One of my recent reads is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, winner of the 2012 Orange Prize. This young adult novel is based on the legends of Achilles and the Trojan War, and Miller weaves a story around the often-debated relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus around these myths.
The book was very quick and easy read, and I raced through it in the best part of an afternoon. The compelling backstory probably helped move the story along as most people already know the story of Helen’s seduction and the ensuing Trojan War. Of course, this is a story which is less about a war than it is about destiny, love and honour, perhaps a typical theme in young adults’ novels.
The biggest challenge with writing a novel based upon legends is trying to create a storyline in a fantasy setting which readers will relate to, and I think Miller achieved this so well. The choice of Patroclus as the protagonist meant ultimately it was a story about love, set against the backdrop of war. The social norms of the world, those of family, honour and duty are explained as the story develops, and while the fantasy element of gods, prophecies and mythical beings is obviously unbelievable, Miller wrote her mythical characters with the same level of complexity as her human characters, relating their involvement with their chosen mortals, their internal struggles and the consequences of their wrath.
I think the best thing about this novel is that Miller doesn’t choose to just tell the story of the Trojan War again. She rewrites the narrative, leaving out some of the better known legends such as the Judgement of Paris to take her pick from some lesser known legends more fundamental to the development of the main characters; the human sacrifice of Iphigenia, the hiding of Achilles of Scyros, and the involvement of Thetis in creating Achilles as a hero. Miller even goes so far as to have characters refer to certain common legends about the Trojan War and scoff at them.
Of course, it could be argued that there isn’t any further need for a fictional interpretation of the Trojan War and by ignoring massive parts of legends and stories, that the book loses out on a certain level of complexity. However I would argue that by cutting parts of the story, particularly towards the end of the of the book where it starts to overlap with The Iliad, that it allowed for far greater character development in the exploration of the maternal figure of Briseis, the compassion of Patroclus and his changing relationship with Achilles.
Overall, The Song of Achilles is a good reinterpretation of a set of myths known by most people with the added depth of character development. It should appeal to most young adult readers, particularly those with an interest in fantasy and mythology.
Have you read this book? What did you think?