Sunday, September 11, 2016

Filling in the Gaps (and Then Some)

When it comes to art and literature, I'm often intrigued by the things that are missing. I first realized this as a concept when I encountered Tom Stoppard's marvelously inventive play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which presents the off-stage action of Hamlet. It's a terribly clever idea and there's something thrilling about a work of art that stands theatrical reality on its head.

The Song of Achilles employs a similar trick with Homer's Iliad. (It appeared on my TBR list as an Orange Prize winner; I chose it as the green book for the Color Coded Reading Challenge, and then I doubled it up for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge as well.) Taking on the plot points that Homer left out is a tall order, but Madeline Miller is a classical scholar and well-qualified to apply herself to the task. She's also a deft writer, embedding historical details easily and convincingly into her narrative. I have no doubt that the fundamentals of this novel are accurate, and Miller humanizes these well-known characters -- Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, and the rest -- in a way that makes us care about what happens to them.

Miller also imaginatively fills in a number of gaps for some of the secondary characters, and this is both a strength and a weakness in the novel. Scholars have long debated Achilles' motivations and behavior, unable to convincingly conclude whether he's a spoiled brat motivated by pride and glory or the first modern man to understand mortality with a depth beyond the Homeric glory code. Here those debates are erased: his thoughts are made clear, his relationship with Patroclus is made explicit, his treatment of Briseis and other female "war prizes" is shown to be compassionate, and his status as a hero is assured.

This is satisfying -- as clear answers can be -- but unfortunately, it also feels rather too modern. Ancient Greek culture is firmly embedded in my mind, and part of the challenge is to admire and understand these people whose value system seems so vastly different from our own. With those differences blunted, the result is less satisfying, perhaps because the task of understanding has been made easier.

The language, too, strikes a disruptively contemporary note at times. Should Patroclus bring honeyed wine as a gift to Achilles' goddess mother, Thetis? No, Achilles says, "She doesn't like it." When Priam comes to plead with Achilles to return Hector's body, he tells Achilles, "I am sorry for your loss." Odysseus, hearing from Pyrrhus that he doesn't sleep, responds with "No wonder you get so much more done than the rest of us." These contemporary expressions disrupt the flow of the story and allow the intrusion of modern times.

After years of flinching at the blood and guts Homer includes in such detail, I'm left strangely unmoved by this kinder, gentler Achilles. The ambiguity may be gone, but so is some of the punch of the original. The story feels most alive to me when Thetis appears. Miller has created what may be the best portrait of a goddess ever written: dangerous, cold, ancient, and unpredictable. There's long been a gap in my understanding of the behavior of the Greek gods; it's seemed strange to me that they could toy with humans when they resemble them so much. One of the gifts of this work is that through Miller's portrayal of Thetis, I understand how different gods and mortals really are.    

Excerpt (Patroclus meets Thetis for the first time):

A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes to it. When I opened them again, she was standing before me.

She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back, and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as it if drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, seawater laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.

"You are Patroclus." I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.

"Yes, lady."

Distaste ran over her face. Her eyes were not like a human's; they were black to their center and flecked with gold. I could not bring myself to meet them.

"He will be a god," she said. I did not know what to say, so I said nothing. She leaned forward, and I half-thought she might touch me. But of course she did not.

"Do you understand?" I could feel her breath on my cheek, not warm at all, but chilled like the depths of the sea. Do you understand? He had told me that she hated to be kept waiting.


She leaned closer still, looming over me. Her mouth was a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular. Behind it her teeth shone sharp and white as bone.

"Good." Carelessly, as if to herself, she added, "You will be dead soon enough."

She turned and dove into the sea, leaving no ripples behind her.        


  1. Lvbely review. It seems to me that there are books where you don't want ambiguity, for me, generally relaxing fun reads, like a romping mystery or a beach read. But if your reading anything that is remotely ambitious, that makes any demands on the reader, some ambiguity is a strength, no?

    1. You are so right: do we want to be challenged or entertained? Different books for different circumstances, each good in its own way.


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