I know why Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, The Song of Achilles. She took a ten-year risk to write about characters from an ancient Greek epic poem from the point of view of the underdog. She put together sentences like these ones: “His fingers touched the strings, and all my thoughts were displaced. The sound was pure and sweet as water, bright as lemons. It was like no music I had ever heard before. It had warmth as a fire does, a texture and weight like polished ivory. It buoyed and soothed at once. A few hairs slipped forward to hang over his eyes as he played. They were fine as lyre strings themselves, and shone.” (p. 34, The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller) She paints a picture of the perfect man who does not exist in real life, but makes every girl (and man) drool over him to be real anyway. She describes a world where gods and humans coexist, fighting over land and honor, the stuff of Kings working toward expanding their Kingdoms. She is a woman, yet is able to describe the admiration and appreciation of beauty in a man from the point of view of a man so realistically there is beauty in that that comes to life, jumping off the page into the life of the reader. Before this book I had no idea there were so many ways to describe a beautiful man or the intensity of the wrath of a goddess, feeling the doom as if Thetis were there in the room with me.
Yet despite all the love and beauty between one man and another, as well as eventually between a man and his best woman friend, Briseis, Miller manages to portray the barbarity of the war. Women are taken as prizes and bed-slaves. Virgin daughters are sacrificed to appease the anger of the gods. Skulls crack open when one man kills another. Here is where hubris is introduced for the first time and henceforth all tragedies moving forward includes an element of excessive pride, or “arrogance that scrapes the stars, for violence and towering rage as ugly as the gods.” (p.295, The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller) I could not have defined that word any better. Nobody could appreciate Achilles better than Patroclus could and for this Patroclus deserved his own admirer in the form of Briseis. This is the beginning of good triumphing over evil and love conquering all. This is also where dying in a war is more honorable for a prince than dying for any other reason. This is where gender roles are explored for the first time and experiencing ramifications of disobeying the Greek gods. The whole novel is a song in itself, singing of the depth of true love and the amount of blood a man will shed to protect those who he truly cares about, men and women alike. Not too shabby for an underdog like Patroclus.