by Paula Gail Benson
One summer when I was a high school student assisting with Vacation Church School, I was assigned the duty of manning the supply room. This meant that I got to read until a teacher needed something. My perhaps unusual selection was Bernard Evslin’s retelling of The Trojan War. I was captivated by how the author brought to life the ancient gods and mortals, and I imagined how exciting the spectacle would be as a TV ministries featuring a well-known cast of actors.
This year, as summer begins, I find myself enthralled with another retelling of some of those mythological events, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The novel, published in 2012, after Miller had worked on it for ten years, has been widely praised, and it won the Orange Prize for fiction.
Miller first became fascinated with Achilles’ story as a child when her mother read it to her. She grew up in Philadelphia, received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University. She also studied at Yale School of Drama, learning how to adapt the classic texts for modern audiences.
She tells the story from the viewpoint of Patroculus, Achilles’ chosen closest companion. Next to Achilles’ legendary achievements, Patroculus seems to be a mere helpmate and encourager. Yet, in Miller’s telling, Patroculus’s admiration for Achilles becomes the catalyst for so much that happens in the hero’s life. Watching the characters’ growth is a major draw to the narrative’s appeal. At one point, they pass each other, as Patroculus becomes stronger and more heroic in his own right.
Part of any retelling of any popular tale is determining how to keep it interesting for the audience that knows the ending. Miller is incredibly adept at immersing the reader in a new world dominated by connections to the environment. Her descriptions incorporate all sensory perceptions as they reference trees, water, foods, and cultures.
Each character is intricately drawn. At the beginning, Patroculus is a child -- ineffectual, dismissed, and used. His own crisis comes when he accidentally kills a playmate and is exiled by his father. He enters Achilles’ father’s kingdom where unwanted boys are fostered, potentially building an army, for which Patroculus is the most unlikely candidate. Eventually, troops from that island join Achilles and Patroculus at Troy as the Myrmidons or “ant men.”
A trajectory that is particularly fascinating is watching how Achilles moves from being the golden boy to becoming a war machine in search of reputation alone while Patroculus develops wisdom and compassion, unconsciously becoming the best of the Myrmidons who must fall before Achilles is defeated.
Miller chooses to portray the relationship between Achilles and Paroculus as a physical one. It’s a modern choice that is rooted in some ancient texts and critical analyses.
Already, I’ve begun her new work, Circe, a fascinating second book. Like Patroculus, Circe is an outcast; however, her life is in exile, rather than in the midst of wartime adventures. Circe sits on her island and hears stories of the outside world from Hermes and Odysseus. Yet, Miller keeps my attention by making me care about this immortal who is consumed by curiosity about mortals.