Review: The Song of Achilles

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I nearly double-majored in Classics, and the most enjoyable class I took in college was a Classics/Archaeology crossover class where we read classical texts then watched movies based on them to pick them apart for historical accuracy.

But that kind of knowledge is fairly niche now, and I don’t get a lot of opportunities to think about Homer and the Greek gods anymore.

Going back, though, is extremely satisfying. Anyone with more than a passing interest in The Iliad needs to immediately pick up this book — even if your only exposure to the tale is what you gleaned from “Xena: Warrior Princess” and the movie “Troy,” you’ll enjoy this book.

Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is “the best of the Greeks,” and yet the Trojan War lasted 10 years as men fought for land, power, and the rights to the most beautiful woman in the world. But the original text provides very little insight into the life and character of this man.

That’s where The Song of Achilles comes in, telling Achilles’ story through the eyes of his most beloved, the footnoted and glossed-over Patroclus (laughably called Achilles’ “cousin” in the modern interpretation; sure, we believe he went to his death on behalf of his “cousin,” Hollywood. Suuuure.)

Tackling Greek myths for a modern audience is pretty tricky work: how do you remain faithful to a story format conceived thousands of years ago?

But Madeline Miller more than manages: her writing is deft, loving, and honors both human skill and god-gifted powers. You’ll believe the gods–tricky, unreachable, unassailable in their pretty deceptions–really do intercede into a human war, and you’ll also see how a change in the wind could be interpreted as a blessing from the gods.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is nuanced, taking them from their time as children together up through and beyond Patroclus’ death. Their love as a couple is potent and poignant, and I sometimes had to stop reading to clutch the book to myself, hoping that, maybe, this time, Patroclus wouldn’t have to die.

Despite the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, I wouldn’t call this a necessarily LGBT work. This is a Classics piece, and will be best loved by those who love the Classics. The text itself is vague on whether or not they would, by modern terms, be considered gay: do they love men–any men?–, or do they merely love each other? I’ll not spoil it, but Patroclus and Achilles both have moments where the rigidity of a sexual category are questioned.

The perhaps most incredible part of this story is how a demi-god manages to live when he knows, with complete certainty, that his early death is assured. How can you live a full life knowing you will not be able to grow old? What kind of person would chose the allure of glory and fame over life? The portrait of Achilles here painted is a believable structure of such a man.

I can’t wait for Miller to tackle The Odyssey next! (I hope she does!)

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