Friday, December 31, 2021

Publication: Chapter five of the story of Vortigern

The story of Vortigern continues. Chapter five is now up on the Brazen Head, and can be read at the link below.

While Vortigern's story might have an historical basis, this chapter is the first major slide from history as we might understand it to a narrative that feels more like a folk tale.

The story of Vortigern is the second of three stories taken from Laȝamon's late 12th Century 'Brut'. The first story was published as A Presentment of Englishry, by Shearsman books.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Who was King Arthur's father #2

The conventional answer is Uther Pendragon. But who was he and where did his story come from?

Early Welsh poetry and prose is a subject area where Angles should fear to tread. It is the province of specialists; I’m not one. 


But if we’re looking for the origin of Uther Pendragon then we have to go there. 

There are four broad possibilities. 



1)    Uther Pendragon was always Arthur’s father. This is so unlikely I’m just putting it here to be thorough.

2)    Geoffrey invented him. (This is also highly unlikely.)

3)    Uther is the result of a mis-translation. Either deliberate or otherwise.

4)    An Uther Pendragon existed in the Welsh Arthurian stories but may not have been Arthur’s Father. Geoffrey made the link, possibly due to option three.



The first option is so unlikely I won’t spend any time on it. The second could not be proven one way or the other.  


3) The Idea that Uther might be the result of a mistranslation or creative misunderstanding was floated by Perry. 


    ‘As to Uther Pendragon, whom Geoffrey credits with the begetting of Arthur, opinion is             divided as to whether there was a tradition about him or whether his name grew out of a             misunderstanding of the Welsh uthr, ‘terrible’. ‘


As an adjective, Uthr (Uthir) means: Fearful, dreadful, awful, terrible. tremendous, mighty, overbearing, cruel, wonderful, wondrous, astonishing, excellent. (GPC)


Generally in Welsh the adjective follows the noun it qualifies (not always, generally) so the meaning of something like Arthur mab uthr could be Arthur the terrible/wondrous child if uthr was read as an adjective or Arthur child/son of Uthr if uthr was read or mistaken for a proper noun.


In the world of the poems, such a misunderstanding would be easy. You can see this is something like the poem Mi a Wun


Mi a wum lle llas llachev
mab Arthur, uthir ig kertev

Ban yryeint brein arc rev


Nerys Ann Jones translates this as:


I have been where Llachau was slain

Son of Arthur, terrible in song

Where ravens rushed to gore [or Croaked on Gore]


As she says, it is difficult to know whether the conventional praise uthir ig kertev applies to father son or both. But she thinks it is unlikely uthir here refers to Arthur’s father. She writes; ‘Oliver Padel (personal correspondence) wonders whether Geoffrey of Monmouth might possibly have invented Arthur’s patronym from some phrase such as this.’ 


However, while I like this option, and keeping in mind the nightmare of dating these early references, an Uthur appears fully fledged as Uthir Pendragon in the poem Pa Gur and in Triad 28. 

He’s not named as Arthur’s father in either. 

In Pa Gur, one of the characters with Arthur is identified as:


Mabon, son of Modron,

The servant of Uthir Pendragon.


He also appears in triad 28.


Triad 28

Three great enchantments of the Island of Britain: 

The enchantment of Math son of Mathonwy (which he taught to Gwydion Son of Don) and the enchantment of Uthyr Pendragon (which he taught to Menw son of Teirgwaedd) and the enchantment of Gwythelyn the Dwarf which he taught to Coll son of Collfrewy his nephew.)


So against the idea that Geoffrey misunderstood or just seized on an idea, can be set Rachel’s Bromwich’s observation: ‘These references [to an early Uthur/Uthr/Uthyr/Uthir], taken together show that Uthyr was known in the pre-Geoffrey Arthurian tradition but they do not prove that, prior to HRB, he was known as Arthur’s father.’  p513


Bromwich also pointed out that in the story Culuwch and Olwen, Menw m. Teirgwaedd is distinguished as a shapeshifter and speculates that Uther’s ‘enchantment’ may have been shapeshifting. 


