if she chooses. Patroclus, the narrator, carelessly lists the many heroes who are the offspring or grandsons of gods. While the gods are immortal and elevated above mortals, they are still subject to Fate; even Thetis cannot change her son’s destiny.
By smoothing over the difficulties presented by the interfering Homeric gods, Miller can give greater focus to her true concern: the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Their story is a moving one, a truly timeless exploration of how powerless we all are in the pitiless face of Fate.