One searches vainly for someone to admire.
The yearning for largeness when so much smallness is afoot–perhaps that’s one reason why I found The Song of Achilles so riveting.
The powerful experience actually began with a talk by the author, Madeline Miller, several weeks ago in Santa Fe. She is only 35 years old, but I have never been so impressed by the poise, intelligence, and storytelling skills of such a young person. I left wishing that I were back in college taking a class from her. With both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek as well as lifetime studies in the works of Ovid, Virgil, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus among others, she seems to have the erudition of someone twice her age.
And she can really write. Perhaps all that exalted reading has informed her own use of language, but an occasional phrase like “Agamemnon with his face tight as a miser’s fist,” causes the reader to pause and marvel. Of course it is impossible to outdo The Iliad, but this contemporary retelling of the story of Achilles is nevertheless extremely powerful. At the conclusion, I was a little shaky, as though I had been swimming in a raging torrents of passion, pride, and violence.
Interestingly enough and possibly without real intention, Miller has feminized the nature of heroism in this retelling of the ancient story.
According to myth, Achilles was born with godlike potential in warfare. He was athletic and fearless from the beginning and took great pride in the knowledge that his greatness was destined. On the dark side, that pride could lead to tragedy and shame.
Miller establishes Petroclus, the friend of Achilles, as the narrator of her novel. They are boys in the beginning, and it is soon clear that they will become lovers. Whatever one’s orientation, the author’s development of character and the love that evolves between the two is so skillful that acceptance and empathy are inevitable. We know how the story ends according to Homer, but we may understand for the first time why the death of Petroclus drives Achilles nearly insane.
The irony lies in the characteristics of Petroclus that we associate with the feminine. He is the gentle one of the two, the one who does not want to learn warfare, who learns to treat the wounded, who cautions Achilles about his overweening pride, and who wants above all to see Achilles fulfill his destiny.
The Trojan War has been going on for ten years when Agamemnon offends Achilles. Aware that the war will be lost without him, Achilles refuses to fight until Agamemnon begs his pardon. To save the Greeks and the reputation of Achilles, Petroclus begs to appear as Achilles in his armor. This will rally the Greeks and victory will be assured. Achilles finally consents with the promise of Petroclus that he will not actually engage in battle and risk death.
Even though Petroclus intends to honor his word, he is unexpectedly infused with godlike energy in the ensuing melee and becomes a fierce and deadly warrior. However, the god Apollo intervenes for his own reasons, and Petroclus is killed by Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors.
Beside himself with grief, Achilles will not relinquish the decaying body of his beloved friend until rage drives him back to the battlefield. There he kills Hector and drags his body behind his chariot in a shocking display of disrespect. After days of maddened slaughter, Achilles is himself killed.
His destiny fulfilled, Achilles will always be remembered as one of the greatest heroes of all time. I would need to read The lliad to see how closely Miller’s retelling tracks, but in her version, this would not have happened absent the intervention of Petroclus. It makes you stop and consider the actual nature of heroism. Achilles is born with it in the same way another child might be born with freckles. It is Petroclus who grows throughout the story, whose love for Achilles inspires great courage and transforms his gentle nature into that of a hero.
As I was going over the newspaper this morning, the Trojan War was still with me. I was feeling a little bleak, a little wistful about any potential for elevating news. The political skirmishes in Washington, D.C., the incessant attacks and rampant pettiness are depressing and seem to have diminished the entire country. The major players often seem small men made arrogant by large ambition. One searches vainly for someone to admire, for a hero.
But then I turned to the editorial page of The New York Times. There I read commentary by the actress Angelina Jolie. Due to a faulty gene that gives her an 87% chance of breast cancer, she had made the decision to have a double mastectomy in February. The complicated process including reconstruction is now complete, and she wanted to share her story so that other women would know about such options.
What are the odds of this timing? As everyone surely knows, Angelina’s partner is Brad Pitt, who starred as Achilles in Troy, a very loose version of The Iliad that came out in 2004. In relating her experience, Angelina wrote, “I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive.” I stared. Achilles as Brad Pitt has, after several thousand years, finally reciprocated the devotion of Petroclus as Angelina Jolie.
I set the newspaper aside laughing. You can’t take life too seriously. There will always be wonderful moments.