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May 11, 2022
The Myth Maker
April 12, 2022 COMMENT comment
The Myth Maker
By Juhi Baveja
Engaging with a world full of heroes, myths and legends, Orange Prize-winning author Madeline Miller talks about epics that will never cease to be eternal. "The prolonged mourning of Achilles for Patroclus on the latter's death and the sheer intensity of his physical grief made it evident that their relationship was more than platonic," Miller explains.
Myths are often considered parables of tragedies and victories, passed on from an earlier cradle of civilisation. Identifiers of the theory of mimesis – life imitating art – the Greeks have given us a synthesis of stories and legends that continue to shape art even today. A profuse knowledge pool beset with wisdom, texts like the Iliad and Odyssey, which recount the story of the Trojan War, or even the Freudian bible Oedipus Rex, have been reinvented, adapted and reinterpreted in every age. And yet, a newer generation is bereft of tutelage that required one to inquire about the origin of the arts.

Spending her time championing the relevancy of these tales is a new literary figure who might take offence if you refer to Latin as a dead language. Madeline Miller – the winner of the Orange Prize last year for her The Song of Achilles – is passionate about devouring the myth of these champions, daydreaming about jousting Greek gods, and looking out for the next mythological fix.

Grandiose in its scale and lyric, the Homeric ode to the Trojan war – the Iliad – was Miller's bedside fixture while growing up. "Homer truly is my hero. His text inspired me to study Latin and Greek (and subsequently teach them) so that I could read it in the original version," she raves. Considered one of the earliest pieces of literature, the Iliad traces the last round of the Trojan war, which was fought over 10 years over the city of Troy.

Initially ignited by the abduction of Helen of Sparta by Paris of Troy, the war became a boundless epic about the prophetic fall of Achilles, who was considered one of the most regal warriors of the time. Miller's book takes a microscopic look at the war, and delves into the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus – companions and comrades-in-arms.

The book stays true to the original plot, but is primarily replete with subtle and lush metaphors that showcase her interpretation of Achilles' and Patroclus' relationship. Her fascination with Achilles – a virile and strong version of Ares himself, capable of both crushing cruelty and deep love – mirrors that of Patroclus. She draws upon the ancient tradition of pederasty – which postulates that homosexuality was a deeply entrenched part of Grecian society, often existent between a younger man and his older companion who guided him through the age of awakening. The sexual imagery in the book hints at the same.

"The prolonged mourning of Achilles for Patroclus on the latter's death and the sheer intensity of his physical grief made it evident that their relationship was more than platonic," she explains. That doesn't imply that she is the first one to cite the connection, as valiant deeds inspired by passionate love between same-sex heroes has been a recurrent theme in Greek Literature. The orator Aeschines, Sophocles and Plato have also referred to this relationship as an example of noble love. "It was only his love for Patroclus that was greater than his pride. It impelled the hero to rejoin the fighting, which he had renounced earlier," she says. The book is written from Patroclus' point of view, and marks his stature as more than a side character. His obvious love for Achilles pulls him into the world of treachery, gods and bloodshed. He drags himself into the war, where he is ravaged by Hector, and then avenged by Achilles.

Some scholars argue that this reworking of the legend of Achilles, fictionalised as it may be, glamorises his erotic life and takes away the sanctity of the text. However, Miller announces that she saw it coming and that adapting texts has been a touchy topic in the literary circles. Miller, 34, is not the only one; Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Alice Oswald's Memorial and David Malouf 's Ransom are all derived from the epics. Closer home, AK Ramanujan's Th ree Hundred Ramayanas has also found a similar fate when it comes to scathing reviews by the classicists.

"I have high regard for Ramanujan's work, as it led me to the Ramayana," Miller reveals. The true epic aficionado, she has often revisited the text. "I love the characters, albeit the ones which have the parallel storylines. In this case, I love Hanuman's story more than Ram's," she provides. "I love the demigods, as the more closer you get to the gods, the more flawed they seem." Similarly, the Greek gods according to her seem cruel and vindictive, perennially playing and exacting revenge through these heroes.

Although she shied away from adaptations, she took on the challenge of directing Troilus and Cressida for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I would really point to it as a catalyst for The Song of Achilles."
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