TheBookSmugglers's Reviews > The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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Dec 21, 11


Review originally posted on The Book Smugglers

I cannot begin to express how happy I am to have read this book before the end of the year and just in time to add it to my top 10 of 2011: a veritable Smugglivus miracle! The Song of Achilles is so good, it is one of those books that makes me want to be a better reviewer so that I can do it justice, so that more people can read it. This is my attempt to sing its praises.

In Greek Mythology, Achilles is one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War and one of the main characters of Homer’s Iliad. Son of a minor Goddess, the Nymph Thetis and of a human, King Peleus, it was foretold that Achilles would be a great hero, immortalised forever by his exploits during the Trojan War, but that he would die young if he joined that war. Choosing to follow that path to Glory and Fame, Achilles is effectively the Greek’s main weapon against the Trojan army: his aim is sure, the invulnerability of his body legendary and his beauty a thing to behold. He is also extremely arrogant, prone to unquenchable wrath and proud to the point of hubris. And it is his pride that eventually costs the lives of thousands of Greece when he withdraws from the fight due to a feud with Agamemnon, the Greek Army’s leader. He only returns to battle after his best friend Patroclus dies killed by Hector, Troy’s beloved hero. This sets the stage for the final act of the War and of Achille’s life. His revenge on Hector for Patroclus’ death is pitiless and cruel as he not only slays him, but he dishonours his body by dragging it behind his chariot and denies him a proper funeral. At least until Hector’s father, the King of Troy begs him for his son’s body. Soon after that, Achilles is killed and his ashes are buried together with those of Patroclus.

Needless to say, Patroclus and Achilles’ is a seminal relationship in Greek Mythology and in The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller posits that it is also a deeply romantic one. Told from Patroclus’ point of view, the story starts with his own childhood, growing up as a Prince, hated and bullied by his own father for his weakness and naivety until he is exiled to the court of King Peleus after killing a noble’s son in an accident. It is there that he meets prince Achilles, who soon becomes a childhood companion, a close friend and eventually, the love of his life. In this book, Patroclus becomes more than a secondary character and through his eyes, Achilles is presented in a different light.

Their budding love story is absolutely beautiful. Patroclus can hardly believe that a Prince like Achilles, a semi-God with a real future could take any interest on an exiled, nameless boy and yet he does. Their baby steps toward becoming lovers are awkward, fraught with fear of discovery but also extremely tender. Achilles is absolutely devoted to Patroclus (and vice-versa) in a relationship of equals: Achilles might the greatest hero of the Trojan war but whenever he steps back in their tent, he is Patroclus’ comrade, playful mate and ardent lover. Mind you, Patroclus’ perspective goes a long way in humanising Achilles and making him more of a nuanced character but never letting us forget that Achilles is a self-centred and proud warrior and has but one goal in life. The key element of this story is how Patroclus’ narrative unveils the possible motivations behind Achilles’ actions. He is fearful of his ultimate demise but wants the glory more than anything in the world: after all, he was brought up to have it. His refusal to fight in the war, an inaction that causes so many deaths could be interpreted (but never excused) as a fierce protection of his honour, the one thing he will have after his impending death. His hubris is such that he wants to be the greatest hero that has ever lived but also hopes and expects for the happy ending that has been denied to all heroes before him. And in one of my favourite scenes in the novel, Achilles tells Patroclus that his happy ending is wholly dependent on Patroclus’ being with him. Another favourite is how the author incorporated the prophecy that Hector’s fall precedes that of Achilles. He knows that and for ten years manages to avoid facing off Hector in the battlefield by saying – to the puzzlement of his fellow warriors – that Hector has never done anything against him, why would he pursue a fight against him? Of course the savvy reader knows exactly what Hector will eventually do, and there is a sense of impending doom and tense narrative that is all the more impressive considering how well, everybody knows how the story ends.

And when it does end in tears and grief so intense, the tears and the grief within the story were mirrored by my own. Major kudos to the author for being fateful to the original but writing it in a way that makes the very ending to this story, a happy one.

In addition, even though I feel that the main focus is the love story between Achilles and Patroclus, their story does not happen in a vacuum. There are other interesting, well developed characters (I especially loved Achilles’ mother Thetis and her side of the story) as well as themes that are intrinsically linked to a story such as this. There is the potential discussion of fate and free will and the fact that Greek Gods are meddlesome and even cruel and yet humans hardly questioned it. There is also Achilles’ heroism itself which is fabled and expected even before he has done anything even remotely heroic. Not to mention the fact that the ideal of Greek heroism is so completely different to our own ideal of what being heroic means: it is more about deeds than behaviour. In that sense, I feel that in this book’s version, Patroclus could be constructed as the heroic one of the duo (due to his actions during the War) and to a certain extent this is a modernised, contemporary view of this story and one that I truly enjoyed.

Finally, I loved how The Song of Achilles is ultimately, Patroclus’ plea for Achilles to be not only remembered as the self-centred, egotistical Trojan War hero whose selfish actions were directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of Greeks but also as a wonderful musician, playful mate, someone capable of deep feelings and a devoted companion and lover.

My own plea is that you read this book immediately.
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message 1: by Experiment BL626 (last edited Dec 21, 2011 07:57AM) (new)

Experiment BL626 Achilles, Achilles... wait, does that Greek story ends in tragedy. Wait, aren't all Greek stories tragedies? Was this particular story a predictable tragedy?


Meem So I'm confused. Hardcover was in September 20th 2011, but Paperback was in April 12th 2012.


Experiment BL626 Meem wrote: "So I'm confused. Hardcover was in September 20th 2011, but Paperback was in April 12th 2012."

That's standard publishing practice. Release the hardcover first, then release the paperback later. Publishers want customers to buy the expensive hardcovers first so publishers can maximize profit.


Meem Oh. :)


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