The Song of Achilles: Review
You know when you pick up a book sometimes, you think to yourself that it can’t possibly live up to the hype surrounding it? That’s how I felt with The Song of Achilles. It is a cult favorite among YA and Adult readers alike for its interpretation of the Iliad, particularly the legend of Achilles and Patroclus. As a Greek mythology nerd, I wondered how fresh this take could possibly be. Oh boy. I was in for a rollercoaster of emotions and a very, very pleasant surprise.
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles' mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.
But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
To start, it’s important to acknowledge Madeline Miller’s background, because I believe that directly contributes to the success of The Song of Achilles. She earned her BA and MA in Classics at Brown University and currently teaches Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare. This is a scholar and teacher who imparts the classics onto high school students. I’ve never had the fortune of being in one of her classes, but if the way she has written The Song of Achilles is any indication, I’m sure her classes are amazing.
Miller transforms the legend of Achilles in 352 pages. What you may know about Achilles, Helen, and the Siege of Troy does not necessarily need to be discarded, but it is important to go into this book with an open mind. Each figure, whom we know only from legend and story, is made three-dimensional with motivations, secrets, and hurts. Instead of having Achilles narrate his own story, we follow his rise to fame through the eyes of his best friend, Patroclus. Through certain gaps in the Iliad and of course, some creative liberties here and there, Miller forges an emotional relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that culminates in the tragic death of both heroes and ultimately, the fall of Troy.
I loved this book. Every night before I crashed into bed, I wondered if I could read just a few more pages. As my train approached its stop in the morning, I debated staying on for just a couple more stops to read another chapter. There was something extremely riveting about Miller’s writing style. It is blunt and raw. It is beautiful and vivid. There are lines that breathe life into me, lines that I never expected someone to be able to craft for a contemporary audience, out of an eons-old story. So, while you may very well know the tragedy of Achilles, you do not know the Greek champion as Miller paints him from his youth and up until his death.
We meet familiar characters from legend- Odysseus, Diomedes, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Ajax. Each are fully developed players in this legend and so, I came to care for (or hate) each character separate from what I already knew of them from their respective stories. Odysseus for his dry wit and strategic mind. Agamemnon for his greed and impulsiveness. The toils of war are also described with flourish. We meet the captive women who are spoils from village raids and learn to care for them. Even the small details give us a glimpse into the lives of the men on the ground- how a potter’s tent is set up to repair the chipped bowls and kitchenware that the soldiers use- none of which are new; all were stolen from raids around Troy. These secondary characters whose names are easily eclipsed by Achilles’ in legend and fame are given life and meaning.
The way Miller introduces the gods is done with a deft and restrained hand. They are not always present, though we know from myth that their in-fighting is largely what caused the Siege of Troy and how the war played out. There are glimpses of Apollo, mentions of Artemis’ wrath, sacrifices to appease Zeus, a blur on the battlefield that protects Odysseus from harm. Other than Achilles’ mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, the gods are intangible. They are not critical to the story of Achilles and Patroclus because in the end, it is a story of mortals and glory, love and loss.
I rate The Song of Achilles 5/5 stars!
Madeline Miller’s next book, Circe, releases April 10th, 2018. Read the synopsis here!