Book Review: The Song of Achilles (2011)

Reading is empowering. The act alone pulls us away from ourselves, from our own perspectives, and forces us to look outside our own microcosms. By chance, I picked up The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. In it, we follow the life of Patroclus, Achilles’s most beloved friend and ally, through his own eyes. Beginning briefly with his childhood as a Prince of one of the many independent kingdoms in Greece and going all the way through the events of The Iliad, we see the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus turn into romance and eventually to tragedy.

“In the moonlight, I could just make out the shape of his face, sculptor-perfect, across the room. His lips were parted slightly, an arm thrown carelessly above his head. He looked different in sleep, beautiful but cold as moonlight. I found myself wishing he would wake so that I might watch the life return.”

I am an open-minded person, but there is a larger gap between acceptance and something being commonplace than I had previously realized. I am all for gay marriage, but reading a story of two young boys falling deeply in love with one another was a real test. I admit that hear, realizing exactly how fragile it must make my masculinity seem.

The thing is, while The Song of Achilles began as ‘the gayest thing I have ever read’, I slowly moved past the strangeness (and newness) of their romance, and eventually embraced their tale as one about two lovers. Their genders mattered less and less as I read on. The horror of their situation, a true love being torn asunder by forces literally outside of their control (the Greek gods, fate), overtook any other thoughts I may have had. I was reminded of Shakespeare, and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet.

“Will you come with me?” he asked. The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. “Yes,” I whispered. “Yes.”

I knew what was coming – I picked up the book first and foremost because of my love for The Iliad and The Odyssey – and the book was all the more compelling for it. Achilles is renowned for his martial prowess, as well as his pride and his anger. Seeing him through Patroclus’s eyes gave me an entirely new perspective on the many layers of the character that seem to be lost in The Iliad. While Odysseus thrives in both works, Achilles always felt a little flat to me. He never had the range, only the rage. Odysseus armed himself with his brain and his wit, while Achilles was only as sharp as the tip of his spear. The Song of Achilles humanizes one of Western literature’s oldest characters in a way that makes me appreciate and respect the source text all the more.

The book isn’t perfect. Though I was hooked on it almost from beginning to end, the writing is odd to say the least. I think the idea was to mimic the ‘feel’ of oral storytelling, but it didn’t always work for me. Instead of actively distinguishing who was speaking, the author would sometimes designate the speaker after the fact. It felt cloying.

Our mouths opened under each other, and the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine. I could not think, could not do anything but drink him in, each breath as it came, the soft movements of his lips. It was a miracle.

The first half of the book also dipped dangerously close to being a romance novel. While it worked to sell me on their relationship, Patroclus too frequently batted his eyes and talked poetically about the beauty of Achilles. Furthermore, Achilles doesn’t fight at all until the Trojan War. Before that, he has never killed anyone, and he is entirely self-trained since even the person who taught Hercules and Perseus did not believe he could teach Achilles anything further.

Other than that, The Song of Achilles was a fantastic read. It had everything I wanted from a story based on the Greek epics: there were centaurs, heroes, gods, and glory. It also managed to fill in the gaps for one of the most compelling plots from The Iliad while winking and nodding about events soon to happen in The Odyssey or even The Aeneid. Not only did Madeline Miller know her stuff, but she perfectly navigated the Scylla and Charybdis of being aware of the canon without also being poorly written fan fiction.

“Ithaca is well, thank you,” Odysseus answered. “I left my wife and son there, both in good health.”

I recommend The Song of Achilles to anyone who is a fan of Greek mythology or anyone wanting a tragic love story to sift through. For me, not only did it provide that, but it forced me out of a comfort zone I shouldn’t have, and made me re-examine myself and my feelings toward homosexuality in our culture. It is one thing to accept it, but it is something else entirely to not categorize a thing as something else strictly because it is between two men. I couldn’t be happier that I read this book.