Posts tagged ‘achilles’

January 16, 2014

Colleen McCullough: “The Song of Troy”

The Song of Troy

He looked at me long and steadily. ‘Have you a heart, Odysseus? I fancied it’s only mind you possess.’
Something stung momentarily at the back of my eyes: I thought, Penelope, and then her image faded. I gave him back his stare. ‘No, I have no heart. Why should a man need one? A heart is a severe liability.’
‘Then what men say of you is true.’

Pages: 483
First Published: 1998

Synopsis: The story of Troy is one of the greatest ever told – a three thousand year old saga of love and hate, vengeance and betrayal.

In The Song of Troy, the bestselling author of The Thorn Birds recounts the tale of Helen and Paris, the immortal lovers who doomed two great nations to a terrible war. It is told through the eyes of its main characters: the sensuous and self-indulgent Helen; the subtle and brilliant Odysseus; the sad old man Priam, King of Troy; the tormented warrior prince, Achilles; and Agamemnon, King of Kings, who consents to the unspeakable in order to launch his thousand ships. This is an unputdownable tale of love, ambition, delusion, honour and consuming passion.

‘Believe me, Paris, you are important,’ he said in a tired voice, then got up abruptly. ‘I must find Kassandra. Quite often we see the same things, even when we are not together.’
But I too felt a little of that dark, webbed Presence, and shook my head. ‘No. Kassandra will destroy it.’

My Thoughts: Truth be told, I finished this book in October and am only now sitting down to write about it. All apologies if this post is of an even lower quality than my usual low quality.

The Song of Troy was one of the first Trojan War books I read when I first became interested in the myth as a teenager, and I liked it a lot – enough that I was hesitant to revisit it, fearing it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. While it’s true that the scenes I had remembered as being mindblowingly amazing weren’t quite the same the second time around, there are plenty of great scenes I had completely forgotten about, and on the whole I am happy to report that the book definitely holds up. Devolving into point form as usual …

· Perhaps this book’s most noticeable feature is that it’s narrated in the first person by a variety of different characters. This could potentially allow the author to explore quite a wide range of viewpoints on the events of the story, so I admit I was disappointed when I counted up the chapters and realized the narrators are not as diverse as I had remembered. Of the seventeen total narrators, twelve of them are Greek or with the Greeks, while only five are in Troy. Fifteen narrators are men and only two are women; out of thirty-three chapters, these two women narrate only five. Maybe it’s not fair to bring this up when I don’t have any real criticism of it as it relates to the story, but it would have been nice to see this narrative strategy used to give a few more characters a bit of extra attention.

· One of my favourite things about this book is how it plays with the idea that these events will become myths. Things like Achilles’ talking horses or the creation of his weak heel are given rational explanations, but are still presented in such a way that you can easily see how they would gain their supernatural trappings and become legend. Similarly, I love how we often witness a perfectly realistic event only to later hear a character describing it in mythological terms. Of course I don’t think the myth of the Trojan War is as closely related to historical fact as this might lead a reader to believe, but I still love that McCullough hints at the process of fact becoming fiction. Also, it would seem that I was lying when I said that Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles was the only novel I’d read in which Achilles fights the river.

· Related to the above point: the chapter in which Iphigenia appears was one of the parts that blew me away the first time I read the book, and I still love the way it plays with the reader’s expectations about what is going to happen while also showing how a myth might come into being.

· Odysseus in this book is pretty fantastic. I feel like Trojan War adaptations often don’t use Odysseus to his full potential. He usually gets to recruit Achilles at the beginning and he usually gets to think up the Horse at the end, but in between he’s too often restricted to providing some sort of comic relief in the form of clever one-liners. So I was really impressed by how Song of Troy shows Odysseus using his intelligence throughout the war. His constant insistence that the Greek army use strategies that are less humane but more effective was also really in-character and makes a lot of sense. I was really happy to see Odysseus doing so much during the war and I am probably going to be frustrated now when other novels don’t let him.

