The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – REVIEW
The legend begins…
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.
“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”
After finishing an ARC of Circe I wanted to read more of Madeline Miller’s beautiful prose so decided to reread The Song of Achilles. I fell in love with the story of Achilles and Patroclus the first time I read it so I wanted to see if it holds up to a second reading. I’d actually forgotten how beautiful this story is with its epic tale of love, honour, and war.
The theme of fate is woven throughout the book and the prophecy foretelling Achilles as the greatest warrior of his generation and his death during the Trojan war looms large over Achilles’ life and his relationship with Patroclus. Can you escape fate or is it a trick of the gods that the more you try to avoid your destiny the tighter you pull the noose around your own neck?
During this rereading and knowing the myth of Achilles, the foreshadowing leapt out at me more than once. One character who particularly interested me this time (especially after reading Circe) was the nymph Thetis. Thetis remains difficult to understand but her love for Achilles is obvious and she is representative of the misogynistic society whereby women were often taken by force. I would love Madeline Miller to write more about her one day.
“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.”
The story is narrated by Patroclus rather than Achilles, and I think this anchored the book in a more ordinary and relatable perspective. Achilles is like a vessel rather than a person at times, a weapon to be wielded, with a destiny beyond his human wants. His relationship with Patroclus is what humanises him and it’s their love that seems epic rather than Achilles’ feats. There’s a pureness to their relationship and a trust that goes beyond most.
Patroclus is an ordinary man without the revered fighting skills that usually bestow honour on males in Greek society. But he finds his purpose on the battlefield practising medicine and healing the soldiers. He becomes known for his honesty and kind-heartedness, and he connects with the other Greeks in a way Achilles is unable to. Achilles exists on a separate plane of existence and Patroclus is his only link to the world of the ordinary men.
“This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”
For those of you not familiar with the Greek myth please stop reading as there will be SPOILERS in this paragraph. As in any Greek tragedy, the hero has a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. The hubris of Achilles and his obsession with honour (which was paramount to all Greek males) leads to a heartbreaking fallout of events. Achilles turns out not to be the true hero of the story, rather the ordinary Patroclus, in seeking to preserve Achilles’ heroic memory and honour, demonstrates true heroism.
After the death of Patroclus, the grief of Achilles is palpable and he becomes self-destructive, seeking death in order to be reunited with his beloved. The theme of honour and immortality via heroic deeds is reiterated upon Achilles’ death when his son refuses to acknowledge Patroclus’ burial alongside Achilles thus denying his soul rest.
The ending is beautifully poignant and Thetis’s reappearance was certainly worth waiting for. I can’t stop thinking about both Circe and The Song of Achilles, and Madeline Miller has cemented herself as one of my favourite authors, with both books in my top 10 favourites.
About the Author
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years, she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.