The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Book Review

This exquisitely written novel re-imagines Homer’s epic tale as a touching love story between two childhood friends against the backdrop of the Trojan War.

As a major Greek mythology obsessive in my teens (who could rattle off the names of the most obscure ancient Greek deities and creatures), I didn’t require much convincing to check out this acclaimed retelling of The Iliad. I was gratified to discover that this was no “gritty” realistic take stripped of the fantastical elements: Miller’s novel is still very much a myth, with gods, nymphs and centaurs walking among the mortals. I remember being so annoyed by the lack of gods in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Troy with Brad Pitt as Achilles that I still haven’t watched it to this day.

I’ve never read the original The Iliad, and I suspect that the versions of the Greek myths I had read and loved were a tad sanitised, so I’m not sure if Achilles and Patroclus were historically described as lovers. Regardless, Miller takes this idea and runs with it, telling the story from the perspective of Patroclus, an awkward, scrawny son of king Menoitius. Exiled to live in the court of king Peleus of Phthia, Patroclus meets Achilles, the son of Peleus and sea goddess Thetis, who stands above his young peers as the swiftest, most skilled and most beautiful, a golden half-god prophesied to be the greatest warrior of his generation.

Initially resentful of the boy who represents everything he’s not, Patroclus becomes Achilles’ closest companion, and as they both grow into adulthood, he can’t help but fall in love. He’s astonished when Achilles returns his feelings, to the great displeasure of his mother Thetis, who is basically an ancient Greek version of a bossy stage mum, except far more terrifying. She desires nothing less for her son than the full godhood, immortality and feasting on ambrosia with the gods and other great heroes like Heracles.

Yet Thetis’ wrath and her attempts to separate the two pale into insignificance when Helen of Sparta is kidnapped, and Achilles learns that he must decide between a long life lived in obscurity, or a short and glorious life that ends at the gates of Troy, and eternal fame thereafter. There’s no question as to his choice, and so Patroclus anxiously follows his lover and friend to war, knowing little of the way the next few years will test them and their bond.

Miller’s gorgeous, smooth and poetic prose was my favourite thing about the book. She has a beautiful turn of phrase and finds just the right style to bring an age-old myth to life and make it feel fresh. There’s a simple elegance to her language that keeps it from being either too formal and stiff, or too jarringly modern. I especially loved the imagery of goddess Thetis, who feels as alien and chilling as you’d imagine an ancient goddess to be. The Trojan War doesn’t properly begin until halfway in, yet I never found myself wishing for Achilles and Patroclus to board those ships already and get to the juicy epic bits. Miller takes time with the central relationship and the affecting romance, keeping the story intimate before it takes on a far bigger scale.

Mind you, the recounting of the Trojan War is undoubtedly riveting, with the vivid descriptions of the battles and many hardships suffered by the Greeks during their arduous 10-year campaign that are both horrific and dreamlike. This is a cruel world of prophecies, bloody sacrifices and capricious gods, with the sense of impending tragedy never far away. The lovers know that Achilles will never return from Troy, but as a reader familiar with Homer’s epic you know the exact chain of tragic events and poor decisions that will lead to his death, which makes the inevitable march towards the end feel even more gut-wrenching.

Though Achilles still remains a somewhat distant figure, he’s humanised a great deal as seen through Patroclus’ eyes. In this retelling, Achilles is trusting and good-natured, but at times overly naive, stubborn and driven by his egocentric pursuit of fame and glory. He knows himself for what he is – a perfect killing machine – and some of the later events bring out the darker, ruthless side of his personality that breaks Patroclus’ soft heart. There’s admittedly not that much complexity to the characterisations of the leads or notable players like Odysseus and Agamemnon, but then it can be argued that it’s not particularly required for this kind of mythical storytelling.

There are a couple of glaring anachronistic slips that made me wince – I’m sorry but no story set in the Ancient Greece should ever use the word lunch! Patroclus’ kinder gentler sensibilities at times seem suspiciously out of place in this world, and official prophesies that validate them even more so; there are times when he feels too much like the author’s self-insert. These minor annoyances aside, I loved the book and would definitely want to read Miller’s other mythology-inspired novels.

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