The Song of Achilles
There is something extraordinary that a name like Achilles might be known some 4,000 years after he might have lived. I feel like Greek myth has always been around me, names and stories littered through culture, geography and even anatomy. I have never really felt myself drawn to it, however.
For the tales to have survived this long they surely must be timeless, but too often I find the language dated and alienating. Worse, I have come to associate classics with a particular kind of British snobbery. One more interested in revering ancient paragons than trying to improve the lives of present day mortals.
However last year I had strayed into reading Stephen Fry’s Mythos, which did a great deal to blow away dust and cobwebs from my picture of these legends. From there I read Circe, curious to see how she might provide substance and motivation to transform a flimsy villain. I enjoyed both so much, I added A Song of Achilles as next on my list. But the Trojan War still seemed like such a dusty subject it took me a long time to start this.
When I finally did, I burned through this in a couple of days.
This book achieves what years of cultural nagging has not. I think I finally see the timeless tragedy of this tale, and why its themes of destiny, love, blinding arrogance and fate hold relevance through centuries. It is beautifully written, the audio book I listened to is also performed with great skill by David Thorpe. At all times I knew how this would end, the spoiler warnings date back to the Renaissance.
So Madeline Miller gives us time with the characters, we get to know them, enjoy their happiness. There was the trap, soon I felt the bind of characters who knew of their fate. To stop reading was to stop spending time with them, but ever word and page past, draw closer to their unhappy fate. The thickness of a book or countdown of minutes left was a reminder of impending tragedy. And still a curiosity, what might still yet be in between, and a hope the inevitable might yet be avoided.
Circe and A Song of Achilles are beautiful books that do a service to a culture that has revered their myths. It dusts them off, renders them legible and faithfully modernises their detail for our times. In doing so she has helped me understand what has drawn people to these tales for 500 years, and even further back before their rediscovery.
Less than an hour after finishing the book, I am left wondering if the tragedy I keenly feel now, might not be the same as readers by old candlelight, homeric audiences before them, and story seekers back into pre-history.