Thursday, June 21, 2012

Achilles & Patroclus

Madeline Miller won this year's Orange Prize for her book "The Song of Achilles" which I have just finished reading. I know there are criticisms of it, especially that by Daniel Mendelsohn in the NY Times but I found it engaging and entertaining. I recommend it to everyone. Joanna Trollope, chair of the judges for the prize said, ""This is a more than worthy winner - original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her."

Much has been said by the author of finding the right way to express the voice of Patroclus in a lyrical not an epic mode. I think the voice succeeds.



The Iliad, from which the story of Achilles derives, can be dated to 750BCE with elements in it five hundred years older. Since the distinction between myth and history was made only in the 5th C BCE with writers like Herodotus and Thucydides, many people thought that the mythos that made up the Iliad had taken place.

Rewriting stories like that of the Iliad from the Classical World isn't new but when it's done so well that the reader wants to re-read the original, then surely, the re-write has been done well. Madeline Miller talks about giving Patroclus a voice in her writing:

In the past years, I have read some truly stunning ones, including Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and David Malouf’s Ransom. Not one of these authors seeks to supplant Homer, but to engage and illuminate him. They do what adaptation does at its very best: stand brilliantly on its own, while inspiring a fresh look at the original. And there is absolutely nothing lazy about any of it – all those works show how the authors steeped themselves in the source material, and how thoughtfully they approached it. Besides, if I had been thinking straight from the beginning, I would have realised that some of my favourite ancient authors are themselves adapters – Virgil’s Aeneid is based on the Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses draws on everyone from Homer to Virgil himself.

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