Achilles and other things

Bowling for Jane is on a temporary reading hiatus, and it’s been good! I mean that in the best possible way. Our next meeting at the end of August will feature our first ever joint read/discussion of a Jane Austen novel—Pride and Prejudice, in honor of both the 200th anniversary of its publication and Michelle and Sarah’s pilgrimage to JASNA’s 2013 AGM. I’m going to translate that into English now. Michelle and Sarah will be attending the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2013 Annual General Meeting in Minneapolis, September 27-29. It will be Pride and Prejudice-themed, and yes, we will be wearing Regency dresses to the ball.

We didn’t get around to discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn here on this blog back when we read it in May. I’m not sure I have a lot more to say about it at this time except that I am so glad to have had the opportunity to read it again, as an adult. It has stayed with me this time, and I thought about it quite a lot in the weeks following our meeting. I think it’s a Great Book, for reasons which I find sort of difficult to articulate, but which have something to do with putting the story in the mouth of a child. I loved Huckleberry’s voice from page one, and I soon came to love his sweetness. Even if the story seemed to drag in parts, there were so many wonderful payoffs both in terms of humor and poignancy. Mark Twain walked a very fine line between not being openly judgmental and at the same time not letting anyone off the hook. I suspect I’ll read it again someday.

song of achillesIn the meantime, I tackled one mind-numbing brain-vacation of a book, and then I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It was so, so very good. I cried through the end. Tears are not the measure of good book, of course, but if they are appropriate, I certainly want to be moved to offer them. They were, and I was.

I love Greek mythology, and I love how she told the story of Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus, his friend, closest companion, and lover. At first I wasn’t certain how I would feel about the first person narrative—I sometimes find it limiting—but by the end it was just so deeply intimate. (I don’t entirely understand why the tense sometimes veered back and forth between past and present. Perhaps another read would make that clear?) Miller took everything familiar about the story and more or less left it alone, changing very little. The funny thing being, of course, that the more wild and less believable aspects of the tale are original to it—things like Achilles hiding and dressing as a woman to escape going to war in Troy. (There is no mention of Achilles’ heel being his only weakness, which is kind of interesting considering how prevalent that metaphor is, and yet it doesn’t really seem to be missing.)

Miller immerses us in a strange world where gods, both greater and lesser, observe and intervene in the lives of humans, choosing favorites, choosing sides, sharing prophecies, demanding sacrifices. Kings are heroes, and heroes are larger than life—stronger, louder, more fearless, more gifted than common men. This world of gods and heroes collides with the human one, where concerns like love and friendship, loyalty and honor, fear and pain and death are things that matter across time, and that we as readers can still understand and sympathize with.

She is a beautiful writer. On nearly any page I could pick out a perfectly glorious sentence that I would give anything to be able to write myself. The language feels simple, sparse in places, but it is incredibly evocative. We know Odysseus, we know Deidameia, we know Thetis—even though all of these characters are secondary to Patroclus and Achilles. Thetis, in particular, comes to life. She terrifies Patroclus, and she terrifies me!

The story really isn’t about the Trojan War, although that is the backdrop for a good portion of it. It is about the love between Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus makes a choice very early on to follow Achilles. He sees and brings out what is best in him. Achilles’ love for Patroclus is his most humanizing quality. There is a threat hanging over them because they know through prophecy that Achilles will never leave Troy alive, but in the ten or more years they spend fighting the war there, they manage to carve out a life and protect their own happiness. Eventually it becomes clear that they do so at the expense of other men’s happiness—others who are separated from their homes and families, who are wounded and killed—but it seems that they do so innocently up until the end.

All men, of course, must die, but few know the time or means of their death or have the power to waylay it. Their love is precious and intense because they know and fear that its dissolution must come with the death of Achilles, and yet it never diminishes for this very reason. It spoils nothing for those who know their mythology to say that neither of them seems to seriously consider that it might be Patroclus who dies first.

I will say that Patroclus, as a character, pales in comparison to Achilles, which is actually pretty natural given that he’s not the child of an immortal! He sells himself short, as do most others, except for Briseis and Chiron. At first, I felt his death most strongly because of the pain it caused Achilles, but in the end it was he himself I cried for. Patroclus, caring and loving and loyal, the best of the Greeks.

I am now very tempted to read other retellings of Greek mythology. Does anyone have any suggestions? I don’t think I can tackle translations of Homer, but versions of the Iliad or the Odyssey that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?

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