by Philippe Laurent Roland
TOP 10 CLASSICAL BOOKS
From Aeschylus to Sophocles, the novelist celebrates the ancient stories that have inspired her debut novel
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York and Philadelphia. For the last 10 years she has taught Latin and Ancient Greek to high school students. The Song of Achilles, published by Bloomsbury this month, is her first novel.
"The classics are back, and with a vengeance. In the past few years there has been a Vesuvius-sized explosion of translations, adaptations and re-imaginings of the ancient works. For lovers of Latin and Greek literature, it has been hog heaven, a chance to revisit the thrilling adventures, beautiful poetry and unflinching psychological insights the ancient stories offer us.
"The Greek myths have been close to my heart since childhood, particularly Homer's Iliad, yet I never would have considered telling one myself – I simply loved the originals too much. But something about Achilles and his beloved companion Patroclus's story took hold of my imagination and wouldn't let go. I wrote academic papers about the Iliad; I directed plays; it still wasn't enough. Then one day I found myself in front of my laptop, typing furiously. The words on the screen were Patroclus's, and 10 years later they became The Song of Achilles. In celebration of this Latin and Greek revival, here are ten of my favorite classical works."
Ranging from the farcical to the deeply moving, the Metamorphoses presents hundreds of myths of transformation, all in Ovid's witty and passionate style. Perhaps this is perverse of me, but I particularly enjoy some of Ovid's most disturbed heroines, like Myrrha, who falls in love with her father. Ovid manages the tricky manoeuvre of awakening our sympathy to the girl's desires without diminishing our sense of horror at her actions.
The kind, wise and thoughtful god Prometheus (his name literally means forethought) might be considered the first advocate of social justice. He defied Zeus's injunctions against aiding humans, daring to steal fire on our behalf, teach us the arts of civilisation and show us how to protect ourselves from the gods' greed. For this he was punished cruelly: chained to a cliff and condemned to have eagles tear out his liver every day for all eternity. Aeschylus's Prometheus is a figure of tremendous strength and dignity, who gladly suffers for the good he has done. Sadly, we only have the first of the trilogy that tells his story.
Loosely inspired by the myth of Geryon and Heracles, this "novel in verse" conjures heart-stoppingly beautiful images on every page. Its deceptively simple language has a fiery, unearthly clarity and bone-deep wit: Carson's sentences ring out like bells. The story is moving, and its hero, Geryon, a little red boy with wings who falls in love with the wrong person, is unforgettable. There is no book I have read quite like it.
4. The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
Is it cheating to include them both? The first is Homer's action-packed and psychologically acute paean to a single man's rage. The second is the tumultuous journey of a war veteran struggling to get home to his family. Both are bursting with incident, poetry and amazing characters that grab the attention. When I began writing my own novel, I found myself constantly having to rein in digressions trying to include them all.
When I was in college, a friend asked me to direct this "problem play" set during the Trojan war. I knew little about Shakespeare at the time, but fell quickly in love with this outstanding and challenging play. Its dark comedy and bitterly satiric portraits of Homeric heroes have a startlingly modern sensibility. Arguably its most famous figure is the scurrilous soldier Thersites, who comments with acid precision on the folly he sees around him: "Wars and lechery," he sneers. "Nothing else holds fashion."
Sappho's gorgeous, gem-like poems limn their subjects in gold. Whether the focus is a young woman, an apple on the highest branch or the narrator's jealousy, Sappho brings them all to life with sensual, visceral and breathtaking beauty. No wonder that Plato called her "the tenth muse".
I have loved this particular tragedy since I first read it as a teenager. Pentheus, prince of Thebes, refuses to worship the new god Dionysus, and the god takes bloody revenge. What makes the play so gripping is how eminently sympathetic Pentheus is: a stubborn, underdog rationalist who stands up to a bullying zealot. Haven't we all felt like drawing the line sometimes? In one memorable ancient production, Pentheus's head-on-a-spike was played by the real life head of Crassus, member of the first triumvirate with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar.
The story of the Greek general's disastrous return home after the Trojan war. I have never been a fan of Agamemnon, so I tend to cheer Clytemnestra on as she readies the murderous bathtub and axe. What does move me is Cassandra – the Trojan princess cursed to tell the truth and never be believed. Now Agamemnon's captive, she is doomed to knowledge of her own imminent death at Clytemnestra's hands. The famous opening scene, where fire beacons signal to Clytemnestra that her husband is returning, surely influenced JRR Tolkien's own use of fire beacons in The Return of the King.
Virgil's tale of arms and a man and so much more. A gorgeously crafted piece of poetry, a story of adventure, a moral examination of violence and a plea for mercy, Virgil's masterful Roman founding myth provokes and haunts long after you've finished. The characters are drawn with sympathy and sensitivity, and above all total humanity: Virgil never shies away from their faults as well as their virtues. I particularly love book two, the tale of Troy's fall; its brutal portrait of Achilles' son Pyrrhus inspired my own.
The ageing hero Philoctetes, once a companion of Heracles, is bitten by a venomous snake on his way to join the Trojan war. The wound festers and the other Greeks, fearful of the bad omen, abandon him on an island. For 10 years, Philoctetes survives alone, embittered and in physical agony. I first read this play when my grandmother's health was failing, and I wept at Philoctetes' grief-stricken monologues. His pain at being forgotten by the world and despair at his body's weakness could have been my grandmother's own. But Sophocles chooses to close the play with hope: reconciliation, and a long-awaited end to the hero's suffering.