Will Byrnes's Reviews > The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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Jan 17, 14

bookshelves: ya-and-children
Read from January 26 to February 03, 2012

** spoiler alert ** Updated 5/30/12 - see link at bottom

I feel a bit silly doing this, but I have put a spoiler alert on this review, just in case there are folks out there who might not be versed in the classics.

In a nutshell, Boy meet demi-god. Boy gets demi-god. Boy loses demi-god. Wait, demi-god loses boy, goes a bit funny in the head and behaves badly. Greece loses demi-god, the happy couple wind up sharing an afterlife.

You might want to dust off your Iliad, as this is a retelling of the story of Achilles, you know, the greatest warrior of his time, from that slightly older work. It is impressive, when looking up details from Miller’s novel, how directly her version corresponds to that of Homer.
It was very important to me to stay faithful to the events of Homer’s narrative. The central inspiration behind the book is the terrible moment in the Iliad when Achilles hears about Patroclus’ death. His reaction is shocking in its intensity. The great half-god warrior—who carelessly defies rules, and condemns a whole army to death—comes completely unglued, desperate with grief and rage. I wanted to understand what it was about Patroclus and their relationship that could create that kind of crisis. Although Homer tells us what his characters do, he doesn’t tell us much of why they do it. Who was Achilles? And why did he love Patroclus so much?
Patroclus is a twelve-year-old prince down on his luck. Born of a damaged mother and possessed of none of the obvious gifts that make fathers proud, he defends himself against a bully. The bully slips, falls, coshes his deserving skull on a rock and the planet is one bully lighter. Oops, sorry. But since the bully was a royal, Pops exiles Patroclus to the island of Phthia. (Go ahead, try to say it out loud, five times fast, or at all. You know you want to. Sounds like Parseltongue to me.) Luckily for him, the island’s king, Peleus, is kind and receptive. In fact he seems to have made a business of re-treading unwanted, or in-need-of-training blue-bloods, running a sort of island of lost royalty, a military training camp for boys. He is also father to the luminous Achilles. The questionably-heeled one (BTW, the heel never enters the story here. As Miller explains on her website, it was added to the myth of Achilles way later, by the Romans) is presented in such glowing terms that we are uncertain if the author is elevating him to the level of Homeric perfection, or we are seeing the externalization of the smitten Patroclus’ achy smitten-ness. In any case, Achilles turns out to be a pretty decent sort, and takes Patroclus under his wing, even inviting him to share his room. In time it gets steamy. Boys have, well, needs, and their inclinations, it turns out, are in synch. Thankfully the soft-core element of this story cools down enough to give us a look at the times, the idiocy of the Trojan War, and the ridiculousness of leadership, which does not seem to have changed all that much over the millennia. While some physical intimacy is noted, the author very much focuses on the affection between the two as a moving force.

What one gets here is a touch and feel (go ahead and snicker) of what life might have been like at the time of the Trojan War. And it sounds like they could have used a few of the more contemporary Trojans, what with unintended pregnancies and all. Patroclus is our eyes and ears, but he is not merely a plot device. He is a fleshed-out character with significant conflicts to resolve, and growth to endure. Miller says,
In writing this novel, I thought a lot about personal responsibility. Patroclus is not an epic person, the way Achilles is. He’s an “ordinary” man. But he has more power than he thinks, and the moments where he reaches out to others and offers what he sees as his very modest assistance have huge positive ramifications. Most of us aren’t Achilles—but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?
You will have to suspend your disbelief a bit, as magical things do happen. Just as Homer included magical elements in his epic, so Miller follows. Gods do indeed engage themselves in human affairs. Achilles is the product of a human father and a fishy-dearest sea nymph of a mother. The lads are trained by a centaur, Chiron, who is a pretty cool character, (fans of Harry Potter will recognize in Chiron the source for Hogwarts’ own Firenze, also a teacher of medicine, and overall good guy) and of course the gods can’t help but interfere with the doings of men, like early-version Koch Brothers with training in the Dark Arts. Miller takes the odd liberty here and there. Patroclus, for example, was older than Achilles in the Iliad. They are the same age here. But The Song of Achilles is a novel.