· One criticism I had of Adèle Geras’ Troy was that it kept introducing plotlines but never doing anything with them. It seemed to me that Geras wanted to include as much of the Trojan War mythology as possible, but didn’t actually want to make use of a lot of it. Song of Troy also seems to want to include as much of the mythology as it can, but I think it takes a better approach: instead of introducing a minor plot once and then forgetting about it entirely, Song of Troy will introduce it, leave it alone for a while, and then return to it to show us why it’s important. (See its treatment of Philoctetes for an example.) This way, the stories don’t take up much time, but they can still be completed, have a proper effect on the rest of the novel, and give us a sense of the world beyond the characters that are being focused on.

· I really liked this book’s portrayal of Aineas and his rivalry with his Trojan relatives. For whatever reason, I found the constant murmurs about his desire for the throne and whether or not he will be heir to be really compelling. I also really enjoyed the scene where the Trojans set the Greek ships on fire and was especially impressed with the endless wait inside the Horse. McCullough is really good at creating intense and desperate situations, which is perhaps why I so enjoyed the strong sense of time apparent throughout the novel. It really feels like you’re reading about people who have been in a terrible situation for a decade and now every step they take is a step closer to their breaking point. My only complaint about this is that I think the last few lines of the novel would have more impact had they been given to a different character; other than that it was fantastic.

· As well as creating a strong sense of passing time, McCullough also creates a strong sense of geography, including a lot of details that really help to make the world the characters inhabit feel as real as possible. She provides a lot of details about the armies as well – I was really impressed by how frequently concrete figures are provided when characters are discussing things like the number of soldiers on the field. I’m not in love with the book’s narrative style (people keep “propping” and I’m not sure what that means?), but everything else that I liked more than made up for that.

· As I’ve said before, I am 100% okay with authors changing parts of the myths to suit their purpose, but in this instance I was confused by details that were changed without having an effect on anything. Why is Iphigenia the youngest child in her family? We never see her siblings, so what does this affect? And why make Paris older than Hektor if Hektor is still the heir? I was also thrown off by important scenes being much shorter than they usually are – blink and you’ll miss the ransom of Hektor – although that’s more of an observation than a criticism.

· (Minor spoilers!!) Achilles in this novel suffers from seizures. I thought this was a really interesting idea and kept waiting for McCullough to really do something with it; unfortunately she never did. But augh, an Achilles who’s not physically perfect – whose body sometimes acts against him – but is still the best of the Greek warriors? I would love to read a book that takes that idea and runs with it.

· Not to repeat myself in what is already a too-long entry, but: this is a really solid take on the Trojan War that features some great scenes and some great details and I definitely recommend it.

Buy it at:,

‘So I handed Priam the red tablet with the symbol of Ares on it and he stared at it as if he had never seen anything like it. His hand shook so much that he dropped it on the floor. It broke. Everyone jumped. Then Hektor picked it up and took it away.’

June 17, 2013

Podcast & iTunes U Round-Up #1

As usual, I am years behind everyone else when it comes to media and technology, but! About a year ago I started listening to podcasts and was surprised to find I really enjoyed them. More recently, I discovered iTunes U, and of course my first order of business was to seek out any and all lectures related to the Trojan War. Here are the ones I’ve listened to so far!

History of Theatre I
(2010, Freed-Hardeman University)

I listened to: “‘Agamemnon’ Discussion”

As the title suggests, this is a discussion about Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” that touches on topics such as the play’s characters and themes, its possible visual impact, and how it fits into the larger Trojan War story. You probably need some familiarity with the play in order to follow what they’re talking about, but I enjoyed the discussions of how it might have been performed and received during its original production in classical Athens. I especially enjoyed the students’ confusion as to whether or not we are supposed to think that Agamemnon slept with Cassandra. Welcome to Greek mythology, friends!!