This in turn opens yet another possibility that the shape shifting conception story may have existed before Geoffrey, and the role of Merlin in Arthur’s conception is Geoffrey’s addition. 


However, if Geoffrey took an Uthur Pendragon and made him Arthur’s father, he seems to have misunderstood ‘Pendragon’. As we shall see he takes it literarily as ‘Head of the Dragon’ or ‘Dragon’s Head’…Bromwich was convinced that it would more likely have been ‘foremost leader’ or ‘chief of the warriors’. Dragon/draig appear in the early poetry as an accepted euphemism for ‘warriors’. 


So, with mind’s spinning joyfully, we can move onto firmer ground and the story of Uther as it appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

(See previous post on this topic re references)

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner

 Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.


I have been rereading this little book with great pleasure for some weeks. My admiration for Alan Garner’s writing, see here,  is undiminished, and remains just this side of idolatry. 


But I’ve also been reading reactions to Treacle Walker. There’s a lot of discussion about meaning, and readers are off down the rabbit hole to learn about Bog Bodies and Knockout comics, folk beliefs about cuckoos and bone whistles, as they exist outside the story.


What does it mean? The question we learn in school. You read the book, or the poem, or the play, and someone asks you ‘what does it mean?’ and you have to provide a neat answer. 


It’s a linear, logical process, and it produces a reductive answer. Once you’ve answered the question you’ve made the story redundant. 


It’s one way of approaching a book, useful in a classroom where teachers have to assess language skills.


Two thoughts. 


If the story can only be understood after extensive research into a wide body of (possibly infinite) external information, then isn’t that proof the story fails as communication? By all means go and learn about Rag and Bone men, or comics and their essential role in teaching generations how to read. That won’t ‘explain’ the story.


Secondly: a more important question in terms of storytelling, rather than ‘what does this mean?’: ‘What does the story do to you, the reader?’


Between the first word and the last, there’s a space for thinking through and in language in a way that is unique to stories. Treacle Walker is not a memoir or an essay. It doesn't have to deliver a simple message that can be wrapped up in a clever summary. 

It doesn’t matter if you read every Knockout comic or know everything there is to know about Bog Bodies. It doesn’t matter if you’re not old enough to remember rag and bone men. 


What matters is what those images and phrases and individual words are doing for you, as reader, between the beginning and end of the story as you read it. Then in its afterlife in your head after you’ve finished reading. There is no exam; no right answer, and you don’t have impose your response on anyone else, or have theirs imposed on you.


The story means itself. Let it come to you. Have the humility to trust the story teller. It may not work for you. That’s fine. That says something about you, not the story.


But If you can reduce its meaning to a couple of neat sentences, it isn’t much of a story.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Green Knight. (Film). A review of sorts


As someone who has opinionated about the depressing quality of filmed versions of Medieval stories, the hype surrounding The Green Knight was certainly exciting: art house meets medieval poetry. 
Reviews were very positive, I think I read two five star reviews in the Guardian alone. 
A medieval heart of darkness, a journey into the wilderness to confront the limitations of an ideology. They didn't say that, that's one way of thinking about the poem. Imagine what a young Herzog could have done with it.
So I watched the film twice as soon as it appeared on whichever streaming service it appeared on.

I liked King Arthur's accent.

Who was King Arthur's Father #1

 We all know the answer is 'Uther Pendragon'. 

So the stories of Uther Pendragon. In several parts.


Part one. Genesis.


While it’s just possible that the character of ‘Vortigern’ can be traced back to an historical person, it does seem most unlikely that Uther Pendragon is anything other than a fiction. 

So before tracing his career through the legendary history from Geoffrey to Laȝamon, down the rabbit hole we go for any signs of an origin for his story.


Did Geoffrey invent Uther; was he already Arthur’s father in the tradition; or were there stories circulating about an Uther which he was able to use? 


