A ravishing, unconventional narrative, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles reimagines Homer’s Greek and Trojan war. Instead of a tale of glorious war from the perspective of ruthless and powerful warriors, Miller’s story is a romance, told by the gentlest of the Greek soldiers.
Miller’s saga of love and war is narrated by Patroclus, an exiled Greek prince of little significance, who comes to live as a foster brother to the great Achilles. Achilles, already prophesied to be the greatest warrior of his time, takes the awkward, outcast Patroclus under his wing. The two boys become best of friends, developing a bond unlike any other.
The boys become men and fall in love with each other, despite the attempts of Achilles’s mother– the goddess Thetis– to thwart their love. Patroclus’s undying devotion to Achilles prompts him to follow the prince of Thaia to the war against Troy.
In the nine years of war against Troy, their courage will be tested and their lives will be in constant danger. Patroclus’ and Achilles’ relationship must weather many of its own battles as well. The greatest threat against their happiness lies in the prophecy about Achilles: he, best of the Greeks, will die in battle.
Miller turns the classic epic on its head with a literary sleight of hand that is wonderful to behold. The story is still clearly recognizable as the Trojan War that Homer wrote about, but the differences in perspective are as opposite as night and day. Homer’s epic shows a war that is glorious, epic, and grand, fought by heroes and valiant legends. Miller, in The Song of Achilles, writes the story of those who were deemed weak or unworthy.
The battles and bloodshed are grotesque. The sacrifice of Iphagenia and the raping of conquered women are seen for what they are: not the unfortunate consequences of war, but horrendous crimes against women. The Greek warriors are not noble and brave, but power-hungry, stubborn, and arrogant.
Miller’s artful fingers lift the familiar characters of Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector, and Paris off the pages, sculpting them and transforming them from gods and heroes into the most real of people. Agamemnon’s brutish pride is there, along with Odysseus’s self-serving schemes and Patroclus’s revulsion for war. His love for Achilles, too, is compelling, fraught as it is with real-life considerations and legendary dangers.
Madeline Miller kept me spell-bound in The Song of Achilles, using some of my favorite story elements. As I wrote in my review of Miller’s book Circe, Miller combines a sense of fantasy fiction with all the turbulent emotions of human drama, and the ancient classicism of Greek mythology with a literary finesse that excites and astounds.
Personal Note: For some of my younger or more conservative readers, please note that there are two or three brief scenes that are rather sexually explicit.
Another personal note: I listened to The Song of Achilles on audiobooks.com, and I highly recommend it. Excellent narrating and very well-paced.