Unfortunately the quality of this recording isn’t fantastic – you can hear people rustling about pretty much the whole time – but once I got used to it it wasn’t so bad.

Ancient Greece: Myth, Art, War
(2013, La Trobe University)

I listened to:
“The Early Greek World and Greek Myths”
“Homer’s Iliad” (an interview)
“Homer and the Trojan War”
“The Iliad and Achilles”
“Athena, Women and War”
“Rage and Resolution: The Quest of Hector”
Iliad 22: The Quest of Hector”
“A King’s Ransom: Priam and Achilles”
“Bronze Age Greece and Troy”
“Homer’s World: Dark Age Greece”
“Euripides’ ‘Iphigenia in Aulis'”
“Sophocles’ ‘Ajax'”
“Euripides’ ‘Trojan Women'”
“The Trojan War in Greek Art”

So you might say that I am a little obsessed with this iTunes U course right now; it took me just over a week to listen to the thirteen 50-minute lectures and one 14-minute interview above. (I’ve even surprised myself and started listening to the lectures that don’t have a direct connection to the Trojan War.) Even though in university I took two classes where we studied the Iliad and I have read plenty about it on top of that, I still found a lot of new observations here, presented in an informative and sometimes humourous way. I’m less familiar with Greek tragedy and vase painting, so I especially enjoyed those lectures. A really nice bonus is that the slides used in each lecture have been uploaded as well (although only about half the images show up for me). A few particularly interesting ideas discussed in these lectures include:

· The importance and changing role of horses in the Iliad vs. the way Homer seems to have no idea how chariots were used in battle.

· The ways in which the Iliad is significantly different from other ancient epics: it has no monsters (… but can we read Achilles as the monster?) and no descent to the underworld (… but can we read Priam’s visit to Achilles as a descent to the underworld?).

· Is Hector running from Achilles the first honest thing he’s ever done?

· When Athena tricks Hector, is she taking from his glory or adding to it? When Achilles is killed by an arrow, does that take from his glory or add to it?

· The Iliad is a poem written in Greek for a Greek audience, so why are all the worst atrocities in it committed by Greek characters?

· After Achilles’ death, Odysseus and Ajax fight over his armour. It is awarded to Odysseus. Does this indicate the end of the age of heroes?

In case I haven’t already made it clear, I definitely recommend these lectures to anyone interested in the topics they cover.

March 23, 2013

Elizabeth Cook: “Achilles”


Listen. Achilles never wanted to die.
Don’t think because Patroclus is dead he wants to die.

Pages: 107
First Published: 2001

Synopsis: Born of god and king and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks’ greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters—among them Hector, Helen, Penthiseleia the Amazon Queen, and the centaur Chiron; and finally John Keats, whose writings form the basis of a meditation on the nature of identity and shared experience. Achilles is an affirmation of the story’s enduring power to reach across centuries and cultures to the core of our imagination.

This armour fits three men and no one else:
Achilles, for whom it was made; Patroclus (who nevertheless cannot lift the great ash spear that goes with it) and … who else? What did you say?

My Thoughts: I enjoyed this book quite a bit when I read it for the first time in 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much the second time around. This could be because since then I have started this blog and thus started reading Trojan War-related works with a slightly more critical eye; it could also be because since then I have read The Song of Achilles, which covers roughly the same story but produced a much stronger emotional response from me. Achilles is a bit of an odd book; more a long prose poem than a short novel, and not so much about Achilles as the title would have you believe. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the last Achilles-focused chapter ends on page 70; following that is a chapter about Helen, a chapter about Chiron, and a chapter about … John Keats?? Allow me to devolve into point form and come back to that particular point later.

· I call Achilles a prose poem because of the structure of the book, but also because of the poetic style of the writing. I will confess that I’m not much for poetry and occasionally I find this kind of style grating, so most of my favourite passages are the less poetic ones. However, I did enjoy the connections that Cook’s more metaphoric language allowed her to make, and I also found it interesting when she broke away from conventional narrative writing (as in the short passage quoted above), so while I am glad I don’t have to read it all the time, I can’t say I dislike Cook’s style.

