As we approached the holidays and the end of 2012 I was working on some freelance projects and found myself working in libraries quite often. As is often the case, procrastination was a constant temptation. I would regularly browse book sections and check out whatever caught my eye. As it happened we were planning a trip to Northern Minnesota and needed things to do during the long car ride. And so it was that I stumbled upon Adventures of Achilles – an adapted version of the classic story the Iliad by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden with illustrations by Carole Henaff.
School Library Journal
Gr 6–8—While many kids might be familiar with the gods and heroes featured in the Iliad, they may not know how these characters relate to one another and, indeed, how the story actually plays out. To remedy that, two noted storytellers pair with an award-winning illustrator to adapt the story into 12 beautifully designed chapters and an epilogue. The focus is on the legendary warrior Achilles, beginning with his birth and childhood, his entry into the Trojan War, and his life as a soldier. Some chapters expertly cut away to introduce other players, like Paris and Helen, or Hector and Priam, and show how the machinations of the gods affect the story. Throughout, the writing style easily switches between florid prose and functional plot-driven narrative to capture the mood of the adventure at hand while making sure kids can follow what is happening and why. While the storytelling is simplified when necessary, the content is anything but: details of the violence of the Trojan War, as well as the sexual escapades of the gods are included, and underlying themes of the story, like the role of fate and luck, are presented again and again. Each chapter is heavily illustrated, giving at least a quarter of each page to dreamlike images that reinforce the mythological feel of the story. The images focus on characters depicted against scenes of nature, home, or war, all using acrylics to mimic the look of ancient Greek and Roman art, with rounded shapes, swirls, and muted colors that somehow brighten the page.
I had hoped to maybe read the story to the kids and/or listen to it on the car ride. As it turned out I wasn’t sure if it was a good fit for my kids (ages 5 & 7) and so read it myself but held off on listening to it in the car (we listened to Harry Potter which more about later).
And I really enjoyed this version of the Iliad.
As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of reworked or retold myths and legends and so was excited to dig into The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. To understand why, here is the publisher’s setup:
The legend begins…
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
As it turned out this was really a romance – between Patroclus and Achilles – with the classical story mostly as background. It was well done in many ways, and the writing is often excellent, but the classics as romance was not what I was looking for.
The few dedicated regular readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by myths and legends and of their reworking and re-imagining. So it is not a big surprise that I was intrigued by the novel Ransom by David Malouf.
Edmund White’s NYT review has a concise plot summary:
David Malouf’s “Ransom” reimagines the tragic story at the heart of “The Iliad.” Achilles mourns his childhood friend Patroclus after he is killed by Hector. Achilles takes his revenge by killing Hector in battle and desecrating his body.
The central action in Mr. Malouf’s novel occurs when Priam, Hector’s father and king of Troy, travels in a mule-drawn cart with half of the city’s treasure (the “ransom”) to plead for the return of Hector’s body so that it can be buried properly. Two instances of towering grief meet in the encounter.
As is so often the case, your knowledge of the backstory and your expectations will play a big role in your take on this story.
Those with a stronger knowledge of the Iliad and the story at the center of the novel might have stronger feelings and/or higher expectations that those who read it “straight” as it were.
But one thing I think everyone can agree on is that it is beautifully written and, at times, quite moving. More below.