The impact of The History of the Kings of Britain on The Legendary History, and the story of King Arthur in particular, is difficult to underestimate. The more one considers Geoffrey and his book, the more extraordinary his achievement becomes. But while the argument over how much he borrowed and how much he invented can seem academic in the worst sense of that word, it’s a crucial for anyone trying to discern which stories pre- existed his work.


For those interested in ‘the native tradition’, whether the source pre or post-dates Geoffrey’s work is a crucial issue. But as Patrick Sims-Williams has written, for the early Arthurian poems; ‘it is rarely possible to know whether an Arthurian poem is earlier or later than Geoffrey of Monmouth.’ 


It is probably undeniable that stories about an Arthur were circulating in Wales long before Geoffrey, possibly even before Nennius. If Pa wr yw'r porthor  or Culhwch and Olwen are anything to go by, Arthur was camped securely in the world of folk tales. But as Oliver Padel pointed out, you can tell stories about a hero and his associates without bothering with his birth, or for that matter his biography. 


Padel also pointed out that: ‘Arthur is not fitted into the historical pattern of rulers’ pedigrees. He is consistently absent from the early Welsh Genealogies and is never given a patronym in the earliest Welsh texts: in lacking this attribute he stands in notable contrast with the other heroes of the Welsh Triads.’


So where did Uther come from? 


Geoffrey’s work has a basic pattern: A died, B came to the throne, ruled, then died and was succeeded by C. This means that to be a legitimate ruler in the sequence, Arthur has to have a pedigree. At the very least he has to have a royal father who has to precede him in the sequence and who must rule over Britain before him. This demand of the genre Geoffrey used changes everything. The hero now needs a biography, and he needs a father. 


Geoffrey identifies this character as Uther Pendragon. 


Did Geoffrey invent Uther; was he already Arthur’s father in the tradition; or were there stories circulating about an Uther which he was able to use? 

In the next post, the delightful possibility that Uther was created by a translation error. 

(Bibliography at the end of the last post in this sequence) 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Gododdin by Gillian Clarke (Faber 2021) A Review of sorts

The Gododdin. Lament for the Fallen.
 A Version by Gillian Clarke. (Faber 2021)

(Book includes an introduction by the poet, and the Welsh and English texts on facing pages.)


Soldiers stormed, fired up by mead,

Mynyddawg’s men, as one they died.

Famous in the war, they paid

For all night feasting with their lives.


Caradog. Madog, Pwyll and Ieuan,

Gwgon, Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynfan,

Steel-armed Peredur,

Aeddan and Gwawrddur.

Shield-Shattered fighters slew and were slain.

Not one of them came home again.



Y Gododdin may be the ‘oldest surviving British poem’. You can split hairs and call it ‘The earliest Scottish’ or ‘The earliest Welsh’ but those terms would be anachronistic. Although only surviving in a manuscript from the 13th century, it purports to be the work of Aneirin, who may have lived sometime around the end of the 6th, the same time as Taliesin. It is a collection of individual poems ‘Gorchenau’ celebrating the deaths of men in a battle that may have been fought on an unknown date in a place that is often identified as modern Catterick.


Historically there’s a lot of ifs buts and maybes. 


There is no narrative, but the ‘background story’ can be pieced together. Mynyddawg the Generous, the Luxurious, the Magnificent, gathered an army by feasting it for a year. At the end of the year 300 or three hundred and thirty three rode south from modern Edinburg and were slaughtered. Only one man, the poet, survived the disaster. Or perhaps three men. And the poet. Or three men including the poet. You could be cynical and say this is the foundation text for the great British habit of celebrating its military disasters.


Establishing a text has taxed the skills of some of the most prominent students of early Welsh. Anyone interested in the difficulties should try Kenneth Jackson’s The Gododdin (Edinburgh University Press, 1969), in which he scrupulously provided a literal reading of the poems, acknowledging where he could not provide either a reading of the text or a translation of what he’d read.


The original manuscript is difficult to decipher, once deciphered the language itself is hard to read, archaic in places. What, if any, of the text can be reliably dated back to Aneirin is a matter for scholarly debate. This may seem academic but what Clarke calls the ‘earliest known reference to Arthur’ is only ‘the earliest reference’ if that particular line can be dated with confidence. 


