Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Song of Achilles (by Madeline Miller)

The Song of Achilles is a fantasy romance that tells the story of a marriage-in-all-but-name between Patroclus (the first person narrator) and Achilles. Major spoilers follow, so if you're not familiar with the mythology you might want to read the book before reading this review - it's definitely worth a read, especially towards the end.

Most of the blurbs and so on will call this a re-telling of the Iliad, but that's not entirely accurate. It's true that the story is certainly inspired by the Iliad, and it includes details in its interpretation of Achilles and Patrolcus' relationship that come specifically from the Iliad (I'd forgotten that they are described as growing up as brothers after Patroclus accidentally killed another boy, for example - I remembered he was exiled for murder, but in some interpretations he's thought to be older than Achilles).

However, the first two thirds of the book are not a re-telling of the Iliad, or even of the story of the Trojan War. That doesn't start for ages, and the meat of the Iliad itself doesn't start until p257 (of 368). Most of the book is a love story between two teenage boys, which reminded of Twilight more than anything else. Please understand that I do not mean this as an especially bad thing! Aside from having some issues with its attitudes towards men and woman in terms of stalking, sabotaging people's cars, 'imprinting' and so on, I really quite enjoyed the Twilight series - it may not be great literature, but it's fun. And for much of The Song of Achilles, the story is about Patroclus, who is quiet, clumsy, socially awkward, mysteriously attractive to everyone around him and would be bookish if they had any books, who falls madly in love with Achilles, who is a supernaturally beautiful, musically talented superhero who is the best fighter of all the Greeks and very protective of Patroclus. To be fair, when Patroclus admiringly describes Achilles as 'godlike' or similar adjectives he's not engaging in hyperbole so much as stating a fact, since Achilles is the son of a minor goddess, but still, the loving descriptions of how incredibly gorgeous and wonderful Achilles is didn't half remind me of Stephanie Meyer's descriptions of Edward Cullen.

In the last third of the book, though, the story moves on to the Trojan War, and this is where it really kicks into gear (after including Aulis - having said 'we were going to war at Troy,' or words to that effect, the next chapter starts 'But first we had to go to Aulis' and my heart sank as I was desperate for the war to actually start by then!). Miller finds a way to preserve the essence of Achilles' ancient motivation - anger at Agamemnon for stealing his war prize - without losing sight of the fact the 'prize' in question is a living woman, and uses Patroclus to keep our heroes just on the right side of likable without moving away from the ancient themes entirely. She clearly loves the Iliad and knows it like the back of her hand, and the final third of the book is a fast-paced and gripping re-telling of the basic bones of the story.

The Iliad itself leaves the exact nature of Achilles and Patroclus' relationship unspecified, and it can be interpreted as either 'very close like brothers' or as 'lovers' equally easily. In the Classical period in ancient Greece, a couple of centuries later, loving sexual relationships between youths (teenagers) and older men were especially common, so Achilles and Patroclus was assumed to be a couple (which led to some confusion concerning which was younger and which older, since Achilles should surely be the dominant partner, but was often thought to be younger than Patroclus). Here, they are a young couple of the same age who have grown up together, which works particularly well when re-telling the later sections of the Iliad.

The interpretation of Achilles' mother Thetis and the gods in general is especially interesting. Thetis is cold and intensely unlikable (as is Achilles' son Neoptolemus/Pyrrhus, a character I'd never given much thought to, but when you think about his story, he really is utterly horrible!). Her characterization emphasizes the often heartless and implacable nature of the ancient gods, who play as big a part in this novel as they do in ancient epic poetry. Here, priests do not choose to blame plague on the gods - the plague literally is caused by the gods for the precise reasons Calchas the priest gives, and you can see the soldiers shot as if by arrows as they fall victim to it. Miller makes the appearance of the gods on the battlefield work surprisingly well - the image of Apollo smiling down on Patroclus as he plucks him from the walls of Troy is especially effective. It's strange to read a modern novel that takes the gods so seriously and so literally, but for the most part Miller uses them to impressive effect.

I did get a little tired of Thetis' constant complaints about how much she hates Patroclus, but as I reached the end I realised that there was a good reason for this particular interpretation of their relationship, relating to how Miller deals with the fact that (spoiler alert) her narrator is dead for the most dramatic and interesting parts of the story. In Miller's version, Patroclus is not properly memorialized for ages (in the Iliad, of course, Achilles sees to this after killing Hector) so his spirit is stuck hanging around Troy and sees the significant events that occur after his death. The horse is only referred to in passing, but Achilles' story is properly, if a little hastily, finished - though I was very disappointed to see that even in this version, which includes so much more of the ancient material than most, we still didn't get to see Ajax carry Achilles' body (with its armour) from the field while Odysseus fights off Trojans around him. This is probably because this Achilles doesn't really seem to like anyone except Patroclus very much, and doesn't really get on with Odysseus, but still, I'd have liked to see it.

