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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller Wins the Orange Prize; Justly So? Ask Critics

By Periscope @periscopepost
Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy

Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy. Madeline Miller's Orange Prize winning novel The Song of Achilles tells the story of his love of Patroclus

The background

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller has won the Orange prize for fiction. A debut novel based on Homer’s The Iliad, as well as other myths, it tells the story of the love between Patroclus and Achilles. Patroclus is exiled from his home and sent to live with Achilles, who is the son of Thetis, a sea goddess. The two go to Troy together to fight; Patroclus, famously, puts on Achilles’ armor whilst the latter is out of action – and is killed.

This is the 17th Orange prize, and the last, since the mobile phone company is about to end its sponsorship. Miller, a Latin and Greek teacher from Cambridge, Massachussets, wins the £30,000 prize and can expect a large sales spike. Commentators are saying that it represents a win for the Classics, whilst the book itself does not necessarily merit the award.

Joanna Trollope, chair of the judges, said: “It was in some ways a surprise to us. But it fulfils [the award's] criteria of inventiveness and originality. For my generation this might be a familiar story but I don’t think it is so familiar for a lot of younger readers. Miller handles it with extraordinary lightness – and it is fresh,” quoted on The Guardian.

A triumph for the Classics

Charlotte Higgins on The Guardian said that Miller’s win was “culturally inevitable.” There has been a slew of works stemming from the Iliad recently – by David Malouf, Alice Oswald, Caroline Alexander, to name a few. It’s because Homer’s text is “foundational”, and is “the greatest of all war poems”, reflecting our “age of cultural conflict.” It can be endlessly reinterpreted, which Miller has done, asking questions about Patroclus. She “never drops a note.” The fact is, “classics is having its day” – and Latin and Greek are seen as “no longer an expression of class pretension or elitism.”

Winning isn’t everything

The voting process was “fraught,” said Orange prize judge Natalie Haynes in The Independent. Miller’s novel is “beautiful”; but whether it’s “objectively better” than the other books on the shortlist isn’t a question Haynes felt she could answer. But that isn’t the point. The Orange Prize, as should all prizes, is helping to raise the profile of authors in a world where books pages are increasingly squeezed. Winning isn’t everything: “when readers are finding new books and new authors, we all win.”

It’s not literary, but it is enjoyable

Miller’s book is “enjoyable,” said Philip Womack on The Telegraph. But should it have won? It’s a “triumph of glitzy story-telling over literary merit”, that has “its own compelling nature.” It’s unashamedly romping; but it’s hardly original – Mary Renault did much the same thing in her books about Alexander the Great, which were narrated by his “catamite”, Bagoas. Though it’s not necessarily a literary great, that’s not to say you “shouldn’t go and read” it – it’s “gloriously, wonderfully silly. And it might just send you in the direction of darker, stranger depths – or even to Homer himself.”

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