While we should be grateful for all this scholarly attention, without it there would be little chance of reading the poem, it tends to reduce the poems to a potential, but highly problematic, historical source which might date to a period where there is an astonishing scarcity of insular texts.


If you’re not interested in the history, why bother? The first answer is obvious if you ever have  the chance to hear Y Gododdin read by a native welsh speaker. If poetry is words organised to pattern sound, or patterned sound organising words, Y Gododdin is a marvel.  


The experience of reading the poem takes the reader out of modern assumptions about poetry, poet and poem. The Gododdin is a public poem, designed to be recited to an audience. The Bard’s role here is to celebrate the dead, to record for posterity that these men earned their mead. 


In her introduction, Gillian Clarke shows she is aware of all the scholarly debates but sets them to one side, and approaches the poem as poem. This presents its own problems, of which she is also very aware. The languages and poetics are so different that any attempt to copy Welsh poetics into English tends to be unimpressive. It’s as though the high stepping, graceful Welsh pony has suddenly become an arthritic elephant with indigestion. Clark successfully avoids this. The book is very carefully titled ‘A version’, perhaps to ward off the attention of the small group of experts who could challenge the literal rendering of her work, and in her introduction she claims her aim was to produce a version which works in English. I think she has succeeded. 


Compare Jackson’s consciously literal version of these lines:


And unless one had been well-nourished it was not possible to withstand Cadfannan’s blow. (Jackson)


With Clarke’s and then with Clancy’s.


Armour and shield could not save them.

None but the nourished fight Cadfannan (Clarke p.9)


None could, on mead he was nourished,

Ward of the stroke of Cadfannan. (Clancy p 34)


So if you want an English translation of the Gododdin, this is it. It’s not literal, but it sings in English. If you’re curious what a poem written over a thousand years ago might look like, or you want to read a version of a poem that was important to David Jones and Basil Bunting, Clark’s version is the one to read. (There are others, but they are becoming impossible to obtain. And while we’re at it, Bunting’s ‘I heard Aneirin Number the dead’ passage in Briggflats is probably the neatest introduction to the poem you’ll find.)




Reading from beginning to end is a strange experience. The names blur, the verses blur, this is not the rhetorical device of repetition with variation, this reflects the fact that the options the poet’s culture had for praise were limited. X was brave, X was generous, X fought like an animal, X died.


The world evoked is also strange. The highest praise this culture could offer a man was to say he was eager for battle, a ferocious, exuberant, merciless killer, and he died slaughtering his enemies. And while my admiration for the translation should now be obvious, I’m not so impressed with the packaging. 


I may be in a diminishing minority, but I prefer the past plain. (or as plain as it can be). I don’t want it softened or censored. 


The book is subtitled ‘A Lament for the Fallen’ and the blurb tells us that ‘Clarke animates this historical epic with a modern musicality, making it live in the language of today and underscoring, that, in a world still beset by the misery of war, Aneirin’s lamentation is not done.’


From one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers the sloppy description of the poems as an epic is surprising. But what do the words ‘Lament’ and  ‘The Fallen’ evoke for you? A minute’s silence on Armistice day, the bugler playing the last post, the solemn laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and those seemingly endless rows of crosses in France? If you’re Australian or a New Zealander, the dawn service on Anzac day?  


To present The Gododdin as a lament is to misrepresent the poem. There are occasionally verse that express sadness, but there are very few and they are swamped by the rest of the poems. The majority of verses are celebrations of the violent deaths of exuberant killers. 


To present this as ‘a lament’ is to soften it, to use a loaded phrase like ‘the fallen’ is to associate these dark age killers with the volunteers and conscripts of the first world war or the professional soldiers of the twentieth and twenty first century. It seems like an attempt to make Y Gododdin more acceptable, more ‘relevant’ to a modern reader who obviously lacks the imagination or curiosity or willingness to encounter the past in all its confronting strangeness. 


