The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

>> Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TITLE: The Song of Achilles
AUTHOR: Madeline Miller

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Ancient Greece and Troy
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: There might be a book about Odysseus, from what I hear!

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must 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 Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.
The basic plot of The Song of Achilles is one that a lot of people will already know, whether they've read The Iliad or not. I'm kind of in the middle: we did it in school when I was about 16-17, and unfortunately, there's no better way to describe our teacher's approach than 'doing' the book. We read and talked around it, mostly: about oral history, about Homer, a little bit about the Trojan War, and even less about the book itself. We talked more about some of the stylistic quirks of the book than about the actual story in it.

Still, I managed to absorb enough that I knew the gist of the plot. I do remember my attention being caught by this whole "Wrath of Achilles" thing, and wondering at what was clearly being left unsaid there. Madeline Miller's story covers much of the same ground as the Iliad, but starting much, much earlier, and from the perspective of a character, Patroclus, who has such disproportionate influence in the Iliad, compared to the attention paid to him as a character.

Miller starts her story when Patroclus is a young boy. Being a quiet, withdrawn sort of child, he's a disappointment to his brawny father, and after a fight that turns accidentally tragic, he's exiled from his home. He's taken in by King Peleus, and at first, he's as much a target of the bullies as he was at home. Until, that is, the King's son, the heroic Achilles himself, befriends him.

From there, Miller follows the boys as they become friends, and, as they grow up, lovers as well. But the events leading up to the Trojan War are in motion, and Achilles bears the weight of being the prophesised greatest warrior in the whole world, so they won't be able to stay out of the fray forever.

I really enjoyed this. I'm generally allergic to Tragic Love Stories (probably as a reaction to those horrid snobs who think they're the only type of love story worth telling in proper literature), but this one hit the spot. I guess sometimes the cathartic feelings can really feel quite satisfying...

Miller definitely tugs at the old heartstrings, but in the best way possible. She's not manipulating her readers, she's simply telling a story that wouldn't make any sense other than with its tragic ending, and making her characters so well-realised and their romance so deeply felt, that the sadness of the ending arises naturally, without any manipulation on her part. That is very important to me, I absolutely HATE authors trying to manipulate me into weeping (I'm looking at you, Jodie Picoult!).

Even though this is all narrated from Patroclus' point of view, and his feelings for Achilles are pretty biased, you still get a sense of what he really is like and how his fatal flaw drives him straight into tragedy. Miller shows how the way he is drives him into agreeing to go to war, when he knows the prophecy says it won't end well, and to his inaction at a crucial point. He's very definitely not perfect.

Apart from the main relationship, there were many other things I liked. The way Miller incorporated the gods was great. I kind of expected she'd make it a story about people in a world where everyone believes in the gods, but it's a world where the gods actually exist. That was really interesting to see. I also thought she handled the action scenes wonderfully, and I liked how her prose was deceptively simple, rather than overblown and poetic. Oh, and the secondary characters. They really came to life. I especially liked Odysseus and Briseis, and appreciated how Miller allows the latter to become a real character.

Fantastic, highly recommended.


PS - This may sound obtuse, but what's the difference between this and fanfiction? Is it just that the Iliad isn't in copyright any longer?


Marg 26 September 2012 at 22:02  

I have no idea what makes this not fan fiction! It's like all those Austen spin-offs. What makes them a sub=genre of their own and not fan fic?

I really need to read this book. It sounds like exactly my kind of read!

Rosario 27 September 2012 at 07:25  

Yep, exactly!

I think you'd really like this, Marg!

LizA,  29 September 2012 at 13:52  

I am not really sure about the Austen spin offs, but.... there are lots and lots of books about King Arthur and Camelot, starting in the middle ages. I think people reworking it are not doing fan fiction because they are doing something "new" to the material. The way I understand fan fiction is that people borrow the "world" rather then the plot of a work of literature. But of course there is a murky grey area! Interesting question... and the book sounds good too. :-)

Rosario 30 September 2012 at 08:50  

There might be something to that, LizA. But here it's not just the basic plot that's borrowed (a la Shakespeare). To an extent, it's the characters as well. Miller kind of fills in some of the blanks in Homer's version. How is it different from, say, someone writing a story about Hermione and Ron's adventures before Harry Potter arrives at Grimmauld Place in HP and the Order of the Phoenix?

PS - I don't think this whole fan fiction issue makes any difference at all. I don't have a problem with it, I'm just curious about definitions!

Idler 30 September 2012 at 12:36  

I loved this book as well - thank you SO much for introducing me! I also really loved the way Miller presented Briseis as a strong character in her own right.

I really do hope that we get a piece of "fanfiction" on Odysseus. I read Michelle Levigne's THE DREAMER'S LOOM fairly recently which is a fantastic retelling but from Penelope's perspective. Deeply recommended.

Rosario 30 September 2012 at 17:41  

Idler: I was so glad the rec was a hit. The Levigne sounds great. There are so many modern books around this subject, and now I'm collecting all of them. The latest one, which I've borrowed from my library, is Memorial, by Alice Oswald, which sounds quite different:

BTW: bit of an "ah!" moment when I took a look at your blog and figured out who you are, lol!

Idler 1 October 2012 at 01:08  

LOL! For some reason, it linked me automatically to my (practically defunct) blog that I hadn't updated for over two years. Hmmnn. It might be an idea to try to resurrect it...

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