Nov 20, 2012

A Gay Classic for Teens: SONG OF ACHILLES

Thanksgiving approaches for US Citizens, the day we give thanks for all of the   Divine Blessings to our country and our families - as well as a day of mourning and repentance for our criminal betrayal of the Native Americans who first welcomed us so warmly and so generously to the New World (new to whom?). Repentance is also in order for our contemporary crimes as a nation, which are very grave, of which many Americans are aware. 

In the true spirit of the feast,  I give thanks for a significant work of fiction, Madeline Miller's Orange prize winning book, The Song of Achilles, a dazzling retelling of the Achilles & Patroclus myth from the Iliad, which is one of the finest gay teen love stories ever written.  

Madeline Miller is a classics scholar with degrees in Greek and Latin from Brown University, plus postgraduate work at Yale Rep theater, where she worked specifically on transferring the classics to the stage. This is what has given her brilliant novel such vivid verisimilitude. It is such a fresh retelling of the old story, but with a passionate, vulnerable heart at its center, the heart of its narrator the gentle, 'non-violent' healer, Patroclus.

But it's not simply a retelling. Ms. Miller has consciously chosen to anchor the story in a passionate, tender gay love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, an affair which begins, in Ms Miller's retelling, when both boys are in their early teens. And the affair is consummated when the boys are about fourteen.   While the Iliad itself leaves the relationship ambiguous, and most Greek scholars of our day pass over the homoerotic overtones of the affair, the Greeks of the time, especially some hundred years after the epic's appearance, took it for granted that the affair would have been sexual. (See Wikipedia insert below).

There are so many reviews of this book, the glowing ones linked at Ms. Miller's website:

There are also a few pissy ones, notably the New York Times, whose reviewer could barely contain his homophobic disgust. And another snotty one at the Telegraph, insinuating that the work only won the Orange prize because of the riveting plot of the Iliad itself, upon which Ms. Miller piggy backed into the Orange Prize.

Some critique the quality of the writing, finding it a mix of pop teen culture and attempts at highbrow subtlety, but most reviewers are raving about the thrilling narrative thrust of the story (no pun intended), and the heartrending love story at its center.

As a gay author myself, who is currently writing a crime novel with a gay teen love story at its center, I was hugely impressed by Ms. Miller's creation of a viable teen love story between boys that is not the slightest bit self consciously 'gay.' This is what gives the story it's power. The affair is made to seem quite natural (as it is) and unsurprising (as it is not, by our contemporary less enlightened standards). The tenderness and passion, the loving touches and embraces - and the one instance of climax - are seen as one part of the rich pattern of life, disturbing few of the boys' acquaintances. The one exception might by Achilles' mother, Thetis, but even her objections are not phrased in homophobic terms. She simply thinks Patroclus, as a cast away, is not worthy of her god like son.

And that is the heart of the matter. Achilles is the son of a goddess and therefore half divine himself. And out of the fusion of divinity and humanity the boy has emerged as - not a Christ like figure of peace and forgiveness - but an heroic warrior who simply happens to loves other men. In fact he is the greatest warrior of his day, a god-like, near invincible figure of superhuman powers whose sexual love is directed towards a gentle male companion. Ms. Miller makes it very clear that her Achilles loves Patroclus because of his 'orientation'. He has no sexual interest in women. Even Patroclus comes close to a brief affair with a woman, but avoids it because he knows 'it is not for him'. Both boys are orientated towards other males. 

There is no angst here, no 'coming out,' in fact no necessity for coming out at all, no self conscious guilt or shame, no looking over the shoulder, no ridicule, derision, rejection. There is some slight discomfort on the part of some of the characters, how could there not be, but it is minimal. The love between the two boys, passionate, tender, sexual, loving - simply is as a miracle of nature, and accepted as such by those around them. 

As soon as I finished the book, it became so clear how important, in fact, how necessary fiction of this sort has become. There is a place for the 'coming out' stories, chronicling all of the pain, humiliation, heartache, freedom and joy of such a singular event in a gay person's life journey. But we also need to see the love of two males in the context of a homophobic free environment. What would it look like, what would it feel like, and what effect would this have on the characters themselves? More importantly, what effect would this have upon young gay teen readers themselves to see their love reflected so naturally, without the burdens of a disapproving society. 

Perhaps this is one reason Ms. Miller decided to tell the tale - in her own very gay friendly fashion. The love story is so positive, without self conscious guilt or even the need to reflect on the uniqueness of the experience. Nothing has damaged these boys' self-confidence in themselves as loving sexual beings. And one of them is a champion and a hero.  Open-minded, liberal high schools in the US and the UK are already putting the book in their libraries and on reading lists, and it is so right and fitting that they do so. 

We do have other gay teen romances out there (gentle gay nerd and high school quarterback), but so many of them are of the 'teen flick' variety, slightly trashy and gossipy, though I can think of half a dozen heartbreaking classics - A Boys Own Story by Edmund White, At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, Rainboy Boys by Alex Sanchez, and finally, Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley, to mention just a few of the gay teen classics out there.

But The Song of Achilles is in a class of its own. It's Orange Prize has given it wide recognition and catapulted it onto best seller lists. A god like golden boy birthed of a divine mother and a human father, the greatest warrior of his age, is not 'Gay' in our sense of the term. He simply falls passionately in love with a gentle, non violent boy with powers of healing (with one spasm of violence at the end of his life), and this love is essentaial to his nature. His lover's violent death is the catalyst for the hero's own moral transformation. The boys are both normal and extraordinary, one hardly notices Achilles' divinity, if such it is, but his glory shines through the book and casts a light upon the love affair of his life as well, rending it normal, unsurprising and astonishing.  

For gay teens everywhere, this is what normal love looks like in a wholesome, tolerant environment -  love without fear, recrimination, shame or guilt. It simply is and it is glorious. 

For those who are interested, here are a few snippets - from Wikipedia and from the pissy NYT review of the book. 

WIKIPEDIA ; Some scholars claim that the exact nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles has profound literary and artistic implications. As Kenneth Dover points out in his Greek Homosexuality,[11] knowing whether Achilles was erastes and Patroclus eromenos or whether their love was egalitarian, was crucial to understanding the thematic makeup of the Iliad, from the perspective of later Greeks.
There are many possible interpretations on the nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Three popular ones are:

1-Achilles was the dominant lover, and he learns from Patroclus' that sacrifice is rooted in a startling role-reversal: in death, the student becomes the teacher. The change in Achilles' character hinges on having believed that only glory mattered, and learning otherwise by losing the only thing that mattered more to him than acclaim. Patroclus, the eromenos, in leading the Myrmidons, is elevated beyond the moral caliber of his mentor, and Achilles is redeemed only when, having reflected on his follies, he returns Hector's body to Priam.
2-Patroclus was the dominant lover, his death represents a deliberate lesson to his pupil, Achilles. In this case, the teacher had to die in order to redeem the student, and the pivotal change in Achilles' character occurs when he resumes leadership of the Myrmidons and takes the field against Hector despite his grievance with Agamemnon.
3-Achilles and Patroclus represent an egalitarian homosexual pairing, the time and nature of Achilles' pivotal character development are shaded with gray and open to interpretation.

NYT Review: The problem reaches crisis proportions in the handling of the “love affair,” which begins with an embarrassing breathlessness (“My chest trilled with something I could not quite name”) and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation: “He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine. He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals. . . . Our bodies cupped each other like hands.”