A New Take on a Classic: Song of Achilles and The Iliad

I’ve become annoying about both of the books I’ll be discussing today. Both works, The Songs of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Iliad by Homer (Fitzgerald’s translation), swung me in such a way that I’m thinking in epic prose. Easy, easy, to say that I loved both of these book immensely, but I didn’t entirely expect this at first.

As a true pairing, I didn’t take these two works as a comparison, one against the other as can be too easy to do, but one added to the other. Where The Iliad is, ahem, lacking in any emotional connection between characters whatsoever, The Song of Achilles has a desperate focus on the connection between two men. Where The Iliad turns in fluid metaphors of beauty next to war, The Song of Achilles is a close, realistic first-person point of view.

From everything I had heard about The Song of Achilles, I expected to love it, and I did, in the quick one afternoon ravishing that can sometimes happen with a great book (oh dear me, slipping into the book’s language again). Ravishing, yes, but also deeply felt, wonderfully researched, and so deeply set in mythology that I got in my Greek kicks. The novel is told from Patroclus’ point of view–Patroclus, you’ll remember, is Achilles’ friend who is killed in the battle at Troy that subsequently kickstarts Achilles’ rage to begin the end of the war. From Patroclus’ perspective, we get a much more sympathetic view of Achilles and he is made a real person in the way that he isn’t in Homer’s work as are the other human characters. The hows and the whys of the story are explained without the intervention of the gods, something that can be overwhelming in The Iliad.

Now, I assure you that you can go out and read The Song of Achilles and you will love it. Even now, though, I can’t be certain about saying the same about The Iliad. Before, I had been told that this work could be overwhelming with scene after scene of gruesome deaths, and biblical style lists of the dead’s names. And it is that. The recent movie, 300, was absolutely not exaggerating the gruesomeness Homer, and I imagine other Greek writers, employed in battle scenes.

However, and this is a huge however, this was a great reading experience for me. I really enjoyed the work and probably yacked husband’s ear off way too much talking about it. There’s something in the way Homer juxtaposes life and death, daily life with war. Oh and goodness, the metaphors? This is what metaphors were made for, stretching long across the page, such as this one about Akhilleus in battle:

“so Akhilleus flashed to right and left / like a wild god, trampling the men he killed, / and black earth ran with blood. As when a countryman / yokes oxen with broad brows to tread out barley / on a well-bedded threshing floor, and quickly / the grain is husked under the bellowing beasts: / the sharp-hooved horses of Akhilleus just so / crushed dead men and shields. His axle-tree / was splashed with blood, so was his chariot rail, / with drops thrown up by wheels and horses hooves.”

What?! Killing and barley and drops of blood on a chariot? Goodness gracious, I sped through every section of names upon names so I could get to the next scene. Yes, gruesome–there were so many spilled bowels–but beautiful. And so I loved it too.

What about you? Have you had any recent encounters with The Iliad or The Odyssey? Do you have any other recommendations for contemporary books that attempt to rewrite this time period?

*A more technical, me being a pain in the butt, note about translations: First of all, when I say “Homer” above, I’m not assuming that the work was done by absolutely one man named Homer, but rather an oral work that had been collated by such a man or a man that we can use as a stand-in for the unnamed poets. Because of the collective nature of this work, I decided to go for a translation that attempted to mimic the style and movement of the original Greek poem, rather than a straight translation. Likewise, I tried to stay away from translations, such as Alexander Pope’s, that applied too many English conventions to the work. I looked at a few translations before deciding on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, and was extremely happy I did so. Highly recommended for readability and poetry.

About nikki_steele

Freelance writer and editor. Creator of BookPairing blog.
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  • http://twitter.com/AvidReader12 Melissa

    I really want to read The Songs of Achilles. I keep hearing good things and I loved The Odyssey and thought The Iliad was beautiful.

    • http://www.bookpairing.com/ Nikki Steele

      The Iliad was so beautiful — that’s what I found to be the most exciting about it. You don’t expect beautiful with war scenes. The Song of Achilles is so very very good, definitely recommend reading as soon as possible.

  • http://twitter.com/kimthedork Kim Ukura

    I read The Odyssey late year, and I really, really enjoyed it — more than I expected I might. That one is also pretty gruesome, and there are a lot of ridiculous sections, but on the whole the language and story were awesome. I had planned to read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad to do a pairing like this one, but time for in the way and I didn’t get a chance to read it.

    • http://www.bookpairing.com/ Nikki Steele

      That’s right — I had heard about The Penelopiad and forgotten about it. Everything I’ve read by Atwood has been stunning, so definitely will need to check this out. The Odyssey is great fun as well, I think it’s because Odysseus is just a great, full of life main character — we don’t expect to find that in ancient texts as much.

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