Medieval Welsh could do laments. In the poems of the Llwyarch Hen cycle, or the poems in Canu Heledd, the personal cost of warfare is made obvious. Heledd laments the death of her bothers:


The hall of Cyndyllan is dark tonight

Without a fire, without a bed

I will weep and be silent. 


But is this a lament?


Flaunting a brooch, he rode ahead,

Warrior, princely leader,

Killed five times fifty with his sword.

Two thousand men of Deifr and Brynaich’s men

Died in an hour in mire and mud and blood.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.

Before his burial, the field lay bleeding.

In the hall where mead flowed free

the poet will praise Hyfaidd Hir.


The Gododdin is the lie one generation told the next. Be a ferocious warrior, disdain the soft things in life, be eager for battle, be happy to die knowing your name will live on forever in the poets’ words. (Ironically of three hundred, not all are remembered with their own verse.)


In the context of its time it was a necessary lie. These men are not fighting for creed, country or ideology. They are fighting for stuff; to protect their Lord’s boundaries, cattle, and wealth or to steal another Lord’s land, cattle, and wealth. 


At a time when the elite were armed and combat of one sort or another was a part of life, you want your young men to believe the lie. Because if your young men say, well, actually, no, we’d rather not fight, there are better to things to do, then you’re going to be raided, enslaved, or killed. And you’re not going to inspire the next generation if you tell them the reality of being stabbed and hacked and bleeding out on a battle field, or losing consciousness as the ravens start on your eyeballs. 


The poet wants his audience to believe that the heroes of the previous generation sought death in battle in the hope that their dying was worth a song. In reality, they risked death or injury in battle because that’s what men of their class did to earn stuff to improve their lifestyle. Their goal was to die of old age, surrounded by friends and family in relative prosperity. 


If they had all known they were all going to die at Catraeth, they might have preferred to stay at home.


Attempting to domesticate the past so it can be packaged to a modern audience might make sense to the marketing agency, but it is a trendy mistake. It’s the flip side of cancel culture. Neither wants to deal with the past as it was. 


The Gododdin is a relic from a very different world.


Sooner meat for the wolf than to his wedding.

Sooner carrion for the crow than priest-blessing.


Imagine saying this of a young man today? We criminalise or professionalise our killers. If this was true of Hyfaidd Hir, then he would be a disturbed, disturbing personality in our society. Pretending he is one of the ‘fallen’ like the volunteers on the Somme, who left their daily lives to become ‘soldiers for the duration’ is to misrepresent him and his culture and the soldiers on the Somme. 


The past, especially the early medieval past, should knock us back on our heels. Reading The Gododdin should not be a comfortable experience. And on the recoil, we should be thinking  that if the Aneirin’s of the world are ‘still singing’ their lie, then it’s about time they shut up. 


Gillian Clarke’s excellent translation deserved better packaging. 


 (And one minor quibble. It’s a bonus to have an easily available Welsh text of the poem, but there needed to be a note explaining how the editors arrived at this particular version of text.)

Thursday, October 14, 2021

What does it mean to 'believe a story'? Vortigern, Fiction, History 3/3

This is the third post. History and Fiction have been dealt with in the previous two. 

If Layamon isn’t writing ‘History’ or ‘Fiction’ in the modern sense, what was he doing? Or, to reframe the question, how did the original audience ‘receive’ his text. There’s no way of answering that definitely, not least because we don’t know who that original audience was, but asking it will lead us to some interesting places.  

Most conscious reading is based on learnt reading practices. You learn that ‘History’ is different to ‘Fiction’ and there is an assumption that they will be ‘read’ differently. 


When you read the bizarre happens at the funeral of William 1st, or the Angevin’s victory at the second battle of Lincoln, and you read them in a modern history book, you should assume they did happen. Credibility should not be an issue. Whether it sounds improbable to you as reader is irrelevant. (Or should be, but that’s a different matter.)


When you read Lord of the Rings, you ‘believe’ in the story world while you’re reading, but afterwards, unless you are disturbed or unbalanced, you know there are no Hobbits and never were. Tolkien was writing fiction; he invented them. Modern Fiction is an elaborate form of socially sanctioned lying. 


