Thursday, 5 July 2012

My Achilles Heel: Greek Myths

Ever have a book hangover? You know when you've just finished an enjoyable book and are hung up on it for a few days, can't stop thinking of it, so moved by its contents that you can't possibly move on to a new book? 

This happens to me all the time. Which could explain the hiatus between books in my reading life. It takes me a while to get over a good book! At the moment, I've just finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, a rave-reviewed retelling of Homer's Illiad by a debut author. The book was good - but the story itself was what I was taken with - that is, the original plot of the Illiad itself.

Homer's text is one of  the foundational texts of Western literature. It is the ultimate in war stories. And epics. And archetypes. I have always been fascinated by Greek myths. So many characters - heroes and gods and monsters - so many arguments and conflicts and arrogance and greed and revenge and love and death - so  much storytelling magic.

I especially love the story of the Illiad - Achilles and his fated glory. Or was it a curse? The book explores this aspect of the story, focusing on Achilles as a human first and foremost and in turn, analysing all those hefty questions of war including the worthiness of glory and honour above love. The book is good at this aspect - at portraying a feeling human being rather than a warrior machine. Achilles is one of the most fascinating of the Greek heroes - how his destiny seems to go against him and how he must choose between pride and honour and love. The phrase Achilles' heel is now synonymous with a weakness - but when I think of Achilles, I don't think of weakness. If anything, his pride was his weakness. But more than that, this book seems to say, love was. As it is for all of us. An indestructible warrior, almost a god, brought down by his ability to care. 

The story is told from the point of view of Patroclus - his childhood companion and lover.  This has not always been the traditional stance - some versions tell of him in love with his war prize, servant-girl Briseis. In some, Patroclus is his cousin. Miller takes some liberties with this portrayal. But the great thing about the Illiad is that it's so open to suggestion that different readers can read different subtexts into it (and writers, write them). Maybe that's why it's been interpreted so many times over, by so many different authors, with so many various agendas and so many stunning results (most notably maybe - Joyce's Ulysses, based on Homer's Odyssey). This sideline arc that Miller takes allows us a deep insight into the character of Achilles, something that the original text doesn't.      

If you enjoy Greek myths, read this book! If you enjoy a good story, read this book! Or a fast-paced narrative, an action-filled adventure, a gripping love story. That's the beauty of such stories - they have an undying universal appeal.

Below I've included some poems that I've come across on the theme of Achilles. You can see how poets have used the story for their individual desires. I especialy love Michael Longley's 'Ceasefire', a moving and affecting poem, a simple lyric summary of the meeting of Achilles and Priam when the King of Troy goes to ask Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, who he killed. Powerful. Especially when we recognise the modern context it alludes to.

What's your favourite Greek myth or character? There are so many more! Do  you know of any other books that have rewritten the myths?? Do share!


Here's a witty comparison from Carol Ann Duffy of Achilles to David Beckham, footballer extraordinaire of our time, whose injured ankle led him to dropping out of a former World Cup. Clever and humorous, as always: 

Achilles - Carol Ann Duffy

Myth’s river- where his mother dipped him,
fished him, a slippery golden boy-
flowed on, his name on its lips.

Without him, it was prophesied,
    they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in girls’ sarongs;
days of sweetmeats, spices, silver song...
  but when Odysseus came,
with an athlete’s build, a sword and a shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd’s roar,
and it was sport, not war,
his charmed foot on the ball...

but then his heel, his heel, his heel...

Next, an emotional analysis of the story from Louise Gluck, touching on the real moral of the story - that it was indeed love - the human side of Achilles - which was his true weak point:

The Triumph of Achilles - Louise Gluck

In the story of Patroclus
no one survives, not even Achilles
who was nearly a god.
Patroclus resembled him; they wore
the same armor.

Always in these friendships
one serves the other, one is less than the other:
the hierarchy
is always apparant, though the legends
cannot be trusted--
their source is the survivor,
the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire
compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.      

And a profound allegory here from Irish poet Michael Longley. This poem was written in 1994 and published in The Irish Times just days after a ceasefire had been declared in the North. Here is an example of how myth can transform a familiar situation into an archetypal one, an universal one, and more importantly, one which so wisely imparts essential truths.

Ceasefire - Michael Longley

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'



  1. Interesting that yesterday I listened to and discussed Icelandic myths rewritten in poems by Icelandic poet Gerour Kristny. Fascinating and wonderful. She will be reading at a poetry gathering at the Verbal Arts Centre tonight (I think that is where it's at). I can find out more if you'd like. You would like her work--powerful and strong and takes a feminist twist on previously very male oriented mythology. As always, Siobhan, this is a great blog. You always present your ideas so well and draw one into areas one might never have really thought about before. Although, it was interesting to have come across Iceland myths as new poetry and then today Greek myths as fodder for new writing. Great work!

  2. That sounds cool! I love myths, of every kind. I think I am going to that poetry reading tonight, sounds very good!

    Thank you very much. Greek myths are great fodder for writing! A few years ago, I think it was Virago commissioned a few well-known women writers to re-write a myth of their choice. Margaret Atwood did The Odyssey, writing from Penelope's view, Odysseus' wife - 'The Penelopiad'. And Jeanette Winterson did a re-take on the Atlas myth - called 'Weight.' Carol Ann Duffy also does some great poems based on myths - 'Medusa' is a good one.
    Lots to check out there!!

  3. Prior to reading The Song of Achilles or the Illiad, some of your blog readers might appreciate a brief article introducing and summarizing Achilles. If so, they could read "Achilles: Mythical Hero" on


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