On the other hand, some parts of the novel try a little too hard to cram in a little too much of the huge body of myth surrounding the character of Achilles. The story of him hiding out dressed as a girl on Skyros, for example, is not referred to in the Iliad, which is a serious war story. Ancient myths were told and re-told in so many different contexts that there are numerous stories surrounding the important figures, some more suited to a serious treatment, some lighter, maybe for a comedy or romantic piece - Skyros strikes me as the latter. Miller also has to do some narrative acrobatics to squeeze in and justify the existence of Neoptolemus as well as including the story about Iphigenia being tricked into thinking she's marrying Achilles at Aulis (who is, in this composite version, already married). On the other hand, from within the Iliad itself, I would probably have omitted the bit where Achilles fights a river god, which always sticks out a bit in the poem (possibly as a result of different oral poems being stitched together into one big whole) and slows the narrative down - Miller spends ages on this fight, whereas poor Hector is dispatched in a line or two. At least she left out the talking horse.

Patroclus is a mostly likable narrator, though I was a bit disappointed that he was written as a bad fighter - the Patroclus of myth is nowhere near as good a fighter as Achilles, but he's decent enough and shouldn't need Achilles to jump around him protecting him whenever they're in battle together. Here, Patroclus is given what in a more modern war story would be a more traditionally female role, working as a nurse/surgeon in the medical tent (I'm thinking of world war one stories in particular, where this is usually the way in which female characters experience war). He's utterly awful at fighting, except for a bit of luck and maybe some divine assistance right at the end. Personally, I'd have liked to read a love story between two talented ancient warriors, but maybe that's sexist of me. Or something-ist. Probably.

Overall, this is a fascinating interpretation of certain Achilles-related highlights of ancient mythology. There are some scenes which seem a bit odd and don't really sit comfortably with the rest of the narrative - the river-god-fighting, and a very odd scene in which Patroclus has sex with Achilles' wife, thereby cheating on his boyfriend by committing adultery with his boyfriend's wife, which seems Not Okay to me - but for the most part everything comes together towards the end as the book moves into the Trojan War sections and really starts to build up steam. I'd definitely recommend it, especially for its fascinating depiction of ancient gods in a truly active role, and for a sweet and moving romance.

Thanks to Troy, I am incapable of picturing Achilles without mentally picturing Brad Pitt. Which is also not necessarily a bad thing.

Before I finish talking about The Song of Achilles, there's something I have to get off my chest, which has less to do with the novel itself and more to do with general trends, so to avoid me ranting about my pet peeves, skip to the bottom now!

It's quite a long rant. Sorry about that. Keep going, it ends eventually...

Goodreads lists Madeline Miller's work (this and her new novel Galatea, also based on ancient mythology) as 'historical fiction.' USA Today lists The Song of Achilles as 'General Fiction'. Various other sites go so far as to refer to its genre as 'mythology.' I borrowed the book from a friend, so I don't know where bookshops usually shelve it, but I know that in all the time I've spent browsing the SFF section of various branches of Waterstone's recently, I haven't seen it.

This bothers me, because The Song of Achilles is a fantasy novel.

It has a centaur in it.

I feel like I don't need to say much more than 'it has a centaur in it' to justify this claim, but it also features gods - heavily - completely inescapable prophecies, nymphs and restless spirits who can't go to the underworld until properly buried and memorialized. You might just get away with accurate prophecies in a non-fantasy book, as prophecy is one of the areas for which we suspend our disbelief a bit, even in more realistic genres. You could even make an argument that the inclusion of gods and spirits is more indicative of a spiritual aspect rather than 'fantasy' per se. But the use of the gods here, literally shooting people and throwing them off walls, combined with the prophecies and nymphs and spirits and, most importantly, the centaur, marks this out clearly as fantasy - for fantasy is not just the name for cheap sword-n-sorcery paperbacks, but for any story engaging in a speculative world that is not part of our understanding of our everyday experience, and not explained using current or imagined future technology (which would be science fiction).