Take out the safety rails of modern genre, and it becomes far more complicated.


What does it mean to ‘believe a story’? 


A long time ago, Nancy Partner wrote ‘Serious Entertainments’ and pointed out that the dividing line between what we call Medieval Romance and the History of the Chroniclers was so thin that apparently the best educated people could not distinguish truth from false hood or were prepared to accept quantities of complicated, distant or unusual information on the assurance of one informant who might have got their information second hand….’Worst of all, [they] had a sense of probability that apparently excluded nothing’ (Partner, p. 185).


This is a generalisation and like all generalisations isn’t completely true, if it were, William of Malmsbury and Gerald of Wales’ distrust of Geoffrey of Monmouth would be impossible. And the recent pandemic has proven the same description could be applied to sections of the modern community. 


But my question is, what does  ‘accept’ mean in this context? 


There are certainly incidents in the Brut which must have seemed credible to the Audience because they echoed events which would have been comfortably familiar. 


At the start of the Brut, Brutus Kills his father in a hunting accident. That would have rung a bell with some of the original audience who remembered the death of William Rufus.


Civil wars, rebellious royal sons and fractious royal brothers? If Lawman is writing at the end of the twelfth century, every King of England from William 1st to King John had either been involved in the first or could be described as either or both of the second and third. It’s difficult not to read the Brut as a sly commentary on the Angevins. It takes a conscious effort to pull back from that thought and remember Geoffrey set these stories rolling in 1130.


But then take all the Kings from Alfred to John, would any one of them have fallen for Hengist’s bulls hide trick? (see previous post). Name one of those Kings who is tricked in a similar way?


Up to the end of the twelfth century, name an English or Norman King who puts his kingdom in jeopardy or his rule in danger, not just to satisfy his lust for a single individual but to go so far as to allow that individual’s family to dominate him. (It does happen, but much later). Yet this is the central, repeated story in the Brut. 


The nearest relevant example I can think of is King John, whose marriage to Isabel of Angouleme was politically disastrous. But even if he was swept off his feet by her beauty, her lands were equally attractive. The marriage wasn’t a disaster in itself. John’s treatment of Hugh of Lusignan, who was betrothed to her, was thoughtless, heavy handed and inept. But ironically for this discussion, that seems to have been in keeping with what we know of John’s character. Since that marriage didn’t happen until 1200 it can’t have been a model for the story. 


The assumption seems to be that the audience ‘believed’ these stories, the way Layamon ‘believed’ a note saying his Bishop was arriving tomorrow to visit to check up on his behaviour as Parish Priest, or news that the French had landed and were marching on London.  


But Layamon’s audience, if it were local, would remember stories about the Anarchy, or the Civil wars that rumbled on from Henry II’s reign. Some of them might have participated. Did they believe that a body with fifteen wounds, the smallest of which you could put your hand into, would survive? 


Or to take an earlier example, Nennius records that at the battle of Badon, nine hundred and sixty men of the enemy were killed by Arthur, in a single charge, and ‘no one laid them low but he alone’. Did anyone ‘believe’ that? Did the audience ‘translate’ it to ‘Arthur killed a lot of people’? Because otherwise no one apparently stopped and worked out the maths? (10 hours of daylight? 600 minutes? 1.6 deaths every minute non-stop for ten hours? That’s an impressive ‘single charge’.)   


Or, do we need to accept that a response to a story is never as straight forward as ‘accepting’ or ‘believing’ might imply.  


These stories exist in a world of storytelling which exists ‘over there’, where, for the length of the story, the audience might ‘believe’ the way some people entertain the existence of Hobbits or Aliens while reading.


There’s an obvious gap between what people knew and recognised as lived experience, and what people were willing to entertain within a story. But whether or not they ‘believed’ it, or ‘accepted it as factual’ is a different question.  


Which raises all sorts of problems for someone trying to retell it. And all kinds of interesting suggestions about how the legendary history made sense of the past for the people who used it. 


