The Song of Achilles is the literary equivalent of a cover song. The original version, an epic poem set during the Trojan war, was penned by Homer somewhere around the 8th Century BC and is titled The Iliad. As cover stories go, it was always going to be a tough interpretation to pull off at all, let alone well. The Iliad, so I’ve learned, is one of the oldest, most respected, and much loved works of Western Literature; in attempting to retell it, Madeline Miller risked doing what Limp Bizkit did to The Who’s classic 70s hit “Behind Blue Eyes”.
There are certainly some who believe she failed just as miserably in her efforts as those synthetic nasties who can’t spell. Daniel Mendelsohn’s review, for example, reads like a catalogue of insults Ms Miller directed at him personally. Clearly, for some, if you ‘aint got the guitar solo, you ‘aint got nuthin’. Then there are those, like me, whose knowledge of classic literature is derived almost entirely from the vast vessel that is Hollywood’s spin on every great story ever told. This would no doubt be a scandal to aforementioned Daniel, but sadly, not all of us are either a) so fortunate to receive a private school education b) geeky or time-rich enough to have borrowed such books from the library of our own accord or c) confident enough that a 5 year degree studying the classics at University would result in a job that actually put bread on the table.
So lucky me, I got to dive into Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel with absolutely no baggage. It is the story of Achilles as narrated from the grave by Patroclus. These two were childhood companions in the court of King Peleus; Achilles the favoured son, destined in prophecy to become the Greatest of the Greeks, Patroclus a shamed exile from a neighbouring kingdom. Their friendship developed into a deep romantic attachment that would endure and survive despite parental interference, infidelity, politics and a decade of war. It is a love story as engrossing as anything anyone can conjure all these centuries later, and that’s not just because the bar has been set 50 Shades too low.
But love cannot compete with destiny. When Achilles is dishonoured by the arrogant Commander-in-Chief, Agamemnon, he refuses to return to the battlefield. Without Achilles, the Greeks cannot hope to win the war. In the following days and weeks the army is relentlessly pushed back towards the sea, and as their compatriots are buried in their hundreds every day, Agamemnon offers Achilles a face-saving truce. But Achilles will not concede to anything less than a full and public apology, even when Patroclus appeals to Achilles to forego his pride. Patroclus’ intercession is as much for the sake of the men as it is for Briseis, the woman over whom the fallout was caused. When it is clear that Achilles will not budge, Patroclus takes matters into his own hands, with predictably devastating consequences.
If liberties were taken by Ms Miller, they did not bruise or sully my conception of anything I already treasured, being as I am completely new to this story. It did, however, pique my interest sufficiently to wonder not only “what happened next?”, but more significantly, how this story was depicted in Homer’s original. In other words, I was drawn to the source. After squeezing every last word out of the lengthy passages on Greek Mythology in Wikipedia, and taking in the further reading recommendations offered by the ever reliable Lisa Hill, I realised there was nothing else for it. Book Depository, The Iliad = add to cart. I need to read this sucker for myself.
That’s the thing about adapting artistic works, whether it’s taking the lyrics and changing the tune, or turning a book into a film: it’s not an attempt to broadside the original so much as an opportunity to discover it anew. Sure, mistakes are made – if you can call Brad Pitt in a breast plate a mistake (certainly there’s no argument that Halle Berre’s appearance in Limp Bizkit’s video was a mistake), but what greater compliment can you give ancient texts and songs by rockers who are now in rockers, than to say – not “this was relevant” – but this is still relevant”.