Unlike the lucky students of classicist Madeline Miller, I was never exposed to Homer in my youth. Until I was 60 and writing about Doc Holliday (who read the classics in their original languages), the closest I came to “The Iliad” was watching Brad Pitt in “Troy.”
The term “homeric” can be code for overripe prose, sweeping epic plots and a mob of indistinguishable heroic characters. That pejorative is more aptly applied to florid, opaque translations of Homer. After bogging down in several of those, I had just finished Stephen Mitchell’s propulsive, muscular rendering of “The Iliad” (Free Press, 2011) when Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” arrived.
Read these two books together is my advice. In “The Iliad,” Homer roots Achilles’s wrath in sullenness and injured pride. During the siege of Troy, Agamemnon takes the captive girl Briseis from him, and Achilles sulks in his tent rather than fight for the king who humiliated him and stole his new toy. Deprived of Achilles’s godlike skill in combat, tens of thousands of Greeks die as the price of his honor, but it is the death of his friend Patroclus that truly arouses Achilles’s rage. That loss hurls Achilles back into combat, driven by a grief so overwhelming that it can still stun and move us.
But who was Patroclus? Why did his death so devastate Achilles?
Homer tells us what happened but not why. Miller’s “Song of Achilles” provides that back story, an exegesis that draws the personal and the intimate out of Homer’s virile action adventure. She searched ancient Greek texts for every mention of Patroclus. She found an exile and an outcast and created for us a lonely, isolated child with a streak of appealing sadness. He catches the eye of the golden boy Achilles and grows up beside him, becoming not simply companion and friend, but dearer to Achilles than all the world.
Gradually, “The Song of Achilles” becomes a quiet love story, one so moving that I was reluctant to move on to the war and Homer’s tale of perverted honor and stubborn pride. But Miller segues into that more public story with grace. Her battle scenes are tense and exciting, as the young, half-divine Achilles comes into his own: Aristos Achaion, greatest of Greeks. By the end of the story, she has matured her characters by another 10 years of warfare. It’s beautifully done.
Miller pulls off other equally difficult transitions.
A third of the way in, she eases us from a naturalistic world that feels realistic and familiar to the ancient world of gods and goddesses who mate with mortals to produce the great warrior-heroes of Homer’s story. It’s a gutsy choice.
In “Troy,” you might remember, screenwriter David Benioff told the story of the siege without computer-generated deities, and he subtly suggested how real events might later be interpreted as divinely influenced. (His Achilles was also rendered safely heterosexual, and Patroclus became his “cousin.”)
Miller does no such modern weaseling. The sea nymph Thetis has been raped by a mortal and forced to give birth to Achilles. The utterly human young Patroclus accompanies his uncanny half-divine friend to a mountaintop where the boys are schooled by a centaur. These events seemed real within the context of the novel and reminded me of a remark by Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, that we have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past we called them angels and demons, centaurs and nymphs.
Too often novelists treat the past as though it were Now, But With Hats — plucky, independent women stand up for themselves; slaves talk back and get away with it. Yeah, right. Miller has stripped such modernity from her story. There’s no Freudian psychology, no Enlightenment skepticism about religion, no ironic 21st-century knowingness. Informed by scholarship, her imagination blends seamlessly with incidents from “The Iliad.”
In prose as clean and spare as the driving poetry of Homer, Miller captures the intensity and devotion of adolescent friendship and lets us believe in these long-dead boys for whom sea nymphs and centaurs are not legend but lived reality. In doing so, she will make their names known to yet another generation, deepening and enriching a tale that has been told for 3,000 years.
Russell is the author of the novel “Doc” and is at work on “The Cure For Anger,” about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES
By Madeline Miller
Ecco. 384 pp. $25.99