It has serious implications for the dubious idea that you can read ‘values attitudes and beliefs’ straight from a fictive text. Or that studying ‘representations’ in fictive texts is a meaningful and straightforward activity which reveals truths about the author and original audience. 

And it also suggests, perhaps, that reader response theory might not be transhistorical but bound to the learnt reading practices of the twentieth century. 


Who said Medieval Lit was dull? 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Retelling stories: The song of Achilles, by Madeline Millar.

Looking aslant at how other people retell famous stories  #2.  It's what Eliot called workshop criticism. Not so much 'reviewing' in this case as using some one else's work to critique your own and hopefully avoiding what another critic called 'a veiled self-indictment'. 

Eliot's presence is not mere name dropping; The Song of Achilles evokes Eliot's 'Mr. Pound's hell is a hell for other people.' which was his criticism of Pound's Hell Cantos.

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

I suspect that this book and Barker's 'The Silence of the Girls' (see previous post) prove that retelling some stories kills them.

Stripped to its bare bones, The Iliad is the story of two brutal thugs fighting over a brutalised girl in the tenth year of a brutal war that has been watched over by Gods who would look immature in a kindergarten. The poem works because of what it does with that material, and at least in translation, seems fully aware of both the terror and attraction of war, the complexity of its characters, and the terrible human cost of 'heroism'. Heroic poetry might pretend to be realistic reporting from the front line, but it never was. Even Homer notes his heroes belonged to a past which dwarfs his present. 

I don't pretend to know The Iliad that well. I only read the whole thing recently when I was doing research for A Presentment of Englishry and realised the characters in the Brut would have the stories from the Iliad and the Aeneid in their bones.  

I'd always assumed Achilles and Patroclus were lovers but that didn't stop Achilles from using Briseis as his mattress. He's not nice or likeable in any way; he's terrifying in the extremes of his behaviour.  And while Patroclus, who I thought was the older of the two, showed some compassion for his wounded comrades, one of the most memorable images in all its gallery of graphic slaughter is this one:


Patroclus rising beside him stabbed his right jawbone

ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard

he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot rail

hoisted, dragged the Trojan out as an angler perched

on a jutting rock ledge drags some fish from the sea

some noble catch, with line and glittering bronze hook.

So with a spear Patroclus gaffed him off his car,

his mouth gaping round the glittering point

and flipped him down facefirst

dead as he fell, his life breath blown away. (trans Robert Fagles)


Visualise that image. 

Or in Christopher Logue's version:

As easily as later men/ Disengage a sardine from a tin.

which is so good. 

Retell the Iliad, or any famous or well-known story, and the original characters and their actions are going to be ghosting in the background.   

‘The Song of Achilles’ seems to be split in two. In the first half Thetis and Chiron are memorable creations and Miller evokes the god shadowed world of palace culture, even if at times the narrator seems to see his own culture from the outside.   


The first half sets up an intriguing tension its source. In Book 16 of the poem, Patroclus will fight heroically and die trying to scale the walls of Troy, alone. He's so successful he's only stopped by Apollo. If he doesn’t learn how to fight, how will he slaughter so many Trojans, including Zeus’ son? How will he narrate his own death; will the story go on from there? Is he already dead and telling the story in retrospect? Who is he telling this story to? Why is he telling the story? The tension created by these questions are part of the strength of the first half of the book.


Then the narrative moves to Troy and it’s as though we’re suddenly in a version of the Hunger Games or Divergent. The Trojan war sounds like an fun adventure, inconvenient at times but mostly picnics and swims and burgeoning relationships, with happy kind hearted work healing  the wounded and sick. If you can ignore the nasty people in your team, it’s all very nice. 

Thetis spoils things a bit as the disproving adult but our sympathies are not with her. It's not entirely clear why she disproves of Patroclus, or why Achilles loves him. Or in what particular way Achilles is admirable or loveable as a person? Agamemnon is once again reduced to a cardboard cut out no army would follow.   

