Why this book: I stumbled upon this wonderful book in the used books store at the Coronado Library. I recalled being intrigued by a review I had read several years ago – it was published in 2012. I have always been fascinated with Greek philosophy and the Homeric epics, and was intrigued by the idea of a condensed and novelized version of The Illiad, told from the perspective of Achilles’ close companion, Patroclus. It is short – 360 pages– and very readable, written in modern American English very accessible to the contemporary reader.
My impressions: The Song of Achilles is built around the story of The Illiad, but includes much more – Madeline Miller creates a pre-Illiad past for Achilles and Patroclus, and includes pieces of Achilles’ story and the Trojan war that are not in The Illiad, but which are found in other sources such as The Odyssey and The Aeneid. It is an enjoyable and interesting read – even more so, if one is familiar with the story and general themes of The Illiad. Madeline Miller clearly knows and loves her subject – she is a classical Greek scholar who has been studying The Illiad since she was a child.
Ms Miller freely uses her creative license to make The Illiad – a testosterone-filled epic of men at war, into a love story between Patroclus and Achilles. The Song of Achilles is built around the events and context of The Illiad, but is told from the first person perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend and aide. Patroclus tells us of his boyhood growing up with Achilles, and how they mature into young men, and ultimately find themselves fighting for Agamemnon’s army at Troy.
The Illiad never explicitly describes Patroclus and Achilles as lovers; in fact there are many references in The Illiad to their carnal relations with women. However, given the culture of the time, and the nature of their close friendship described in The Illiad, most scholars accept that Homer meant to imply that they were lovers. The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles has been debated over the centuries and in fact the issue has its own entry in Wikipedia .
In The Song of Achilles, Achilles is clearly devoted to Patroclus from the time they are boys and has no interest in women. Patroclus is likewise completely committed to Achilles as a friend and lover. Patroclus and Achilles are both portrayed as sensitive young men who are forced into the violence of war by fate, the wiles of Odysseus, and Achilles mother, who is almost an archetype of the cold and power-hungry mother, driven by ambition for her son. In The Song of Achilles, as in The Illiad, Achilles is the greatest warrior of the Greeks – Aristos Achaien. Patroclus however is not the warrior he is in The Illiad. In The Song of Achilles he has neither the talent nor the desire to fight, preferring instead to work in the medical tent, gifted at tending to the battle injuries of those who do fight.
I enjoyed how Ms Miller portrayed the classic characters of the Greek expedition – Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus and Ajax. She also gives depth and character to Briseis, the beautiful young woman who ostensibly was the cause of the break between Agamemnon and Achilles. In The Song of Achilles, Briseis and Patroclus become very close, in a brother-and-sisterly way. In The Illiad, Achilles refers to Briseis as his wife, while in The Song of Achilles, he shows no interest in her, except as a point of honor between him and Agamemnon. Hector, Paris, Andromache, Priam, the principle Trojan players in the drama are only two dimensional players in The Song of Achilles. Their stories are much more prominent in The Illiad.
I found Ms Miller’s treatment of the romance and affection between Patroclus and Achilles appropriately discrete and easy for me (a confirmed heterosexual), to relate to. After reading The Song of Achilles, I was inspired to take Robert Fagles’ wonderful translation of The Illiad off the shelf to read some of the most famous scenes to better understand how The Song of Achilles diverges from The Illiad in story, style, and intent. Yes they are different – The Illiad is a story focusing on men at war; The Song of Achilles is a love story, but both describe that epic war that helped define Greek culture for centuries. While The Illiad is wonderful in the original, Madeline Miller puts this timeless epic into a very readable and engaging story, which I strongly recommend – whether you have read The Illiad or not.
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