Book review: ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

(no spoilers but trigger warning for sexual assault)

If you’re anything like me, going through the British school system (even a super-posh private school one) will bring you out in a heaving rash whenever Greek Mythology or Classics is mentioned. I remember the trauma of Latin classes vividly, and an attempt to make mythology dilute enough for student consumption (“guys, we’re gonna have to remove the gays, the incest, the rape, the murder, the cannibalism, the war, and anything else the parents might complain about”) pretty much made sure that all of us found it dull as hell. 

I’m not so keen on the helmet version of the book cover. This is the one I have

God, if this book had been available to read while I was at school. This is Miller’s DEBUT NOVEL too (obligatory writer jealousy grumble grumble) which is, in truth, mind-blowing. She stays true to the kind of grandiloquence you’re used to from ye ol’ classics like Homer’s Iliad; expanding beyond just the dialogue of the characters and into the writing style itself. She’s made some simple adjustments by not using shortened versions of words throughout – i.e. instead of ‘don’t’, she writes ‘do not’. However, the style is also playful, giving it this formal yet dream-like quality with layers of meaning: “She was shivering, like something just born.”

Still, the writing style doesn’t slow the reading experience at all, which is good considering that ‘The Song of Achilles’ is fairly chunky if you buy the paperback. And yet I read the whole thing in one 3am sitting because I could not put it down. Miller succeeds where other authors have failed by making all her characters three-dimensional and relatable. They may be half-Gods, or Kings, or centaurs, or sea nymphs, but they are just as flawed (arguably more) than the mere humans who surround them. 

The story starts (after an intro to Helen of Troy through her engagement oath) with murder and rape – setting an appropriately dark tone to the book. We hear the story of how Peleus, King of Phythia, traps and forces himself on Thetis, a sea nymph goddess, in an attempt to actualize the prophecy that he will father the greatest ever Greek warrior. As a result, Achilles, half-human, half-God, is born and raised by his father and occasional visits from his mother. 

Years later, Patroclus is a disappointing young prince to his father, Menoetius, and when he accidentally kills a bully in a spat over dice, his father takes the opportunity to exile him: “I planted my hands on his chest and shoved, as hard as I could. Our land was one of grass, and wheat. Tumbles should not hurt. I am making excuses. It was also a land of rocks.” 

Patroclus joins a number of other troubled boys at Peleus’ court and starts to develop a close kinship with Achilles, who is beautiful, popular and a deadly fighter. One particularly lovely description is: “He was spring, golden and bright. Envious Death would drink his blood, and be young again.” The progression of these characters from companionship to lovers was one of the most beautifully written ascents I’ve ever read. And for it to be a queer love story feels like a real gift.

The Iliad may have not been explicit about Achilles and Patroclus being lovers but they were widely represented as such in the classical periods of Greek Literature. Greek Mythology is HELLA gay. Someone should have told me!!

The Iliad is otherwise known as ‘The Song of Ilion’ (Ilion appeared to be the original name for Troy). It’s interesting that Miller has taken this idea and moved the focus from Troy and Helen’s ‘rescue’ to Achilles and his story – one which is now far more interesting to me. 

Achilles and Patroclus, through a series of events, find themselves fighting in the Trojan War, and we witness the trials and challenges both men have to face when it is revealed that Achilles is destined to die after his opponent, Hector. In my opinion, this is where the writing started to elevate from a good book to something truly extraordinary. The realities of war are not glossed over, with Miller paying particular attention to the ego of the leaders, to disease and to the atrocities committed by men onto one another. As readers we are witness to moments of utter cruelty, and must try, with Patrocus, to see the moral good rather than accepting the barbaric nature as it is, with tradition, sacrifice and honour being the main excuses for the atrocities. 

I really enjoyed how Miller weaved through some underlying themes too (the literature student in me was very happy) – for example, the question of whether Gods and humans are in fact a dichotomy. Greek Gods and Goddesses are traditionally omnipotent, unfeeling and on occasions, deliberately cruel but enjoy the reverence that comes with being a deity. When Thetis claims to want to raise Achilles in her underwater world, the worry is that he will lose his humanity completely and become cold and deadly. Humans in comparison are typically represented as vulnerable and weak in body and mind.

In ‘The Song of Achilles’ we see this challenged in a few cases. While we have human leaders who are ignorant, greedy and selfish, characters like Patroclus show immense courage and kindness, without expectation of reward and in the face of much stronger opponents. We also see the indifference of a Greek God dissolve, giving probably one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read (though it does contain a ‘twist’ which was easy to recognise). 

Patroclus really breathes life to this question by imagining the future for Achilles – a 2D depiction of his form, immortalized on the side of drinking cups and vessels – and comparing it to his own wish that he could just reach out and touch Achilles’ soft, human skin once more. Achilles wants to be revered and loved by the masses, whereas Patroclus sees the quiet dignity and beauty in being a human being who loves and cares for others.  

This novel does muddy the waters of ‘the truth’ a little further than they already are. I admit stopping to Google whether Achilles was real (most likely nope), Patroclus (nope), Helen of Troy (nope), the Trojan War (yes – they think?). But regardless of historical truth, this novel is so skilfully told that at any other time in history, it could have passed for mythological text itself.

These are the distant heroes that we had heard about, but projected in beautiful technicolor. Can’t wait to read her next one!

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