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.


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