The Golden Age of Greece Retold

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Posted in 2016

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Each of these novels — the result of many years of individual effort and rich imagination and invention — marks a stunning, magnificent debut.

The dust jacket of The Song of Achilles tells us that Madeline Miller teaches Latin and Classical Greek and that before now she also had been adapting classical tales for present day audiences. Her first novel is neither an adaptation nor derivative. Ms. Miller plumbs the depths of the psyche of a conflict-ridden Achilles and his wrath, which is the underlying theme of The Iliad, as we read in Robert Fagles’ translation of the opening line: “Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles …”

The Song of Achilles convincingly reconciles the different stories of Achilles’ adolescence and his relationship with Patroclus, his boon companion, whom Achilles “loved beyond all other comrades, loved as [his] own life,” as Homer tells us, in an authentic and convincing manner that holds the reader’s suspense to the end. When doing so, Ms. Miller not only expands the narrative and the character of Achilles, but she remakes Thetis, Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess, anew rightfully transforming her into a powerful willed shimmering force.

Some reviewers have compared Ms. Miller’s first novel to the compelling works of Mary Renault who working with historical sources brought the age and person of Alexander the Great to life for her readers. This is generous praise indeed, but Ms. Miller has done in my judgment what is even more difficult, which is to absorb the Classic Greek literature and religion to such a degree that her work is filled with the very marrow of the Golden Age of Greece.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,” so opens The Odyssey, a peon to wily Odysseus and his trials and misadventures during his 10-year journey home from a defeated razed Troy to his Kingdom of Ithaca, where his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus have waited for Odysseus for 20 years. During his absence, his palace has filled with suitors who go there daily to feast on Odysseus’ food and wine and wait for Penelope to give up all hope that Odysseus has survived the Trojan War or the return trip home and to marry one of those present. Penelope puts her suitors off by saying she will decide whom to marry once she finishes reweaving the worn shroud of old Laertes, father of Odysseus. At night she unravels the work she has done each day. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, eventually returns home. Initially abused by the suitors of Penelope, he discloses his identity to Telemachus, and they combine and kill the suitors. Penelope and Odysseus re-join, but only after Odysseus successfully convinces Penelope that the man before her is truly Odysseus, her husband.

Unlike the canons of sacred literature of the Hebrew, Roman Catholic, and Protestant faiths, there is no one canon of Greek mythology. For a period in the 19th century, the existence of the Trojan War (and the key historical figures of Homer’s epic) was seriously questioned by some historians until Schliemann excavated Troy and then Mycenae, where he recovered Agamemnon’s mask and Nestor’s cup or a cup that uncannily resembles the one that Homer describes. Did Homer hear about Nestor’s cup or did an admirer of Homer make a cup like the one Homer describes? In recounting the ordeals of the Greeks during and after the Trojan War, Homer at different times omits or makes no reference to certain stories about his characters that were known in and sometimes unique to certain parts of Greece. One of the most curious of these stories is that Helen, the cause célèbre of the Trojan War, was a phantom who never existed or who never made it to Troy after leaving Sparta having disembarked in Egypt. Homer’s inclusion of Helen in both The Iliad and The Odyssey should be read as a clear rejection of Helen as a phantom. Or should it?

Odysseus’ homecoming is repeatedly thwarted by Poseidon, who favored the Trojans and is now Odysseus’ avowed enemy. The 10-year voyage should take Odysseus ultimately south and west from Ilium across the Aegean and into the Ionian Sea where Ithaca lies northwest of the Peloponnese. Instead, attempts to chart the voyage are a cartographer’s nightmare because Homer adapts the trip to the stories of Jason and the Argonauts who traveled from west to east on the Caspian Sea. During his sails, Odysseus encounters seductresses, sorcerers, enchantresses, and fantastical creatures and monsters before finally reaching Ithaca, but not without the repeated intervention of Athena, defender of the Achaeans with her favorite being Odysseus himself.

Against this backdrop of gods and goddesses, superheroes and heroes, alternate, even competing, realities, the supernatural and the natural, magic and sorcery, Zachary Mason, a mathematician who is now working on a second novel, gives us The Lost Books of the Odyssey. The “preface” explains that it consists of 44 “fragments” found at Oxyrhynchus. The recovered papyri of Oxyrhynchus are still in the process of being uncovered and translated; they include so far The Gospel of Thomas, fragments of the poetry of Sappho, and the plays of Meander. The site is on the western mouth of the Nile, near the City of Alexandria, where extant versions of Homer’s epic were first collected and compiled into a standardized edition after Alexander the Great had founded the city.

In the first fragment, Odysseus returns to Ithaca and enters his home to find that Penelope has remarried. Penelope jumps from her chair and embraces Odysseus, telling him that she thought he had died long ago. Odysseus had not envisioned that Penelope would abandon him like this. His torment and disillusion and profound disappointment are overcome when he realizes he is not standing before Penelope, and he is not in his home or on Ithaca. He “flees the tormenting shadows” escaping “a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god.”

In another, Odysseus enters Agamemnon’s tent alone, awaiting the convening of yet another Achaean council of war. Odysseus sees an anachronistic book in an open chest and picks it up out of curiosity to see what Agamemnon is reading. It is Homer’s epic, both all that has happened up to that point in the Trojan War, and all that is yet to happen, including what will happen to Odysseus.

In the last fragment, Odysseus after having been in Ithaca for many years returns to Ilium to see the ruins of Troy. When he arrives, he is repelled by what he sees, the walls have been restored, the Trojans’ homes have been rebuilt, shops and stalls sell drinking cups and statuettes, and numerous men walk around with sword and shield pretending they are Achilles or Hector or Patroclus or Agamemnon or Priam, reciting lines from The Iliad.

Outside the city walls, Odysseus finds the shield of Achilles, forged by Hephaistos, the god of fire, which Odysseus had won in the games held to honor Achilles after his death but lost on his way home. He believes it is too heavy to take it back to Ithaca so he walks to the Ilium shore and throws it as far into the sea as he can and watches as it disappears into the wine dark sea while “[a]mong the dunes stood Athena, who still watched over him as best as she was able. She was relieved to see him sail back toward Ithaca … She was grateful that his eyes were not as sharp as they had been and that … he had not noticed that the workmanship of the shield was crude, the figures awkward, that there had been countless other shields just like it for sale cheap among the stalls in Troy’s ruins.”

There is a line that arcs from Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles through Aquinas and Montesquieu and Locke to Madison and the founding fathers, who tried to establish a permanent form of political self-government. The origin of this line begins with Homer and the complex characters and fundamental themes of human nature that he gave us in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Ms. Miller and Mr. Mason have created signal works that enrich and bring this tradition home once again.