Good Greeks

As I implied in my last post, when I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, my instinct was to dive into her words and worlds to find solace for the surprising amount of sorrow I was feeling. Thus, I ordered the collection No Time to Spare from my local library, which collects several of Le Guin’s blog posts.

While at the library, I decided to pick up their copy of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, even though I had been listening to the audiobook. I was trying to write something about that novel for Ancient World Magazine (which has since been published), and I wanted to check certain references (easier to do with a physical copy).

These withdrawals turn out to be a little more thematic than I had intended. No Time to Spare includes Le Guin’s June 2013 essay on Homer, “Papa H”, in which she says (p. 53):

People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time to mean anything to anybody.

Much of what she goes on to say is more her area than mine – Homer as fantasy – and cannot be applied to the more historical approach to the texts I take in my work. But there is a point here about how mythological stories can have a meaning beyond that which they had in the ancient world (something I tried to apply to the Return of Hephaestos in an earlier AWM piece). As Le Guin wrote in her October 2011 blog post “Readers Questions” (p. 41):

Meaning – this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story . . . ? Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

In my piece on The Song of Achilles, I quoted one scholar, discussing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who thought that teasing out the subtext seemed “to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.” (Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012) p. 190-91). But when you can produce a story as good as Miller’s Song of Achilles, I wonder if reader-responses aren’t more interesting. This is especially true of ancient reader responses, if we can discern them at all.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I read an Aeon article by Catherine Nichols yesterday, “Why is pop culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil?” The article has several themes: nation building while the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales; the idea that nations have a particular ‘character’ , othering other nations. She points to the Iliad and the Mahabharata as examples of older tales that avoid this dichotomy. Le Guin, too, argues that the true tragedy of the Iliad is that Homer doesn’t take sides (No Time to Spare, pp. 53-54):

“The Trojan War is not and you cannot make it be the War of Good vs. Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off, and disembowelment.”

After reading the article, I Tweeted about whether or not I thought this was true. In modern versions of the myth, it seems to me, the Trojans are increasingly becoming the ‘good’ side of this war. The creator of the forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City claims to be telling the Trojan side of the story – but this is what Homer did, as well as the tragedians of fifth-century BCE Athens. I can’t think of a version of the story that presents the Greeks as blameless. Even Le Guin admits that the Trojans are her favourites (No Time to Spare, p. 56):

Hector is a good guy on any terms – kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts – a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.

Whether or not we agree with Le Guin’s assessment of Hector, we can admit that the actions of the Greeks take some work to fit with modern social values. In The Song of Achilles, Miller’s Patroclus cannot be taken as an ancient character, and even Chiron and Odysseus spout ideas that are thoroughly modern. In this setting, Achilles seems quite strange. His pursuit of fame, even at the cost of his life, is so alien to the modern world, as are the reactions to Agamemnon’s threat to it. Le Guin can’t stand him – “a sulky, self-pitying teenager” (ibid. pp. 55-56) – but does not mention the artistic skills, which Miller’s Patroclus thinks should be his true glory: “His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.” (Song of Achilles, p. 366)

But then there is Briseis, the most difficult obstacle for the modern rehabilitation of Achilles. Le Guin isn’t having it: “his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but had to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story.” (No Time to Spare, p. 56). In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) the attempt to make the story true love is undermined by the fact that she is his war captive – it all feels very unsavory, as I suspect Le Guin would agree. (I go into more detail about this on a forthcoming AWM podcast, so look out for that!)

Miller avoids this difficulty in part because Achilles’ true love is Patroclus – he distrusts Briseis and is happy to see her taken by Agamemnon (the subtext being that he suspects Patroclus’ closeness to her). But Briseis in turn distrusts Achilles because he slaughtered her family and her people – his values cannot be modern, but at least he can avoid being a mass rapist. (Incidentally, Patroclus’ insistence that Achilles take the captured girls so that they would not suffer at the hands of another king feels like one of the more obviously modern parts of the story.)

If I have a concluding point, it’s that one of the values of Miller’s work is that she manages to maintain some of that ancient tragedy by not making the Trojan War ‘Good vs. Evil’, even as she gives the characters modern moral stances. For all that Le Guin and Nichols praise the Iliad for not being the war between good and evil, the actions of the Greeks mean that it is difficult for their side to easily elide with modern morality. Miller has to cut Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan captives on Partroclus’ funeral pyre, for example (but maintains the sacrifices of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb by Neoptolemus, comfortable immoral or amoral characters). The Iliad may not be the war of good versus evil, but the modern world appears to have chosen a side.

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