“Name one hero who was happy.” said Achilles. “You can’t.“
“I know. They never let you be famous and happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.“
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.“
“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.“
Set in Greece in the Age of Heroes, The Song of Achilles starts as a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, and then transforms into something wholly new and unique.
When Patroclus, an insecure young prince from a neighboring court, is exiled, he arrives at the court of King Peleus and meets the King’s perfect son, Achilles. Achilles is everything the stories said he would be: strong, brilliant, and beloved. As their relationship deepens, Patroclus begins to see another side of Achilles too that the stories don’t sing of: his humor, his gentleness, his boyish charm.
But then sources bring news that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Achilles and his father’s armies are sent off to war and Patroclus, balancing between love and fear, goes with him. Neither of them realize that the next years in Troy will hold battles, victories, enemies, and brutal defeats, with an all too inevitable end.
A lot of us had to read the Iliad in school, and a lot of us struggled, let’s just be real.
For most of my life I’ve personally found Achilles to be a somewhat unsympathetic archetype: the strong, handsome, brave warrior who sits above everyone else because he is so great on the battlefield. For some reason this archetype never appealed to me: it’s too perfect. Like Superman, there was always something off-putting for me about such inherent perfection. Even the battle of Troy, fought over a woman, seemed ludicrous to me. And yet I never wondered if perhaps the characters in the story felt the same way. After reading The Song of Achilles, I will never be able to see its characters in the same way that I used to, and it is a beautiful, wonderful thing.
This book was so hyped by the time that I read it that I was worried it would hurt my opinion of it. It didn’t. The Song of Achilles was heartbreaking and powerful, violent and profound, and utterly, all-consumingly, inevitably tragic.
Seen through Patroclus’ eyes, and Miller’s writing, it’s impossible not to see the stark humanity in the characters that make up this story. Patroclus does us the favor of seeing the best in Achilles, and in seeing the parts of him that the stories he’s heard so often didn’t tell him about. Miller’s story traces their growing friendship and eventual romance through exile, angry goddesses and war, and the singular focus on their relationship through everything is the melody I can’t get out of my head. I wanted so badly for them to be happy.
The way she writes characters and relationships is to be commended. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is clearly something that Miller has mastered, and the results are something beautiful. The way she conveys feeling and especially the main characters’ relationship, without ever specifically naming them, makes the story feel visceral and personal, like it comes from within instead of from the book front of you. I loved Achilles and Patroclus like they were alive, and I hated Thetis and Agamemnon as if they had personally wronged me. There’s something alive and tangible about every character, every place, every wound, and every heartbreak.
Madeline Miller does something spectacular in The Song of Achilles, which is to honor the original story while also adding layers and layers of meaning and emotion. Miller is exceptional at creatively filling in the blanks with pieces of story that feel like they were always meant to be there. Her writing is elegant and simple, calling back to a way of writing that almost sounds like a song or a fairytale. Her words a new light on an old story, making it seem fresh and heartbreaking anew.
“We were like gods, at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”