A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly re-imagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, Miller’s debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights. Fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.
I loved The Song of Achilles, which didn’t surprise me because I love Greek mythology and I adore a well crafted love story. In fact I enjoyed reading it so much that my copy was stuffed choc a block full of my tiny post it notes. I use a system of post-its to mark passages that I want to return to later, maybe to quote, or in this case just to re-read. So when this happens it is a sure sign that the novel I am reading is a 4 star or a 5 star read.
It is astonishing to me that The Song of Achilles is Madeline Miller’s debut novel. Miller writes with such effortless style, she grabs the reader by the you know whats and mades you purr. Given her background, maybe this is what I should have expected, she has a BA and MA from Brown University in Classics and is an accomplished student from the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience.
One of the novel’s great strengths is its ability to make Greek legends accessible to all readers even those with little or no knowledge of classical history. Miller chooses Patroclus as a first person narrator rather than the more obvious choice: Achilles, giving the story a powerful human touch. The reader is so blinded by Patroclus’s love for Achilles, that he or she is unable to see Achilles faults, right up until the end.
This tale of love and betrayal is set against the backdrop of the agonisingly long Trojan War. The developing love story between Patroclus and Achilles is crafted wonderfully, you sense the gentle tread of their initial attraction, from their first kiss when Patroclus calls upon the gods:
“Dear gods, I think, let him not hate me. I should have known better than to call upon the gods.”
Followed by the full on progression to them becoming lovers. The sexual act between the two is not graphically described, and in my opinion it is better that way. In so doing Madeline Miller ensures that this is a sensual delight, rather than blatant titillation. Some might argue that she is treading sensitively with this portrayal but anything else would have in my opinion jarred with her style of writing.
Achilles must avoid killing Hector, Patroclus sums up the dreadful prophecy with these words:
“And Hector must live, always, he must never die, not even when he is old, not even when he is so withered that his bones slide beneath his skin like loose rocks in a stream.”
Madeline Miller attributes Achilles with God-like characteristics, his beauty is without question, yet it is his lack of awareness that makes him all the more appealing to the reader and to Patroclus:
“Perhaps most remarkable was his un-self-consciousness. He did not preen or pout as other handsome children did. Indeed he seemed utterly unaware of his effect on the boys around him.”
Achilles has a tender side to him, it appears that his human side is stronger than his goddess mother Thesis would like, after witnessing the sacrificial death of a young woman he is distressed:
“I was close enough. I could have saved her.”
When Patrolus watches him sleeping he reflects : “His face is innocent, sleep-smoothed and sweetly boyish. I love to see it. This is his truest self, earnest and guileless, full of mischief, but without malice. He is lost in Agamemnon and Odysseus’ wily double meanings, their lies and games of power.”
Miller engages the reader’s interest by showing Achille’s human side, his ability to love another human being. She demonstrates that being the son of a Goddess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what with all the prophecies, and the potential crises of angering the Gods.
It is clear that Achilles could have had any young man, so why indeed did he choose gawky Patroclus to be his lover? Achilles is so near perfect as it is possible to be, so why would he want a mirror image of himself?Patroclus cannot compare in looks, or courage, or ability to Achilles, but I think the answer lies in Patroclus’s human characteristics. Patroclus is kind, and caring. It is Patroclus’s human weaknesses that attract Achilles. Patroclus is flawed. In the beginning, young Patrolus is exiled to the kingdom of Phthia because he killed a boy.
“In exchange for my weight in gold, they would rear me to manhood.”
There, his is fostered by King Peleus, who happens to be the father of Achilles, a youth the same age as Patroclus. Patroclus could have pretended that the boy’s death was an accident, yet he did not.
“If I had lied, I would still be a prince. It was not murder that had exiled me, it was my lack of cunning.”
He cares deeply for the welfare of others, and ends up attending to the battlefield victims. He feels such pity for Deidameia, the mother of Achille’s son:
“She did not know that I almost asked him, to be a little kinder to her.”
Patroclus is especially fond of Breisis, Achille’s war prize, claimed under Patroclus’s influence to save and protect her from the lecherous clutches of Agamemnon. In fact it is clear that Patroclus loves Breisis, albeit in a platonic way. Breisis pays a very pivotal part in the story and Agamemnon’s actions towards her in the latter part of the book have dire consequences.
The character of Thesis, Achille’s sea goddess mother scares the pants off of Patroclus and no wonder:
“She leaned closer still, looming over me. Her mouth was a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular. Behind it her teeth shone sharp and white as bone.”
Patroclus and Achilles spend some time in an idyll with the centaur Chinon, before they have to grow up, become men and fight in what seems like a never ending war:
“There was something in Chiron’s face, firm and calm and imbued with authority, that made us children again, with no world beyond this moment’s play and this night’s dinner.”
***** Spoiler Alert Below in Italics******
The tender aspect of Patroclus’s character leads to the story’s final tragic outcome, he wishes to protect Achille’s reputation. Breisis is taken forcibly by Agamemnon. Patroclus wishes to protect her from Agamemnon’s carnal desires, Achille’s resents Patroclus’s caring so much for Breisis, but more than anything he resents Agamemnon’s actions, the insult to his honour, he has become vain. Can a God be conflicted? Can a God feel pain and jealousy? In the end it is Patroclus who leaves in Achille’s armour, adopting his persona, promising that he will not fight. In donning Achille’s armour he becomes a God-like warrior for a brief moment of exquisite triumph, but ultimately he can’t sustain this as he is not Achilles, he is a human, not a God. When he realises what impact his well meaning actions will have upon Achilles he knows that he has made yet another terrible decision. This time the outcome will be tragic for all those he loves, his first thought is Achilles, but by the time he realises this, it is too late.
Highly recommended for Fantasy, Historical, Mythology, Romance, GLBT, and War readers.
Well, it’s got to be a definite 5 stars, and it’s most certainly one to grace my favourites shelf.