And yet, aside from the odd reference to Thetis' divine nature, you wouldn't know that from the book's cover, or its marketing. It won The Prize Formerly Known As The Orange Prize For Fiction, and as far as I can tell (though I confess I haven't actually read any of the others) it is the only SFF winner of that prize, unless you count Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which apparently involves 'magic realism' (another way for authors to try to avoid claiming they write fantasy, in my opinion). I was so unprepared for full-on, active-gods-and-centaurs fantasy that I was completely taken aback when they appeared, as I had assumed when Patroclus first mentioned Achilles' divine mother that this was just a rumour because she was particularly beautiful or something. As a reader, I had to make a sort of mental adjustment into a different world and a different level of suspension of disbelief when I realized what the story actually was. Historical fiction, this is not.

The reason this bothers me is that I think the reluctance to label this book as what it is, is part of the continued wider dismissal of fantasy (and science fiction) by mainstream media. Now that Game of Thrones is a big success on HBO, readers are discovering George RR Martin's books and saying, in great tones of surprise, 'oh look, it's fantasy but it's got well drawn characters and interesting human-focused plots - so it's not really fantasy', or it's unusually good fantasy. Actually, as much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire very much, other fantasy authors have been doing just as much great character work and fascinating human stories for years - my favourite is Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, but you only have to read Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett (especially the later books; if you want character drama, I'd recommend Night Watch) to see how great fantasy can be. (And that's without even mentioning quite possibly the most successful book series of all time, which is doubly discounted as literature for being both fantasy and intended for a younger audience).

I think when people dismiss 'fantasy' what they often have in mind is the sort of cheap, overly formulaic stuff (all young baker boys getting the Sword of Whatsit to the Stone of Thingummy) that is to fantasy as a genre what Mills and Boon is to romance, or a cheap and overly formulaic detective story is to crime fiction. Yes, there is bad fantasy. There is also good fantasy, and instead of hiding behind the veneer of respectability offered by Homer - because apparently fantasy is OK as long as it's 'mythological,' or based on a recognized literary great like Homer, Virgil, Dante or Shakespeare - we should all call a spade a spade and recognize a good fantasy novel for what it is.

And (here's where everyone who skipped the rant can re-join us!) The Song of Achilles is a good fantasy novel. For me, it's not a great fantasy novel - it takes a bit too long to get going and there are too many sequences that sit awkwardly with the rest of it - but it's very good, especially in the last third. I'd recommend it - and do persevere if you're finding it slow. Or skip to p257.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Xena Warrior Princess: Orphan of War

Trying to prevent a Bad Guy from getting hold of an Evil McGuffin, Xena comes face to face with her past. Literally (by which I do not mean metaphorically - the Oxford English Dictionary's recent redefinition of the word 'literally' drives me figuratively insane).

This episode introduces Xena’s son Solon, left with a group of centaurs to raise as their own (by adoption, obviously) while she was still in her evil phase. This is in the best Classical mythological tradition, as half the heroes of ancient Greece were sent to the centaur Chiron to be raised and educated. Here, though, Solon is left with a group of centaurs rather than an individual - this is partly thanks to the depiction of centaurs as generally fairly reasonable if a little quick-tempered in Xena: Warrior Princess, as opposed to the wild and totally unruly race to whom Chiron is the exception in Greek mythology.

Both Xena and the centaur Kaleipus are desperate to stop Solon from becoming a warrior like both his parents, but the kid himself has to be kidnapped and suffer a broken arm before deciding that maybe he should try to honour his late father in other ways (perhaps he could take up singing, which both parents were apparently good at, though I'm disappointed we don't get to hear Xena sing here). Solon believes his mother is dead, and at first Xena lets him think that because he hates her and thinks she killed his father. By the end of the episode, he knows this isn't true, and I’m not quite sure why Xena doesn’t tell Solon she’s his mother before she leaves, since he seems pretty well-disposed towards her by that point. She really needs to just spit it out - but their interactions are very sweet and poignant all the same.

The McGuffin, the stone of Ixion, is not something I'm familiar with from mythology and seems to be a pretty basic fantasy McGuffin to get Xena and Solon together. Greek mythology isn’t overly big on magical stones, or rings, or swords or any other magical implements, come to that. There are magical gifts given by the gods to their favourites or their offspring, like invisibility helmets and improbably large/finely decorated shields, but generally speaking heroes have to rely on their own strength and the help of friendly deities. There are exceptions of course. The bow of Odysseus is a significant object, but only because of its size, so huge that only Odysseus is strong enough to draw it. The Golden Fleece is a more typical fantastical quest object, although unlike most fantasy quest objects it doesn't actually do anything and is desired for its symbolic value.

