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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

June 25, 2013

12book "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller

A note ahead of this review: If you haven’t read the Iliad or don’t know the story be warned that there are spoilers. Also, you should go read the Iliad immediately. That being said, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is about Achilles and the Iliad and the Trojan War, but also a whole lot more. It’s the type of book that I think Greek mythology nerds would really like – it’s full of stories of love, rivalries, gods, and war.

The narrative of the book is told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles closest friend at the Battle of Troy who famously leads the army into battle when Achilles was absorbed in his pride. The age old story of Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector that sparks the rage of Achilles, causing him to duel and ultimately defeat Hector, is one of the most important events in securing Achilles’ fame and immortality in Homer’s epic poem. Patroclus is central to the story of Achilles in a way I hadn’t really appreciated before and he acts as a captivating narrator. As the person closest to Achilles, the familiar old story takes on a new life through his eyes.

The story starts when both are just boys and follows them through their close and ultimately romantic relationship from Greece to Troy to death. When I first read the book I wasn’t really expecting the romantic dynamic between the two main characters but the hypothesis that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers has been present in literature and plays since the time of Ancient Greece. In a way it makes perfect sense. According to Homer, the death of Patroclus drove Achilles nearly mad; in his anger he brutally murdered and abused Hector to the point where even the rest of the Greeks were repulsed and tried to intervene. After Achilles was killed at Troy his ashes were even buried in the same urn as those of Patroclus. Even from the battle-focused Iliad it’s clear the the two were very close.

The thing that really struck me about this book is that since it’s told from the perspective of a lover, the descriptions of Achilles and his actions are tender and fair. Considering that the first couplet from the Iliad goes like this

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans.*

and the rest of the poem doesn’t make him sound much more pleasant, I always saw Achilles as a proud, selfish, and vain character, absorbed in his own quest for immortality and glory. This book has a creative way of making him seem so much more human, and also much nicer. It seems impossible that he could be both personalities at the same time, but the author (who clearly knows the Iliad backwards and forwards) does a beautiful job of describing the events where he seemed so arrogant in a way that is true to each as it was told, but also sheds a new sort of light on the person he might have been.

I particularly enjoyed the writing in this book. I found the narrative to be articulate and interesting and I found myself turning the pages quickly. In addition, I really liked the authenticity of the writing style. The words and phrases Miller used were very appropriate for the time in which the book is set. She uses the famous epithets of each of the Greek heroes, and describes colors, gestures, and foods in the same way as many classical Greek writings. It makes the book feel more authentic and I found that it was really engaging to read.

This book gives a much more emotional perspective on the Iliad, but still manages to have lots of adventure and action. And what Greek story would be complete without a few gods poking their heads in from time to time. I would definitely recommend this book, with a side note that the more amorous episodes in the book may not be for everyone. I found it to be a really fresh perspective on a story that I already loved!

If you have gotten to the bottom of this post and you still haven’t read the Iliad, please do that now.

*From the English translation by Richard Lattimore.

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