The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Publication date: Sept. 2011
Genre: Fantasy | Historical Fiction
My rating: ★★★★★
Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks,” son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods’ wrath.
They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to 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 cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.
MY GOD. THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK WRECKED MY LIFE.
I don’t have the words to fully articulate what I experienced reading The Song of Achilles because my life is in shambles. I picked up The Song of Achilles on a whim and now I have this melancholic ache and a serious need for a support group. This story is beautifully crafted, nuanced, and compelling, which is why it took me almost two weeks to finish. Because I write in my books, I wanted to savor this and annotate everything because Madeline Miller’s prose is eloquent and admirable.
The Song of Achilles is a tragic love story about a boyhood friendship that developed into a deep romantic love. It’s the type of love that consumes you and makes you want to move heaven and earth, even though the person is far from perfect. If you’re familiar with Greek myth, then you probably already know the story of Achilles and the Trojan War. Achilles is the son of the sea goddess, Thetis, and mortal king, Peleus. He’s loved, brave, irresistibly good looking, arrogant, and the greatest warrior of the Trojan War. However, The Song of Achilles is written from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion.
Patroclus is the complete opposite of Achilles and the perfect protagonist. There’s nothing spectacular about him. His father despised him and his mother was mentally ill. He was exiled at age 10 and sent to live in Peleus’ court. Patroclus doesn’t have has the skills to be a soldier. He’s insecure and not very sociable. Plus he has a lot of internalized childhood trauma. When he arrived at Peleus court, Patroclus is jealous of Achilles’ life, but also admires his beauty from afar. Achilles and Patroclus later strike up a friendship and this friendship develops into an intensely affectionate love. Miller does a wonderful job of showing how deeply Patroclus is affected by his father in his early interactions at court, but also showed how much his relationship with Achilles changed him.
” I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty?” ― Madeline Miller,
The writing and development of Patroclus and Achilles as characters is rich and well paced. Miller pulls you into the characters and their love with her writing. I WAS HOOKED. I rooted for Patroclus. I became upset whenever Thetis directed her coldness towards him or meddled. I rooted for the relationship. I loved their honesty and EVERY SINGLE tender moment. Even with knowledge of this tale, I hoped for a different outcome because Patroclus was a likable character and hero in his own right.
As expected, The Song of Achilles showed the ugly side of this unnecessary and tragic war, including the pride and arrogance of men. Patroclus doesn’t shy away from mentioning Achilles’ obsession with his honor. This obsession eventually leads to his downfall and after Patroclus’ death, we see a terrifying side of Achilles. I WAS FLOORED by the way Miller continued to tell this story after Patroclus’ death. Just thinking about those final pages is making me tear up. IT WAS SO PAINSTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL.
“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.” ― Madeline Miller,
I love The Song of Achilles, but I need to mention some caveats. There’s a lot of sexism, misogyny, rape, and violence. This book is well researched and historically accurate, so it doesn’t shy away from mentioning these things. There are two scenes in particular where I gasped audibly or had some reaction. There’s also a scene in the beginning that I annotated in red because the language is not clear, but casually implies Peleus raped Thetis. The gods are meddlesome and human. Thetis is cold. Achilles becomes stubborn, arrogant, and petty. As much as this story is about Patroclus and Achilles, it is also a story about men’s greed and idiocy. Men go to war over the dumbest [expletive]!
That said, I think Madeline Miller breath new life into these stories and characters. The Song of Achilles is my favorite retelling, my favorite read of 2018, and has made it to my all-time favorite books. Even if you’ve read The Iliad by Homer and know the outcome, this is worth the read. Madeline’s interpretation is a masterpiece.
Have you read this book? If so, what are you thoughts? Let me know in the comments.