Ixion himself was a minor character best known for his eternal punishment for trying to seduce Hera; he was chained to a fiery wheel and set rolling for ever. He was also the father of a centaur, which makes him vaguely appropriate as the source of a mysterious evil-centaur-power.

Overall this was a nice, touching episode, if a rather downbeat start to the second season (though it effectively covers the basics of Xena's back-story for new viewers). I like that we don’t actually see Solon's father Borias in this episode, though he turns up in flashbacks later in the series. Solon never knew his father or mother, and that story plays all the more strongly for the fact the we as the audience also only hear about Borias, rather than seeing him. Gabrielle doesn't have much to do beyond complain that she finds it hard to understand the hatred Xena gets wherever they go, despite knowing full well that Xena was a psychopathic murderer known as ‘Destroyer of Nations.’ Gabrielle really does live in her own little world sometimes, doesn’t she… Still, she shows Solon some defensive tactics and apologises for trying to tell Xena how to handle her personal relationships, so she's definitely growing, at least a bit.


Kaleipus (to Xena, re: Solon): I know he’ll be safe with you.

Disclaimer: No Sleazy Warlords who deem it necessary to drink magic elixers that turn them into scaly centaurs were harmed during the production of this motion picture.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (dir. Thor Freuenthal, 2013)

I have a confession to make. I took Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters on holiday with me to read it before seeing the film - but when I got there, I spent most of my time reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole instead (which is a great book, and similarly fascinating TV series). As a result, this afternoon I had the slightly peculiar experience of going to see a film while simultaneously being halfway through reading the book on which it's based. Matters were further complicated by the fact that these adaptations are relatively loose compared to, say, the Harry Potter films, and that I haven't read the first book and can remember almost nothing of the film, since I only saw it once. Apparently Luke (a villain from the first installment) met a slightly different fate in the film than he did in the book? Oh well.

One thing I do remember from the first film is that Chiron the centaur was played by 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan variety. This is no longer the case - Chiron now appears in the form of Rupert Giles, which perhaps explains his reluctance to give Percy access to a prophecy involving Percy's own potential untimely demise (Buffy reacted really badly when he told her the same thing). Dionysus, meanwhile, has morphed into Stanley Tucci, playing a version of the book's Mr D, though a much softer, more overtly comic Mr D than his rather sinister book counterpart. He is responsible for one of the jokes that made me laugh out loud during the film. The other, a nerdy fandom-based shout-out appreciated by absolutely no one else in the cinema audience except me, came courtesy of Nathan Fillion, now playing Hermes (sadly the YouTube clip of his scene edits out said geeky in-joke, but I'm sure it'll turn up on Pinterest at some point).

One major new character in this film is a Cyclops, or a small version of one (the bigger version turns up later). Aside from the fact no-one could pronounce the plural (it's Cyclop-EEZE, not Cyclopses) Tyson is a fun addition; a bit brighter than his book counterpart, but still endearingly prone to dropping important MacGuffins off the side of boats and so on. We are also introduced to the Delphic Oracle, a skeletal figure with long grey hair and glowing eyes, looking like a horror-movie mummy (as, I gather from the first half of Book 2, she is described in the books). I like the idea of the oracle as a mummy. The Sibyl at Cumae - a different, Roman oracle - was sometimes said to have shriveled with age to the point that she was put in a jar (possibly the inspiration for that awful Gollum-Doctor in Doctor Who's 'Last of the Timelords'), so the idea of the Delphic Oracle as a skeletal, mummy-like creature works rather well.

Some of the elements of this film are very nicely visualized. Charybdis, the monster that creates a whirlpool and sucks ships down into it, appears first as menacing shark-like fins, and her insides are brightly coloured and pulsating. (The idea of our heroes being trapped in the creature's stomach is a really interesting combination of an ancient idea going back at least to Lucian's True Story with improved modern knowledge of the digestive system). The Golden Fleece itself looks, not like a raggy, just-off-the-sheep coat, as in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, but a rather nicely designed rug, the sort of sheep fleece you might buy in a shop (though its magical healing properties are presumably inspired by the older film, as I'm not aware of any ancient texts that ascribe healing properties to the Fleece - the point of questing for it was that it was supposedly impossible to get hold of, rather than any use it might be. The sheep could fly before it was sacrificed - dead, it's just a trophy).

