The Song of Achilles

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.

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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.

Threaded on time

Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

Summer Farm, Norman MacCaig

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‘Stacks of Wheat’ by Claude Monet.

From Hell

When I first read the blurb for Alan Moore’s From Hell it sounded like the perfect graphic novel for me: it purports to evoke the dark underworld of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders and reflect on the Victorian era at the dawn of the 20th-century. Eddie Campbell’s illustrations are truly, stunningly grotesque, and I also enjoyed the quotes listed at the beginning of each chapter, an eclectic collection of contemporary interviews and articles, philosophical meditations and poetry, which not only set the tone for each segment of the story but also reveal the impressive extent of Moore’s research.

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Sadly, I think these extracts were (for me, at least) the most enjoyable part of the graphic novel. Unlike Watchmen and V for Vendetta, I found the story of From Hell lacking. In Moore’s other works, the stories, however apparently outlandish, always have a deeper social resonance, such as the morality of vigilantism in V for Vendetta, and I expected From Hell to similarly tackle such issues, possibly by meditating on the question of evil. Instead, it relied heavily on the supernatural, evoking Masonic ritual and conspiracy theories to explain the Jack the Ripper murders. As the notes to each chapter suggest, Moore did research the case exhaustively, so the problem isn’t that I find his explanation far-fetched, but rather that graphic novels are an exciting and unique medium which can tell stories in ways like no other art form, and From Hell fails to fully take advantage of the form’s potential.

The swift uplifting rush

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

Do Not Stand at  My Grave and Weep, Mary Elizabeth Frye

poetry