An alternative title for this post, taken from author Madeline Miller’s event last night at Porter Square Books, could be: Mythological Fiction: “Am I really having a centaur in my novel?”
“Mythological fiction” is how Miller categorizes her novel, The Song of Achilles, rather than historical fiction or simply literary fiction, and it’s apt: The Song of Achilles is a retelling of part of Homer’s Iliad, complete with heroes, gods, and mortals. Authors who choose to adapt or retell myths have a choice, said Miller, to write the gods as characters or to explain away their presence (e.g., Was it Poseidon or an earthquake?). Miller chose to include the gods as characters, notably Achilles’ sea-nymph mother Thetis, and his and Patroclus’ teacher, the centaur Chiron.
Miller’s impetus for writing The Song of Achilles was Achilles’ extreme grief over Patroclus’ death in the Iliad. To explain Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’ fate, she writes about their adolescence and coming of age together from Patroclus’ point of view. The Song of Achilles tells an ancient story in an accessible way; the writing is both modern and lyric. Of adapting Homer’s original material, Miller said, “Great artists [such as Homer] understand human nature…the stories in the past illuminate the present…great art has great psychological insight.” The story seems modern because human nature has not changed: pride, love, grief, and revenge are as familiar to us now as they were three thousand years ago.