Book Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
In this beautifully crafted adaption of Homer’s The Iliad, boy meets demi-god, falls in love with demi-god and spends his life dreading the prophecy that threatens to tear them apart. If you’ve read The Iliad, you already know that there is no happy ending in store for hero Achilles and his beloved companion, Patroclus. Not, at least, in the traditional sense.
With The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller attempts a twist on of one of Greek mythology’s most well-known stories. What sets this story apart, however, is both the focus and the manner in which the story is told. Through Patroclus’ shy, admiring eyes, we first see Achilles – the golden prince into whose kingdom Patroclus has been exiled for the accidental death of a childhood playmate. Having spent his life being made to feel as though he can never measure up to the more agile, virile males around him, Patroclus is at once drawn to Achilles, even as he resents his beauty, poise and status. The son of King Peleus and the goddess Thetis, Achilles seems to walk his own path, accepting the praise and admiration of the other boys as though it is his due.
Almost from the beginning, however, they are drawn to one another and as their friendship begins to develop, their lives become intertwined to the exclusion of practically everyone else. All too soon, word that Helen of Sparta has been taken by a Trojan prince reaches the kingdom and Phthia’s men are bound by oath to wage war on Troy in Helen’s name. Afraid for her son’s life, sea-nymph Thetis spirits Achilles away to the island of Scyros where he hides as a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Deidameia. It is King Peleus who finally tells Patroclus of his son’s whereabouts and it’s at this point that the story seems to transition. That idyllic time spent learning and loving is left in the wake of the Phthians’ journey to Trojan shores – to war.
The second half of the novel centers around a years-long war and throughout, Achilles and Patroclus find their places within the army – Achilles at its helm as Aristos Achaion and Patroclus as loyal companion and trusted healer. Throughout there is political maneuvering and Achilles’ ever-growing desire for fame and adoration. Their relationship remains untouched by the brutality of war, though Patroclus lives in fear of the prophecy told to him by Thetis: that when Hector of Troy falls, Achilles will soon follow.
As I drew nearer to the end of the novel, I began to worry that Miller may have written herself into a corner with the story being dependent upon Patroclus to tell it. I needn’t have worried; she managed it even after Patroclus’ death and I was so caught up in Achilles’ terrible, crushing grief that there seemed no transition to notice.
Never have I read so beautiful a love story and when it ended, it left me aching for Patroclus and for Achilles, as well. Miller’s writing is spare but beautiful and more than once I had to pause to reread some sentence or other that was positively inspiring. I suppose here is where I should admit that I shamefully borrowed visuals from the movie Troy. Brad Pitt was a magnificent Achilles and Garrett Hedlund made for a beautiful Patroclus. Whether you need such shallow imagery or not, this story will capture you with its atmosphere, prose and tragic love and keep you turning page after page until there are no pages left to turn.
Bravo, Ms. Miller.
Friend of the animals, aspiring writer, bibliophile, dedicated gamer and fan of all things electronica. Cynical, satirical, yet somehow still optimistic.
I have a confession to make. I succumbed to the Netflix binge watching phenomenon. Most notably half a season of Orange is the New Black in two evenings and all five seasons of Breaking Bad in two weeks. Why do I feel this is worthy of confession? Because television is a waste of valuable reading time. I’m a binge reader not a binge watcher. But [...]July 9, 2014
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