Destiny, delicious rebellion and a computer

EVENT: Madeline Miller – Launch of Song of Achilles (Wednesday, 21 September; Fugard Studio)


Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles, talks to Professor Clive Chandler about her reworking of the myth of Achilles.

Madeline Miller’s debut novel, Song of Achilles, necessarily involves a sense of destiny; for as all Greek epics demonstrate, any attempt to circumvent destiny only brings the strong arm of fate down harder. Madeline’s rewriting of Patroclus’s tale had me musing on the expectations I have of book launches (or of this one in particular), over the act of fiction writing within the framework of ancient myths, and how Patroclus and his relationship with the glamorous Achilles seems so fantastically queer.

When one sits down and begins to rewrite or rework an ancient tale, it seems impossible not to ask oneself what – and how – will be changed. The question itself seems to spur a (perhaps sublimated) sense of deviance. If one chooses to rework The Iliad or The Odyssey, I can imagine that, beyond any sense of scholarly reverence, there exists a delicious rebellion. What to alter, who to delete and, perhaps more importantly, how to sex it up or, if I can rephrase, how to add a contemporary sexual sensibility (without completely sacrificing historical accuracy). With all this in mind, I entered the dusky innards of the historic Fugard Theatre to attend the launch of Song of Achilles.

Clive Chandler, professor of the classics at UCT, joined Madeline on stage to discuss her novel and put to her some penetrating questions. Madeline, who studied at the Yale School of Drama, and has for the past ten years been teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to high school students, explained that Song of Achilles has its roots in a childhood fascination with Greek mythology, but that it was her college years which nurtured her growing obsession with Achilles and, specifically, with the moment where Patroclus dies and Achilles goes mad with grief and anger. Eventually this interest in the bond between Achilles and Patroclus became the central concern of her novel as she explored the spiritual, emotional and also sexual aspects of their relationship. At this point, my attention was admittedly broken by a rather risqué mental image of Patroclus and Achilles in a compromising position at the barracks. Unfortunately, Madeline did not comment on the contemporary interest in Patroclus as a “gay icon”, a fact I was reminded of by South African novelist, Michiel Heyns, who I had randomly met a few minutes earlier. In this sense, the book launch was not what I expected. I had thought Patroclus and Achilles meant more Alexander and Hephaestion.

I soon recuperated to find Madeline discussing the gestation of her novel. It seems that finding Patroclus as a character provided the push her project needed. Madeline explained that her voicing of Patroclus emerged one summer’s day after college, in which she, very much preoccupied with the events of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, just sat down in front of the computer and started to describe the ancient world from Patroclus’s perspective. This focalisation also provided her with a narrative strategy: Madeline explained that Patroclus’s perspective provided a way of selecting the events and characters that she would need to include in her version of the tale. In response to a question posed by Clive about the opportunities or difficulties that arise when adapting “inherited tales,” Madeline explained that, in say, Homer’s original epic, the reader is never taken “inside the heads of the characters” and that instead “we only see their actions”; this provides the contemporary novelist a chance to explore the inner workings of mythic characters (let’s leave out the erotic possibilities that some readers/writers might add).

Perhaps Madeline’s rewriting is destined to be inhibited by the sanctions of the academic gods; perhaps she has added too much spice for their liking. This might be precisely the reason to pick up Madeline’s novel and jolt through her version of the Trojan epic. I know that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is tantalisingly obscure, especially before reading any account of it; the possibilities do seem fantastically queer.