The only thing that matters is that Achilles doesn’t kill Hector, because if he does, Achilles will die soon after and that would make Patroclus sad. It doesn't seem a good reason to make a war last ten years. It seems almost intolerably selfish. 


As the quote above suggests, ‘Homer’ never flinched from the nastiness of combat. Deaths tend to be detailed and rarely if ever anonymous. There was nothing nice about the Trojan war.


But this story doesn’t just flinch, it looks away. 


The war takes place ‘over there’. To make Patroclus and Achilles into fictional heroes for current fashions, so much of the story has to be reworked. Put a modern sensibility down in the Trojan war, the war would be intolerable. The killing is up close and personal, women are treated as sex toys. The heroes of the poem would be dysfunctional in modern society. Make the Trojan war tolerable for a modern reader, and you do strange things to the war. 


Even when Patroclus is slaughtering Trojans in his final day, (having only killed one person, by accident, in the whole book) it’s not really him that’s doing it. He might be killing Trojan after Trojan (with one exception they are anonymous) but he avoids responsibility. He’s just getting carried away; maybe it’s the armour that’s doing it. He's a nice boy really and gaffing someone off a cart and laughing at someone's death throes is not our boy. Achilles kills huge numbers but they are a test of his skill and anonymous. He kills with the indifference of a WW1 machine gunner cutting down faceless rows of enemy soldiers at a distance. Day after day.


The reworking of Briseis is probably the strangest shift in the story. Taking away the nastiness of the original allows our heroes to be kind and considerate, and allows Patroclus to have a friend in the camp and a potential wife. They have picnics together while everyone else is off fighting. You know you’ve entered a weird version of the story when Patroclus and Achilles are ’saving’ captured Trojan women. They give them their own tent, teach them Greek, and some find husbands eventually amongst the Greeks and that’s nice for them, isn’t it. 


Briseis has a crush on P. But P is faithful to A. And then you read: ‘Achilles stayed away. He knew they [the captured women] had seen him killing their brothers, lovers and fathers. Some things could not be forgiven’. (219) Why would he want their forgiveness? Or care? He is happy for Greeks to die en masse to make a point about his honour, or to kill anonymous Trojans en masse cos that’s his day job, but he doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of some captive women? What kind of disconnected person is he? 


P’s ‘saving of Briseis’ after she has been seized by Agamemnon is very strange. He tells Agamemnon that if he has sex with her, Achilles will be justified in killing him. And in fact it's a set up and this is Achilles’ plan. And...I almost gave up. But I didn’t. 

The famous 'Rage of Achilles' now reads like the peevishness of a spoilt adolescent, who runs to his mummy when things aren't going his way. The scene with Priam, which is one of the reasons you read the Iliad, is not that important to our narrator. Despite the constant reminder that he is 'half God', Achilles, stripped of his outrageous extravagance, becomes...? 


Our heroes are like well-behaved adolescents on a school camp. The war is a picnic interrupted by messy injuries to other people. Diomedes and Ajax and the others are brutal. But they are other. There are rapes in the camp. But they are committed by others.  The death of Briseis and the fall of Troy are brought about by Achilles' twelve year old son who is a card board cut out of a nasty piece of work. Bad people do the bad things. Hell is a place for other people.

And at the end the lovers die happily ever after and are reunited in Hades. Which if it's anything like the place Odysseus visits later on, isn't really the happy ending it pretends to be.

Overall, there's a tension in the story between the realised god haunted world of Ancient Greece, and the modern sensibility of the one dimensional central characters during the war. The tension splits the book in two halves. 

I wonder if this is symptomatic of a contemporary trend in treating the distant past. It seems to belong with the idea that Vikings were sexy. And perhaps any kind of moral ambiguity or complexity isn't possible in fiction any more. 

This isn't meant to be a review of The Song of Achilles. It's a fantasy novel with a pre fabricated setting. And if you like adolescent fantasy novels, this is a well-written one. But I wonder if anything is gained by setting your fantasy in the distant past if you're going to transport modern characters and modern sensibilities back into that setting, because so much gets lost.