“You think of big epic tales and you think they’re just to do with war and conflict, but Homer actually writes beautiful lines,”
When Madeline Miller won the Orange prize for fiction last week for her debut novel The Song of Achilles, it seemed only natural to wonder how the mythical Greek hero of her book might celebrate. “I think he’d do it in a very epic way,” she says, laughing. “And luckily one of the lovely sponsors [of the prize] gave me a very large bottle of champagne.”
Miller’s book, written in her spare time while she taught Latin in US secondary schools, is based on Homer’s Iliad and vividly reimagines the story of Patroclus, the brother-in-arms of Achilles. Although Miller’s inspiration was ancient, her themes are undoubtedly modern: The Song of Achilles charts the deep and loving relationship between these two, same-sex characters in a time of war and brutality.
“I think that now we are at a place in our culture where we can re-accept that interpretation of the story,” Miller says. “It felt like it was a love story already, but I sometimes think the idea of them as lovers has been a little bit whitewashed from the record.”
Indeed, the novel’s reinterpretation of a 2,700-year-old epic poem for the 21st century marks something of a cultural revival for the classics. In recent years the Iliad has inspired writer David Malouf (his 2009 novel, Ransom, starts at the moment when Hector, prince of Troy, has been slain by Achilles) and the award-winning poet Alice Oswald, who last year published Memorial, a radical reworking of the original poem.
A modern-dress production of Antigone by Sophocles has just opened at the National Theatre while, on television, interest in ancient history is at an all-time high: Mary Beard’s BBC series Meet the Romans attracted almost two million viewers and Bettany Hughes is filming an ITV documentary about Roman archaeology.
Cinema, too, has become populated by semi-clad Trojan heroes and Spartan warriors: Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy featured the rippled muscular torso of Brad Pitt as Achilles, while 300 was a fictionalised retelling of the battle of Thermopylae. Both were box-office successes.
Why are the classics making a comeback? According to Hughes, the classical historian and broadcaster, it is to do with emotional connection.
“You think of big epic tales and you think they’re just to do with war and conflict, but Homer actually writes beautiful lines,” she says. “There’s one line about Athena brushing an arrow away ‘like a mother brushing a fly off the face of a sleeping child’. I read that and I remembered doing that with my own child.
“So suddenly there’s an immediate emotional connection, 27 centuries later, to me as a 21st-century mother. There are big philosophical connections, but also the base connection of what it is to be human.
“I do think that, post-millennium and post-9/11, people have become much less abashed about asking the big questions about why we’re here. If anything can answer those, it’s the wisdom of the ancients because the Greeks and Romans weren’t just swanning around in the Mediterranean sunshine, they were living in tough times. You could be dead by the age of 45. You were in a time of total war.”
The experience of living through war is of particular relevance for present-day audiences accustomed to seeing 24-hour news coverage of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Miller says that she was “absolutely” aware of the parallels when writing The Song of Achilles. “The incredible tragedy of soldiers dying on the battlefield is something that resonates,” she says. “The Iliad is critical about leaders and leadership and examines what it’s like to hear the generals squabbling among themselves while ordinary soldiers are sent to fight.”
In the National Theatre’s production of Antigone, starring Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker, the similarities are even more explicit: the play opens with generals and bureaucrats gathered round a TV watching a war ending. The actors are arranged in a way that reproduces the now famous photograph of the US president, Barack Obama, surrounded by his aides and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, watching the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“We wanted to create the clearest possible pane of glass between us and it,” explains Antigone director Polly Findlay. “It wasn’t so much drawing modern parallels as removing any distance because those kind of classic stories are the quickest, cleanest way into understanding basic human experience … When the global political climate is as distressing as it currently is, these stories are a quick fix to understanding what has always been true about people.”
According to Barbara Goff, professor of classics at Reading University, the moral complexity at the heart of these ancient dramas is one reason why the stories have endured for so long.
“The focus on war in the Iliad means that it is asking some crucial questions – what is a man’s life worth, what is a woman’s life worth? – but it’s never clear if it is glorifying war or if it is critical of it,” Goff explains. “People are still debating that. The poem pits Greeks against Trojans, but there’s never any idea that the Greeks are the good guys and the Trojans the villains – often the opposite, in fact.”
The subtlety of the writing can have a tangible impact on audiences. In the US, an organisation called the Philoctetes Project performs ancient military dramas in order to help modern-day soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
There has also been a rise in the number of school pupils studying Latin and Greek at school, partly prompted by the charity Classics for All, which aims to introduce one or more classical subjects in at least 1,000 state schools over the next 10 years.
“One of the reasons it’s genuinely popular with kids is that their parents didn’t study it,” says Hughes, whose most recent book, Socrates: The Hemlock Cup, is a New York Times bestseller. “There were only three of us at school who did classics and we were the geeky ones. Now it’s become something very cool to do: it’s a secret, exotic world that kids can unlock that their parents don’t know about.”
Interest among younger people has also been sparked by computer games set in the ancient world, including Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising.
“The way we teach classics has changed,” says Paul Cartledge, a professor of Greek history at Cambridge University and the president of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. “It’s much more about reading Greek or Latin: you find a storyline or a scenario and you get kids reading. It’s not just ‘What is a gerund or a past participle?’ It’s about getting into the story early on.”
And it is precisely the prospect of retelling these stories through the prism of modern preoccupation that acts as catnip to novelists.
For the eminent classicist Mary Beard, our renewed interest in the ancient texts is part of a distinguished tradition. “The really important thing is that every generation rediscovers it and they think they’re the first people to do so, but actually it’s never gone away,” she says. “What about the novels of Mary Renault or Rosemary Sutcliff or I, Claudius or Asterix? The whole point is that we retell these stories with our own interests and concerns; it’s a constant re-engagement.”
Of course, it’s worth remembering that the art of rewriting classical texts has a long and noble history: both the Iliad and the Odyssey are themselves reinterpretations of Greek myths. We might be experiencing an era of classical rejuvenation. But perhaps Miller’s Orange prize victory simply proves – as Beard believes – that our interest in timeless storytelling never really went away.
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