· It seems Cook expects her readers to already have a fairly solid knowledge of the Trojan War. While certain characters get a proper introduction, others do not, even in cases where a knowledge of their background is necessary to understand their actions. The book does include a Glossary of Classical Names, but it’s difficult for me to imagine anyone enjoying having to flip to it, especially when it sometimes only repeats the information already provided by the text. For example, the entry for Antielus reads: A Greek; one of those in the wooden horse. His only scene shows him inside the horse, so this is not exactly a surprise. Cook also occasionally mentions mythology that she doesn’t explain; for example, in describing Penthiseleia: Two breasts – the rumours aren’t true … This is a reference to the idea that the Amazons cut off their right breasts to allow their fighting arms a wider range of motion. Maybe this idea is better-known than I think it is, but either way it’s the sort of thing that Cook lets pass without explanation. As a result of all this, I find it difficult to recommend this book to people who don’t already know the story fairly well.

· Speaking of Penthiseleia (which I’m going to spell as Cook does for simplicity’s sake). I decided not to talk about her in my post on Olympos because in that book she was just one more example of the author treating his female characters terribly. But now please allow me to state for the record that I find the whole Achilles-falling-in-love-with-Penthiseleia-as-he-kills-her (or after-he’s-killed-her) thing really disturbing in a way that is not at all pleasant. I have no interest in reading a scene where a man admires a woman’s beauty as he takes her life and I really hope I don’t have to explain why. I know it’s a part of the mythology, and I think I could accept it if it were presented as evidence of how far gone Achilles is – if it’s told as part of the story of the undoing of Achilles’ good character – but I have yet to see it presented as such. So it does affect my opinion of this book that this scene is included but not treated as the completely messed up situation that it is.

(Of course, there is always the question of how much should an author change a myth in order to suit current ideas. I am usually very interested in discussing this topic, but the story of Achilles and Penthiseleia creeps me out so bad that in this case I don’t think I can.)

· Achilles fights the river Scamander in this book, which I mention just because this might be the only novel I’ve read where it happens. I mean, the scene is fine and all, but mainly I just love that it exists.

· This might be a spoiler so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: The fall of Troy is told mostly from Helen’s point of view, and interspersed with scenes from Theseus’s visit to Sparta. In this way, two major traumas from Helen’s life are told to us simultaneously. Cook’s language is poetic, but here it is also quite explicit, and uses unsettling metaphors to tie the two events together. While the nature of the events don’t exactly make for a pleasant read, I was really impressed by the way Cook connected them, and used them to portray Helen in a new light. This time around, this was my favourite section of the book.

· So the last chapter is about the poet John Keats, and I will confess right now that I don’t understand why. This chapter, which comes complete with quotes from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and Keats’ own poetry, discusses the act of reading and what it is that connects us to the characters we read about. The ideas are interesting enough but the jump from Chiron’s chapter to Keats’ is such a jarring transition and I don’t know why Cook didn’t present these ideas through someone a little closer to Achilles. Does anyone want to read a book where the last chapter introduces an entirely new cast of characters? Maybe I expect this book to act more like a novel than Cook meant it to, or maybe my almost non-existent knowledge of Keats is preventing me from seeing an obvious reason for his inclusion, but as it is it’s difficult for me to see this chapter as anything other than an unrelated and disappointing end to the book.

· All in all, I’m not sure whether I recommend this book or not; the aspects I like are pretty evenly balanced out by the aspects I don’t like. I suppose that if it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, you should give it a try.

Buy it at:,

Always, throughout his life, bright faces moving away, disappearing behind curtains: his mother taken back in a curtain of water, Iphigeneia wrapped in flames, Patroclus’ face as it speaks to him these nights, folded in darkness. When Polyxena’s form is swallowed by the curtain at the entrance to the temple, he must go after. Layer on layer are here. Following this girl he follows them all – his mother, Iphigeneia, Penthiseleia, Patroclus – yes, and Hector too. He will pursue them all to the vanishing point but he must not lose sight of her.

