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Former teacher combines passion for classics and writing in award-winning first novel ‘The Song of Achilles’

Chapter leader Gayle Allen of Northern Trust, author Madeline Miller, John Ippolito of Northern Trust. Photo/McKenzie Images
Chapter leader Gayle Allen of Northern Trust, author Madeline Miller, John Ippolito of Northern Trust. Photo/McKenzie Images

By Joe Tash

“The Iliad” is one of the oldest existing works of Western literature, dating back to the 8th century B.C. The epic poem written by Homer depicts battles and other events during the final days of the Trojan War, including a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles.

In her 2012 novel, “The Song of Achilles,” author Madeline Miller imagines a period earlier in Achilles’ life, when he befriends an exiled prince named Patroclus, a minor character in “The Iliad.” (Achilles may be most famous for the story about his heel, which Miller explained was not in either the “The Iliad” or its sequel, “The Odyssey,” but instead was penned by a Roman writer who came after Homer.)

The book was published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Miller, who taught Latin and Greek to high school students in Cambridge, Mass., before embarking on a year of travel to promote her book, was the featured speaker at the Feb. 21 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society at the Grand Del Mar Resort.

Miller, 34, said in an interview she was fascinated by a mystery in “The Iliad’ — that Achilles, a celebrated warrior, part god and part man, is devastated by the death of his friend Patroclus.

So she set out to construct a tale about how the two became friends during their boyhood, in a style she called “mythological realism,” because it contains elements of both historical fact and Greek mythology.  For example, she populates the story with gods and goddesses, such as Thetis, a sea nymph who is also Achilles’ mother.

“I wanted to do the behind the scenes of Homer’s stories and Homer’s characters.  It’s more of a literary adaptation, not a historical re-creation,” Miller said. Along with her classroom duties, Miller also directed her students in Shakespeare plays.  She credited one production, “Troilus and Cressida,” which is the Bard’s take on “The Iliad,” with sparking her interest in writing the novel, her first.

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Miller took 10 years to write the book, which she joked was the length of the Trojan War, at one point discarding what she had written and beginning from scratch.

The book details how Patroclus is a disappointment to his father, a king, because of his small stature and inability to compete with other boys in physical contests such as foot races. Soon after, Patroclus is exiled when he accidentally kills the son of a nobleman by shoving him backward when the larger boy was bullying him and trying to take away some hand-carved ivory dice.

Sent away to live in the palace of Achilles’ father, Patroclus encounters the young warrior:  “(Achilles) was lying on his back on a wide, pillowed bench, balancing a lyre on his stomach.  Idly, he plucked at it.  He did not hear me enter, or he did not choose to look.  This is how I first began to understand my place here.  Until this moment I had been a prince, expected and announced.  Now I was negligible.”

Eventually, the two young men become close friends, confidantes and lovers. Among the themes of the book, she said, are Achilles’ struggles between his human and divine sides, and also a choice he is given: to live a long, normal life, or to die young and be famous forever.

Miller grew up in Philadelphia where her mother helped her develop a love of classic literature at an early age. Miller earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University.  Her last year has been hectic, she said, including her winning the Orange Prize, a U.K. award for female novelists, and travel throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Among her stops have been literary festivals in Jaipur and Mumbai, India, and a literary event in the Netherlands.  She’s also lectured at U.S. universities. She hopes to return to the classroom in the future, and combine her passions for teaching and writing.  She is working on a new book based on “The Odyssey,” a sequel of sorts to “The Song of Achilles.” Miller said one of her challenges is to be her own toughest literary critic, but not so tough that she becomes discouraged.  “Just ruthless enough,” she said.

The next Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon will be held on Tuesday, March 19, featuring William Landay, author of “Defending Jacob.”


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