The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published by Ecco
Publication date: August 28th 2012
Genres: Debut, Fiction
While it’s tempting to adopt an intellectual attitude, in this case I’m going to go with honesty and risk losing everyone’s respect: to date, my greatest interest in the Battle of Troy came when actors Eric Bana and Brad Pitt ran around fighting with no shirts on. There, I admitted it. I’ve never read Homer’s Odyssey or The Iliad. I’m a sexist cretin—until now. Author Madeline Miller, studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales for modern readers, and it was time well spent. Her first novel, The Song of Achilles, is a masterful look at one of the greatest Greek warriors in mythology. Using the Iliad and its premise of the feckless Paris stealing the beautiful Helen from Menelaus, Miller goes beyond the warfare and events of that epic poem and looks at Achilles’ life from the perspective of one who knew him better than all others, the exiled prince, Patroclus.
Patroclus and Achilles are brought together as boys and grow up together. Achilles’ father sends them off to learn the arts of war, survival, and healing from the wise centaur, Chiron, and this enforced solitude bonds them together into a relationship that goes beyond friendship. Later, when Achilles is forced by Diomedes and the wily Odysseus to take a legion of troops and join Agamemnon in an attack on Troy there is no question that Patroclus will go with him. Thus begins the journey that will change all their lives and fulfill the prophecy foreseen by Thetis, Achilles’ mother, who is a goddess herself.
The novel captures both the speed and lack thereof of the Trojan War. Through Miller’s detailed account we see how several months turns into several years turns into a decade. Soldiers who were boys when they left their homes are now men and watching their lives drain away in an unending series of battles that yield victory to neither side. The promise of quick riches and glory do not materialize. Oddly, enough it is not the fight for Helen that finally moves the war forward but a fight between Agamemnon and Achilles over two other women (what is wrong with men?!). Chryses is a Trojan priestess of Apollo, captured by Agamemnon. His refusal to return her to her father brings the wrath of the gods onto the Greeks, in the form of the plague. Like most of the Greeks, Achilles is angered by Agamemnon’s arrogance and calls on him to obey and release the girl. A cunning Agamemnon does so but demands a female captive from Achilles in return—an insult of such magnitude that while he agrees to the surrender of the captive, Achilles then refuses to fight.
Your words today have caused your own death, and the death of your men. I will fight for you no longer. Without me, your army will fall. Hector will grind you to bones and bloody dust, and I will watch it and laugh. You will come, crying for mercy, but I will give none. They will all die, Agamemnon, for what you have done here.
And so begins the end. Whether you know much or little about Greek mythology this book is beautiful and powerful reading. It goes far beyond warfare and into the details of everyday life, making them feel real. Through the voice of the simpler Patroclus, the one-dimensional warrior figure of Achilles becomes complex and human. At the same time, we see that while Patroclus is not a hero by mythological standards, he is the greater man.
Literary Tiger says
I think I’ll put this on my TBR list. I read the Iliad in one of my English Classes (otherwise I’d probably not have read it), and I remember thinking what a jerk Achilles was and how Hector was a true hero. Then I saw Troy and I thought, yeah, Achilles was still a jerk, but a good looking one. I thought Eric Bana’s performance as Hector was one of his best.
Wow- I’ve never even attempted the Iliad so kudos to you! And yes, Bana was swoony in Troy. I also liked him in The Time Traveler’s Wife. You’ll like this book- a very different look at Achilles.
Do you come back to read new comments on archived books? Having spent more money on books in my life than I even want to know, as a retiree I try to get most of my books from the library. Interestingly, the 3 libraries at which I have privileges all have a long wait list for this, ten years after your review!
Yes, I do- absolutely! I love to see people’s thoughts about backlist books.
I’m sad to hear that for you, but love that it’s still so popular. I still love it, but also really love newer novels about Troy like The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy, and A Thousand Ships. A different take. I’ve reviewed all of them if you’re interested.