July 27, 2012

Madeline Miller: “The Song of Achilles”

The Song of Achilles  The Song of Achilles

‘You have eked out ten more years of life, and I am glad for you. But the rest of us–‘ his mouth twists. ‘The rest of us are forced to wait for your leisure. You are holding us here, Achilles. You were given a choice and you chose. You must live by it now.’

Pages: 352
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

‘May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.’ His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. ‘He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.’

My Thoughts: My copy of this book is so coated in quotes from gushing reviews that my first impression was “There’s no way this book is going to live up to all this.” And for the first few chapters, I continued to believe that. But once the story got going, it turned into a book that I stayed up too late reading, and picked up again as soon as I got home from work. While you won’t hear me say that this book is perfect, I am definitely willing to say that I loved it. More specific comments in point form:

· If I’m to be totally honest, I have to say I’m not a fan of Miller’s writing style, but it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why. Perhaps because it’s a little too vague sometimes, or the descriptions are a little too over-the-top sometimes, or perhaps it just annoyed me that I only saw one contraction in the entire book. I also couldn’t figure out why, when most of the scenes were written in past tense, there would occasionally be a scene written in present tense. But at the same time, almost every chapter had at least one paragraph that was written so beautifully I had to reread it once or twice before moving on, and I also really loved the way she wrote the battle scenes — like every fight was just a mess of people running around and crashing into each other on the field. So in the end I guess I feel like my comments on Miller’s style all cancel each other out.

· This book fails the Bechdel test, which is interesting to me because the reason it fails is not because it doesn’t have female characters speaking about things other than men — it fails because not enough of those women have names.

· Let’s talk about a scene that really bothered me! Potential spoiler, so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: Achilles is unable to prevent Iphigenia’s death even though he is standing right there, and even though in every other scene where speed is required of him he responds by being, as usual, impossibly fast. Miller goes to great pains to have both Odysseus and the narrative explain why Achilles wasn’t able to react in time, but it all boils down to “he wasn’t fast enough,” a reason I find hard to accept when in the rest of the novel it is made perfectly clear that Achilles is never not fast enough. In a similar vein, I’m pretty sure the scene where Patroclus pulls a Bella Swan and spends a month doing nothing but being miserable was only necessary because the story’s timeline wouldn’t have worked out otherwise. So that was a little annoying.

· I’ve never been a fan of Achilles and Briseis being in love, so I really liked their relationship here. I actually really enjoyed how the characters in this novel seem at times to be at odds with the way they are usually portrayed. I was constantly thinking, “Wait — Character A just said he believes X, even though in the Iliad he says he believes Y, and follows through on it when he does Z. How is Z going to happen if he believes X instead???” I was happily surprised by the way Miller gets her revamped characters to hit their marks. With the exclusion of the scene I mentioned above, it never felt forced in any way, and in fact I often felt like the new character motivations allowed me to see the events of the war through a new perspective. Maybe it was because of this that, as I read this novel, I felt like I was rediscovering why I love the Trojan War story so much. So … that was awesome.

· Another relationship I enjoyed was that between Odysseus and Diomedes. Frustrating that they were only allowed like three scenes of banter!!

· This is a pretty nerdy thing to get so excited about, but I don’t care; I LOVED the foreshadowing in this book. If I have one complaint about Trojan War novels in general, it’s that their foreshadowing is usually ramped up to DEAFENING; usually Cassandra or a prophecy is put in charge of telling us exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s that. Of course there is a certain amount of pathos in watching characters stumble towards a fate they are aware of but are still unable to avoid, but I think I prefer foreshadowing that at least attempts to be subtle. Yes, prophecies abound in The Song of Achilles, but there is a bonus layer of foreshadowing on top of them that is subtle, clever, and heartwrenching — the kind that twists the knife if you already know how the story goes. It was so good I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, lest I ruin it for someone who hasn’t read the novel yet.