When the film is required to produce an animated sequence telling the story of the Titans, it elects for a similar approach to Disney' Hercules, while trying (probably unsuccessfully) to prevent audiences from drifting off into a mental rendition of 'The Gospel Truth.' Like Hercules, Percy Jackson uses Christian imagery to emphasize the element of religious practice in the source material, in this case, animating figures from a stained-glass window that sits behind the Oracle. It works quite well, though it can't erase the ghost of the superior Disney film. It also has to be said that sadly, not all the design elements are so original - when Kronos makes an appearance, he is played by the Balrog. As he was in Wrath of the Titans. Boring.

Maybe it's just because I've been reading the book this week, in which the kids are 12, but I found myself constantly distracted by the ages of the actors in this film. The principals are, roughly, 21, 26, 29, 23, 27 and 25. In most cases, this is partly down to the long gap between films, the first one having come out three years ago in 2010, but those are still some pretty big age gaps between character and actor. Normally I don't let this sort of thing bother me, but there was something about this film - perhaps the frequent references to Percy possibly dying before the age of 20, perhaps the flashback in the opening sequence that featured actual children, perhaps just how adult Luke looked while plotting and scheming - that meant this persistently annoyed me, good as all the actors are. All the characters have been aged up anyway, of course, with the book's prophecy referring to Percy dying aged 16, not 20, and everyone in the book clearly much younger, but for some reason I couldn't suspend my disbelief on this the way I usually can (it's never bothered me in The Hunger Games, for example). Perhaps it's just a sign that the film wasn't entirely holding my attention.

Like many modern films, this film emphasizes the idea that we make our own choices and control our own destinies, suggesting that fighting Fate is a good idea (though all elements of prophecies given are, so far, fulfilled or yet to happen). The Greeks would not be on board with this notion - a substantial proportion of Greek mythology concerns the grim inevitability of Fate. Otherwise, it's fun spotting the bits and pieces of Greek myth scattered about the place, though I confess I'm somewhat mystified as to why the Fates want to drive a taxi, or Circe wanted to build an amusement park. I mean, turn men into pigs and/or her sex slaves, yes. But why an amusement park?

The film has a PG rating, though I wouldn't take sensitive younger children to it, as the opening sequence features the death of a fairly young character, who is then incorporated into the roots of a tree, from which she stares up at the sky, creepily. But then, maybe I'm over-reacting because I've always been freaked out by Cyclopes - the one eye gives me the shivers. This is literally the reason I haven't watched all that much Futurama. I am prejudiced against Cyclopes. Older or less sensitive children will have fun, though they might be a bit confused in places! Personally, I was reasonably well entertained, and there's a pleasantly light and friendly tone to the film with plenty of humour throughout, but it remains to be seen whether this is enough to see Percy's story through to its prophesied end before the cast turn 40.

Read my review of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Top Gear Middle East Special: Roman Rallying

Top Gear is a British car magazine show - except it's less about cars (much as they do feature quite heavily) and more about celebrating the great British traditions of making fun of absolutely everyone and messing about a lot. In cars.

Now, if you follow me on Twitter (@ClassicalJG) you may know that I'm a big fan of Formula One. (Since I am also a big fan of Ron Howard, Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth, you can just imagine how excited I am about the upcoming movie Rush). I also have a peculiar conviction that Formula One and Roman chariot racing were extremely similar. Both feature drivers who race for themselves and for personal victory, but who are also members of a team, and must obey team orders and act in the team's interests as well as their own. Both are extremely dangerous, but not (usually) actively violent. Both involve going round in circles very very fast in a small, wheeled vehicle. The main difference, really, is that Roman circuses were in the shape of flat versions of NASCAR tracks, whereas Formula One uses more interesting irregular circuits (though this has the side effect that the live audience only actually see cars whizz past one at a time in front of them on the patch of track they actually have a view of). Well, that and a Formula One car won't kick you if you mis-treat it.

All this being true, it will not surprise you to learn that one of the daft things I would really love to do is race round a Roman circus in a car. Poking around watching clips of old episodes of Top Gear this week, lo and behold, what did I find?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI1BkOtH8Gs (It's impossible to embed this video for some reason).

Yep. That's the Top Gear team basically living out my fantasy.

The music, by the way, is the Ben-Hur soundtrack for the introductory bit and the Gladiator soundtrack for the racing section.

I'm sure, as person who works closely with archaeologists and those involved in heritage management, I should probably be horrified at this clearly somewhat dangerous behaviour in an important archaeological site. And yet... no, I can't be horrified, because given the chance I would do exactly the same, and have a whale of a time in the process.

(Further poking around revealed this clip - how did this happen in my own beloved home city and I didn't know about it?! It's awesome!)

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