The Song of Achilles
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £18.99
Faber & Faber, 96pp, £12.99
A few weeks ago, in the pages of this magazine, Rachel Cooke declared herself bored by people going on about Homer. She might as well have been Canute, ordering the waves to stop. Indeed, when the Greeks sought a metaphor for their greatest poet, they would invariably find it in the sea. This image, too, derives from Homer. At the heart of the Iliad stands the peerless Greek warrior Achilles, who in the course of the narrative comes to be supplied, courtesy of his sea-nymph mother, with a panoply of divinely forged armour. Most stunning of all the items designed and fashioned for him by Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods, is a shield, decorated across its vast expanse with "the earth, the heavens and the sea" - a world entire in itself. "And girdling it, around the outermost rim of that indestructibly welded shield, the god set the mighty power of the River Ocean." It was from this same River Ocean, so the ancient geographers believed, that all the world's streams and rivers sprang - just as all poetry, all drama and all beauty of language had derived from Homer.
And still those waters keep flowing. Cooke's complaint was prompted by the sight of me banging on about Cyclops skulls on BBC 4 - but if she feels that there is too much Homer on television, she should try popping in to a bookshop. Translations, critical studies, novelisations, the rip tide of Homeriana never stops. For two years in a row now, the Criticos Prize, awarded annually to a book in English on a Greek theme, has gone to an adaptation of Homer: to David Malouf's Ransom, which sparely and hauntingly reprises the climax of the Iliad, and to Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, an exuberant transformation of Homeric epic into something resembling Calvino or Borges. So, what are the odds on a hat-trick? Not bad at all, it would seem, if two new books are anything to go by.
The first of these, a novel by Madeline Miller, demonstrates that it is not always necessary to play tricks with Homer, to recalibrate or reconfigure his epics, to bring him alive for a modern readership. In describing her book as "breathtakingly original", her publicists do her few favours; original is precisely what it is not. The Song of Achilles, as its title suggests, tells the story of the deadliest and most beautiful of all the warriors who fought at Troy - and does so in absolute conformity to the Homeric narrative. Unlike Mason, who at one point casts Achilles as a robot, or the science-fiction writer Dan Simmons, who features him as a nano-enhanced superhero on a 30th-century Mars, Miller disdains anything that smacks of gimmickry. Even her choice of narrator is very much in the mainstream of women writing novels about ancient Greece. By fixing on Patroclus, lover of Achilles, Miller is able to bring to her narrative the same golden aura of youth, homoeroticism and aristocratic violence that made Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault's fictionalisation of the early years of Alexander the Great, such a crowd-pleaser. In short, Miller has no intention of going against the grain of tradition as an author.
Her novel reaps considerable dividends as a consequence. Most readers, when they pick it up, will know the outline of Achilles's career: that he is fated to kill Hector, greatest of the Trojan heroes, and then to be killed. When this is revealed to Patroclus in a prophecy, he draws the logical conclusion. "You must not kill Hector," he urges his lover. Tragic play is being made here of events to come: Achilles will finally resolve on killing Hector only after Hector has killed Patroclus - an irony of the kind that writers have been developing since the heyday of Attic drama.
The world of this novel is framed implacably by certitudes derived both from the narrative eventualities of the Iliad and from the pitiless understanding of the universe and its workings articulated by Homer's epic. The gods in The Song of Achilles are neither metaphors nor abstractions, but chillingly, gloriously real. In the Iliad, Helen's beauty is described as "terrible" precisely for being divine: in Greek, the word ainos is pointedly double-edged. The gods as portrayed by Homer are "terrible" in two senses - they embody to peak pitch all that is most glorious about mortals, and they freeze the heart. Not least of Miller's achievements is to reanimate this vision of the divine in prose that is simultaneously modern and true to its source. When Patroclus dies before the walls of Troy, it is a god who brings about his fall. "He is piercingly beautiful, smooth skin and a finely cut face that glows with something more than human. Black eyes. Apollo."
Inevitably there are gaps in Homer's story that Miller is obliged to fill with elaborations of her own; she shows Achilles and Patroclus first bonding over a music lesson, and describes the fate of the two warriors' spirits after death. Yet none of these episodes seems forced. Indeed, the Iliad serves almost to encourage them. Homer's poetry is forever offering hints of a cosmos of wonders and stories, mere tasters that subsequent writers, with voracious gratitude, have always seized upon: "slices from the great banquet of Homer", as the tragedian Aeschylus put it three centuries later.
The magic of the Iliad, and the measure of its author's seemingly limitless resources of creativity, is the way in which it hints at a universe immeasurably vaster even than the one contained within its verses. Miller fills the empty spaces in Homer's narrative with the doings
of heroes and gods - but it is also possible to fix the gaze on those who might appear to have been mere spear-fodder.
This is what Alice Oswald has done in her new collection, Memorial, composing an elegy that commemorates all those who are described in the Iliad as meeting their end. A man does not need to be a feted hero, after all, to be mourned by his family. "He collapsed instantly an unspeakable sorrow to his parents." Such is how Oswald describes the evisceration of one lowly Trojan. Another inspires "the death-howl of the father finding him gone". In the dust, all are as one. The names of the war dead, listed over eight pages, contain the illustrious and the obscure alike. Most illustrious of all is the very last name on the list - the last man to be slain in the epic. "And HECTOR died like everyone else . . ."
Sombre though Oswald's collection may be, it is the very opposite of tenebrous. In the Iliad, the play of light is everywhere. It is what gives beauty to even the most mundane of activities: the hunkering down by watch fires, or the washing by "the wives and all the lovely daughters of Troy of their glistening clothes". It is also what gives to the poem's huge roster of protagonists the authentic quality of the epic, for there is barely a character in the whole of the Iliad who is not cast as luminescent. No woman is so insignificant that she cannot be described as "white-armed", no man so fleetingly mentioned that he cannot be referred to as being "bronze-cloaked".
The measure of Oswald's poetry is that, in the dignity it affords the war dead, and in the shimmering potency of its imagery and its similes, her verse does approximate to the Homeric. And it is still hard, almost 3,000 years after Homer wrote his Iliad, to think of a higher term of praise.
Tom Holland's most recent book is "Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom" (Abacus, £9.99)