· … Some of you might be interested to know that I very nearly typed The Song that Killed Achilles in the above paragraph. TWO GREAT BOOKS THAT TASTE GREAT TOGETHER?!

· I love how this book doesn’t steer away from the questions raised by its story, but deals with them head-on. Who is more important, a friend or a stranger? What, if anything, is worth trading your life for? Is fame worth fighting for, even if you’ll be remembered as a villain? There was a lot more discussion in this book than I expected, and I really enjoyed it.

· I also enjoyed the parts where Miller made certain ancient Greek words a part of the story, but I found Patroclus’ explanations of them confusing. Who is he explaining them for? Who is he telling the story to? I was willing to ignore this until the end of the book left me even more confused about it. At the same time, though, I’m not sure how else she could have gotten away with using Greek words, and I do like that she used them.

· I think I’m a little picky about how the gods are portrayed in Trojan War retellings. I mention this only to say that I loved the way the gods are portrayed in this book. Apollo is much creepier here than I’d ever seen him before, but it works perfectly. I loved all his scenes, and the way the plague was described in order to clue you into his involvement was fantastic.

· If the summary didn’t give it away, the focus of The Song of Achilles is the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Everything I’ve read about sexuality in ancient Greece (admittedly not much) has suggested that the ancient Greeks didn’t categorise sexuality the way we do now, and that it was pretty common for an adult man to have slept with both men and women. In The Song of Achilles, however, it’s made quite clear that both Achilles and Patroclus are gay in the twenty-first century sense of the word. It is also made clear that they feel the need to be careful about who they reveal their relationship to. As a result, it was difficult for me not to feel that a modern interpretation of sexuality was being applied to a story that was otherwise very carefully set in the Bronze Age. The reasons for Achilles and Patroclus to hide their relationship are mentioned a few times — several people mention that Patroclus would not be seen as being good enough for Achilles, and Odysseus says that it’s common for boys to sleep with each other only until they reach a certain age — but I still feel unsure as to whether the novel’s portrayal is accurate to what we know of Bronze Age society. Maybe I just have to read up on this a bit more. Either way, I guess it’s kind of neat that here’s a book whose title character is gay and spends several chapters dressed as a woman … but could still kill you just by looking at you.

· This book is narrated in the first person by Patroclus, which made me wonder how the last few chapters of the book would be handled. In the hope of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that they were done better than I anticipated. I was also very surprised by how strongly they affected me. I seriously tear up at everything, so if I had just teared up at the end of this book I wouldn’t even be mentioning it. Fair warning, friends: I cried off and on through the last four chapters, and then bawled for ten minutes straight after reading the last page. I genuinely think the last time I reacted to a book this way was when I read Inside the Walls of Troy … when I was thirteen. I wish I could say why this book affected me so strongly. Because I somehow managed to forget just how dark Achilles’ story gets? The last few chapters were so raw and intense and lonely, the last few pages such a heartbreaking mess of despair and hope. If you’ve made it through the almost 2,000(!!) words of this post you know that I have a few criticisms of this book, but they are not half enough to stop me from recommending it. Unbelievably, the gushing reviews of this book did not build it up too much; The Song of Achilles is easily my favourite of the Trojan War novels that I’ve blogged about so far.

Buy it at:,

Achilles turns to me. He is breathing quickly, the tips of his ears pinking with excitement. He seizes my hand, and crows to me of the day’s events, of how his name was on everyone’s lips, of the power of his absence, big as a Cyclops, walking heavily amongst the soldiers. The excitement of the day has flared through him, like flame in dry grass. For the first time, he dreams of killing: the stroke of glory, his inevitable spear through Hector’s heart. My skin prickles to hear him say so.
‘Do you see?’ he says. ‘It is the beginning!’
I cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.