Miller gets her important facts right. Of course, the facts have to do with re-creating the story told by the great Greek poet, not, you know, actual facts. Unless of course you are one of those who believes that Achilles’ mother, Thetis, really was a sea nymph, or that the actual Greek gods personally interfered with the goings on down below. There are plenty of people who believe stranger things. In fact, the clearly homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is sure to raise the hackles of folks who hold beliefs of a more contemporary theistic bent. Expect to see calls for this book to be banned in the usual places. But really, it’s the 21st century. Get over it. If it was good enough for the Iliad…

Miller is a classics scholar and teacher and knows her stuff. What she has done here is take the eternal tale and re-tell it in a manner that is easy to read. In fact it is so easy to read that it felt like a YA title to me. Maybe too easy? She does teach high-schoolers, so I expect that was her target demographic, but it still seemed a bit young to me.

While I have no philosophical issue with the same-sex element of the tale, I found the youthful pining and sex scenes mushy and maybe gag-worthy, but once the pairing is secured, the story is free to flow back to Homer’s tale. It does so smoothly and well.

One benefit of this book is that it offers young readers an entrée to one of the great works of literature in a more accessible form. I expect that Miller will eventually get around to producing another modern interpretation from the classics. In the meantime, if you are a student, seek this lady out and take her classes. She seems to me like the sort of teacher we all dreamed of having and rarely got, in love with her material and able to communicate it well.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Definitely check out Miller’s web site, one of the better author sites I have seen. She is on FB and Twitter too.

May 30, 2012 - The Song of Achilles wins the 2012 Orange Award
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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message 1: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy Wonderful review, Will.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Nancy. I was a bit underwhelmed at first. But once the relationship was established the story could proceed. I hear tell she is working on another but I do not know anything more than that.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Terrific review! And yeah, her author site is really nicely made.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Richard


message 5: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve Sckenda Thanks, Will. I think I would really like this book, but I would first like to read some of Mary Renault's portrayals of Alexander the Great first. Great job on this review.


message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve Let me see if I got this straight. Peleus of Phthia puts up Papa-proscribed Prince Patroclus? (Potter-inspired Parseltongue, or perhaps just playful pap?)

Sorry, but you started it.

This is an archetypal Will review: well-written and educational to boot.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Steve.

Perhaps pops parting with princes who pack punches pointed Patroclus toward parrying his privates into a position of power


message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve Probably.

(That's all I can muster. And I bow to your superior alliterative skills. Besides, we run the risk of spraying, not saying.)


Will Byrnes And then we would have to clean it up


Kelly H. (Maybedog) We didn't learn the gay subtext in latin class. I feel cheated.


message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Caveat Lector

Perhaps All Gaul was divided into three genders

I guess they did not get into the domtext


Julie Thank you, Will. I'm nearing the end- this is a day read (or 2 at most!) - and I can't shake the "Is this reading like a YA novel! Or is it just me?!" I'm not feeling the depth of Patroclus as a character as you did, but I'm not yet finished (though I know the ending...).

Always enjoy your reviews. Shall reread this upon completion of novel...


message 14: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I will be interested to see your take, Julie.


message 15: by Sarala (new) - added it

Sarala Pillai T Great review... I have to read the book.


message 16: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thank you, T.


message 17: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will, you are excelling yourself with your reviews.


message 18: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lilo. This one is a couple of years old. I updated it to add some author links. It is a wonderful book.


message 19: by Lilo (new)

Lilo The book may be wonderful, but it cannot possibly be as good as your review.


message 20: by Dolors (new) - added it

Dolors I was a bit wary of this novel, which a Christmas gift a couple of years ago, and your positive review makes me want to rescue it from my shelves asap. Thanks Will.


Janell Rhiannon Just finished this book, The Song of Achilles, and came to like it. I read some reviews and found yours thoughtful, humorous.


Janell Rhiannon Read "humorous" as engaging :)


message 23: by Michele (new)

Michele Thanks for the review Will. I really don't enjoy books with a YA feel to them so this is really helpful.


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