Friday, August 05, 2016

The Song of Achilles

When I first read about Madeline Miller's debut novel, The Song of Achilles, a few years ago, I immediately put it on my TBR list, but it took my son reading it and loving it to make me move it to the top of the list and I'm so glad I did as it is my favorite book read in 2016!

Based loosely on The Iliad, Miller tells the story of the Trojan war from the perspective of Patroclus, friend and lover of Achilles, and what emerges is that this shy, awkward, exiled prince is the real hero of the Trojan war.  But to tell the story, Miller has to go back to childhoods of both Patroclus and Achilles, and tell us how and why they became friends and how that friendship evolved into a deep and abiding love.

As I read, I regularly checked the internet to see how Miller's telling of the story lined up with the myth cannon of Achilles and I was thrilled that each event she fleshed out was thoroughly grounded.  For some reason that mattered to me--I guess what I'm getting at is that Homer created a legendary world and Miller's story was consistent with that world.

I also thought Miller dealt with the gods beautifully--larger than life, more beautiful than bearable, but heavy with the burden of immortality.  The gods of Homer, and hence Miller, are not lovable, awful, yes, but not warm.  There's one part where Apollo appears atop a wall of Troy and the writing is just wonderful--it gave me a perfect image of how the immortals pushed through the fabric of the human world at will.

My favorite part is when Patroclus and Achilles are still young and are apprenticed to Chiron, a centaur on Mt Pelion. They sleep in caves, play on the mountain, and basically live an idyllic life until, of course, Paris ruins everything by stealing Helen from Menelaus.  Achilles as the best Greek warrior is pressured into joining the expedition to steal Helen back, and Patroclus, bound by a promise he made when he was a child, also goes, though he is no warrior.

I also loved the character Breseis, one of the Trojan women captured by the Greeks, who becomes one of Achilles' prizes, as in spoils of war.  Besides Patroclus, she is my favorite character.

Achilles, of course, is hard to love.  He is too beautiful, too effortlessly strong and swift and sure, too godlike and too arrogant to be loved, except by Patroclus.  His pride, his vanity, his thirst for fame render him unlikeable, just as in Homer's version.  And yet, Patroclus' love for Achilles is completely believeable.  Patroclus loves Achilles, as he is, without reserve but also without blinders.

Endings are hard, but again I think Miller did a masterful job in ending her telling of the legend.  The conversation between Achilles' goddess mother, Thetis, and Patroclus' ghost was a perfect way to resolve the story arc and bring it to a satisfying close.

Really a beautiful story about friendship, love, honor, and family and the messes that we mortals get ourselves into.


  1. I too really enjoyed The Song of Achilles when I read it a few years ago. I agree with you that the representation of the gods and their interactions with humans was really well done. I wasn’t familiar with the Iliad before reading The Song of Achilles, so I didn’t know how it would end. It was very moving.

  2. I read this a year or so ago and thought it was beautifully written. A couple friends and I had a book group with our mothers briefly and I suggested this - it says a lot about our cool 80+ year old mothers that they all took the subject matter in stride.

    1. Mothers often deserve more credit than given! It is a beautifully written book.

  3. I did the same thing with this book way back when but I never have picked it up. Clearly, I need to remedy that!

  4. Okay if it's your favorite read of 2016 then I better go back and put it on my TBR list. You have me curious .... thx