The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Some of us knew little about the Iliad and were apprehensive when this book was chosen but we were pleasantly surprised at this moving, well-written story by an author who took ten years to write this, her first novel. One said, ‘I couldn’t put it down.’ Another, that she is a better writer than Mary Renault. (Though the trite phrase’ I am sorry for your loss’ leaps off the page as out of keeping.

The author is primarily an historian so the novel is straightforwardly linear with no modern gimmicks such as flashbacks: a period novel without heavy encumbrances which gives a feeling of what it would be like to be a Bronze Age warrior (and what is like to be a woman, of low status, disposable.)

The first part appeals to those gay men who like coming of age stories, with gradual self-discovery, a feeling of being ‘different’ ands tender, exploratory sex scenes, though this woman writer is a bit coy when it comes to describing ‘the action.’

Some found the interventions by the gods somewhat strange, though in our largely secular society, there are plenty of superstitious people who believe in similar things. The gods are, however, amoral and it is the narrator and gay man, Patroclus, who is the moral one and the healer (cf the shaman in other societies).

Some of us found it odd that Patroclus continues to narrate after his death while others viewed the whole story as having been told by the spirit of Patroclus.

Others wondered about the absence of Achilles’’ heel, though the author points out that, “There is no such thing as a definitive Greek myth.  Examine the tales of any hero and you will find at least half a dozen variations.

“Achilles’ most famous myth—his fatally vulnerable heel—is actually a very late story.  Our earliest account of it is by a Roman author, almost a millennium after the Iliad and the Odyssey were first composed.  During those thousand years a number of other stories popped up to explain Achilles’ seeming invincibility, but the Iliad and Odyssey contain the simplest: he wasn’t really invincible, just extraordinarily gifted in battle.  Since the Iliad and Odyssey were my primary inspiration, and since their interpretation seemed more realistic, this was the version I chose to follow.”  (See her study guide at http://www.madelinemiller.com/find-out-more/readers-guide/

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