Book Review: The Song of Achilles

I have been reading Greek mythology lately. I have been teaching mythology to a small classroom of approximately-ninth-grade boys and I have, as a rabbit trail, plunged into book after book of Greek mythology. It was always a subject that interested me. (The truth is that just about everything in English 1 interested and still interests me (except grammar) but I don’t have time for all the rabbit trails. I’m drowning in rabbit trails already.) I have made a list of Greek mythology titles I want to read which is longer than the books which I have bought and lined up on the shelf to read which is more than I could possibly get around to reading right now. So where am I? I have read Gods and Heroes, Mythology, Medea, an Odyssey graphic novel, an Iliad graphic novel, a couple children’s books on mythology, and a number of shorter articles and chapters from the mythology books in my home library. That’s enough to make my point.

Image from Amazon.com

When I was on my writing residency this year, I actually didn’t bring enough books. I kept the bibliopacking list slim but it turned out that my late evenings were spent mostly reading. If I had put in enough hours writing on any given day, I chose slowly winding my brain down most nights instead of burning the midnight oil and then crashing with a buzzing cerebrum. (I did do that a few times, too.) So mid-week, I had out-read the few books on the bedside table. It was okay, though, because not only did I have a bookstore within walking distance, I also had a coupon left for me on the dresser for said bookstore. Ten per cent off everything, suckas! I walked up to the bookstore and with my wishlist in hand I pulled three titles from the shelves that were near the top of the list. One of them was an extremely popular title that also happened to fall within the Greek mythology theme: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. (Circe was also on that list but I already had a shiny, new copy at home so I couldn’t buy it again. We’ll get around to reading and reviewing that someday.)

Song of Achilles was Madeline Miller’s breakout novel. (Circe has also been published, now, and is also very successful.) It was published in 2012, but keep in mind that Miller does extensive research to write her “historical” fiction and on top of the usual history research she also has to have an exhaustive understanding of Greek and Roman mythology which is sort of like an alternate reality. Two universes. So she takes a long time to get a story right. I suppose that part of the success of her writing is the meticulousness and the accuracy/understanding. But I’m pretty sure most people are in it for the characters and the specific, compelling story.

Alright, so The Story of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, which is the story of the last year of the legendary Trojan War. Much of the original story does actually revolve around Achilles, but Miller’s version not only zeroes in on this one character, it also stretches out the timeline a bit. In fact, we head all the way back to Achilles’ childhood, but time slows down the closer we get to the end, so there are just some touches at first that lead to a fluidity. And, surprise!, this is the song of Achilles whose praise is not sung by himself or from his own perspective, but straight from the pen/lips of Patroclus. Who is Patroclus, you might ask. To simplify things, he’s Achilles’ BFF. But it’s not that simple, or at least not always that simple. There was always some speculation that Patroclus and Achilles might have been a little more than BFFs, if you know what I mean. Some of the early writers portrayed Achilles and Patroclus as lovers and some did not. There is no “reality” to it because Achilles and Patroclus were never real people, but it is impossible to know what the original storyteller’s conception of them was. Even Homer is not particularly clear about it. In The Iliad they are very close friends and comrades but there is no indication that they were more (which may have been due to a more nuanced conception of same-sex relationships in ancient Greece). Then again, at the given time in Greece (yes, they were in Troy but they were Greeks) male homosexual relationships were somewhat normative though along lines that were often different from what they might be today (like in apprentice-tutor “relationships” or on-the-side arrangements). I also find it hard to believe many of the modern interpretations of these relationships because of the nature of the dual-lens reading of “history” and everything that was left unsaid and is therefore assumed or speculated.

In Miller’s retelling, then: sure, Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship—because it is sexual and, perhaps more importantly, romantic—is a big ideology draw for some readers, but it is also a huge part of the story. Achilles and Patroclus as a storyline has always orbited around their friendship and fidelity, their loyalty and love, so the book’s main thread is their growing and enduring love. In that sense, even with all the fighting and even gore, Song of Achilles is a love story. Readers end up weeping at the end and there are many touching moments where the two are tested and the reader sympathizes, learns from them, roots for them, and marvels at them. It’s a fascinating story, anyhow. From the opening sentences we are driven deep into the ancient world of Greece and the world of gods and goddesses, beasts and magic, though interestingly enough those things are underplayed. It’s a more realistic world that we are lost in, one with very complex and intricately drawn characters who exciting things happen to. Patroclus sets out adoring Achilles, a demi-god, and he never stops. He is the most constant of Achilles’ admirers, even though he is also the closest of all his intimates.

And this book is intimate. I mean that sexually, so be prepared for graphic (and yet not really gratuitous) sex scenes (same- and opposite-). But I more mean that emotionally and relationally. Song of Achilles is a book that it is easy to get lost in. True story: after my first night staying up way too late reading this, I had to hand it off to one of my fellow residents, asking him to keep it from me all day. He said, “I’ve been there,” and took it. It’s certainly easy to read, and engaging, and interesting, and whatever else. I am not a battle-scene gal, but I made it through all those, too. And, let me remind you, I knew the outcome of all of these stories since I’d just read them all about five different ways. And still I was biting my nails and couldn’t put it down (maybe partly because I wasn’t sure how she would manage a narrator who was… well, perhaps you don’t already know).

This is not the most amazing book I’ve ever read, and it’s not even totally my style (it’s a bit book-candy-ish), but it is a great read if you’re looking for a gripping, sweep-you-off-your-feet experience and you’re on board for a homoerotic retelling of a Greek myth likewise steeped in legend and period history.

One thought on “Book Review: The Song of Achilles

  1. I liked this book fine but it had a Young Adult feel to it, the writing, because clearly the themes fall outside of YA material. I like the way you put it though – candy-ish. I know just enough of the classics to have had some inkling of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the possibility that it was physical, so I was ok with that. Somehow though, I found it lacking and I did not request Circe from my library.

    Good review.

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