The Song of Achilles

Last week I made my radio debut, talking about literary fiction on Fiction Uncovered’s pop-up radio station in Foyles. I admit I was more than a little nervous, mostly because – as many of you readers don’t know – I have quite a silly voice. I often sound more like an excited, posh fourteen-year-old from 1950s Somerset than a cool, calm, collected, terribly literary twenty-eight-and-a-half-year-old Londoner. I also have a tendency to gabble. And my arms and eyebrows flail around expressively. All of which is completely useless for the radio.

And I was anxious as to whether I was sufficiently qualified to talk about contemporary literary fiction. How ghastly if I were to make a hideous and obvious blunder live on air! I mean, yes of course I do read some new literary fiction, but rather a lot of my reading is taken up with lost classics as well. So I decided I had better read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, as it has just won the Orange Prize, so as not to come across as particularly idiotic with my finger miles off the pulse.

I am so pleased that I did! What a fun and brilliantly enjoyable book. Let me say straight away that it is not at all what I expected. I was bracing myself for a heavy classical thing, steeped in poetry, masses of over-my-head references, which would leave me longing for my beloved copy of Gods, Men and Monsters (see this old post) and despairing of my forgetful brain.

Well The Song of Achilles may be a classical story, but it doesn’t presume any knowledge at all. In fact, it’s pretty good at explaining, unobtrusively, little things, such as Menoitiades means Menoitius’s son, or the resonance of taking the pose of supplication before a King. I found the classical setting to be a welcome revisit to dusty corridors of my brain, nudging reminders of Odysseus and Hector, of centaurs and slaves, without needing to fret at not remembering all the details.

What I really love about The Song of Achilles is the fast-paced exciting plot. Reading it feels a bit like reading a teen novel – the Philip Pullman books, The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go ­– rather than anything slow, descriptive and ponderous. The story is essentially a coming-of-age one (yes, my favourite type of story):

Young prince Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus. Peleus’s son Achilles is half-god, fleet of foot, gifted on the lyre, and impossibly handsome with his golden curls. The unlikely pair make firm friends and then become lovers, in spite of the fierce disapproval of Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother. They have adventures together, first in the palace, then on Mount Pelion (with a centaur), then the Island of Scyros, and, last of all, Troy. It’s very gripping. What’s going to happen next, I kept asking myself, so absorbed in the pages that once I even missed my tube stop.

I’m not sure that I found the language particularly beautiful. There aren’t passages that stand out in my memory as lyrical or special, lifted above the rest of it. But the story is told so clearly, holding one’s attention so fast, surely this is a skill in itself – the effective telling of a tale without drawing undue attention to the words that tell it.

Instead of the words, particular ideas and scenes remain stuck in my head. When Achilles decides to go to Troy, the gods, displeased with this oncoming war and all the blood that will be shed, make the wind cease, thus preventing the army from setting sail for battle. It’s such a subtle, clever and effective move. It’s a perfect example of the sideways logic of the Greek myths that I loved as a child – slicing through the Gordian Knot, using thread to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth and a mirror to fight Medusa.

The other thing that stuck with me is that the Trojan War lasted such a long time. I had forgotten the scale of it. The soldiers are there for more than nine years before Achilles fulfils his destiny. Nine whole years! That’s a third of my life so far. The war soon changes from a brief episode into a long extended way of life, complete with routines and festivals. It’s so sad to think of all these soldiers fighting for Greece, while spending such a huge part of their lives in Troy.

Odysseus expresses this right of the book:

I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her… My consolation is that we will be together in the underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.

Ten years without seeing your wife. Ten years of living in a strange land, so far from home.

Just after I’d finished The Song of Achilles, I got an email, out of the blue, from an ex-boyfriend of a very long time ago. I’d heard that he’d become an army doctor and had been in Afghanistan for a while. He said that his father posted him out copies of the Spectator and he’d had a nice surprise when he’d read my new column in it.

It was really odd to think of him out in Afghanistan doing something so serious and reading my silly little articles about books in such an English magazine as the Spectator. And, as it was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of The Song of Achilles.

Patroclus, the narrator, goes to Troy with Achilles, but he soon stops fighting and instead puts to use all the medical training he learnt while up on Mount Pelion with the centaur. The first thing he has to do is remove a splintered arrowhead from a soldier’s shoulder. Then he helps in the medical tent more and more:

Everyone eventually made their way there, if only for smashed toes, or ingrown nails. Even Automedon came, covering the bleeding remnants of a savaged boil with his hand. Men doted on their slave women and brought them to us with swollen bellies. We delivered their children in a steady, squalling stream, then fixed their hurts as they grew older.

And it was not just the common soldiery: in time, I came to know the kings as well. Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax’s acid stomach.

There’s the feeling here of this being life, normal life, like at any doctor’s surgery anywhere. But, of course, this isn’t anywhere; this is Troy. In between the boils and the ingrown toenails, there are embedded arrowheads and spear wounds. It is uncanny to think of normal life existing around the war, worming its way in between the battles.

I suppose there was something of the same feeling when I learned that my ex was reading my little column while tending to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Magazines belong in newsagents, waiting rooms, and crowded tube carriages. They belong to normal life. It’s so strange to think of living out there, on the edges of a war, becoming normal enough to include them.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that the radio programme went very well and I don’t think I made any truly dreadful blunders. However, there was a funny moment before it even began, when they were checking the mic levels and we were each asked to say what we had for breakfast. Of course this isn’t on air, the lady said, at the moment we’re playing a recording of Colm Tóibín.

It was only at the end of the day, when the husband, who had dutifully tuned in, informed me that in the midst of Colm’s beautiful reading, a silly little voice piped up announcing, rather proudly:

I had muesli and apple juice for breakfast. And it was delicious.

My Achilles’ heel.

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5 Responses to “The Song of Achilles”

  1. Mirko Says:

    Its interesting to read about this war/normal life dichotomy. I read somewhere (and heard, and seen on TV), that when troops from modern conflicts are asked the one most fitting characteristic of their experience, they reply – “boredom”….

  2. Susan Ozmore Says:

    I just found your blog through twitter (I followed!) I enjoyed this post very much. I read more non-fiction, but do enjoy well-written historical fiction as well, so I might just have to check out “The Song of Achilles.” Thanks 🙂

  3. emilybooks Says:

    Mirko, that’s interesting – I wonder what books are most popular with troops to stave off the boredom?

    Susan, hello and thanks for the follow. The Song of Achilles really is a brilliant read – hope you enjoy it if you do pick it up.

  4. susanbright Says:

    Congrats on your radio program. That takes a lot of guts! I am almost finished reading The Song of Achilles… and loving it!

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