I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.
If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.“
And so my obsession with modern retellings of classics continues. I came at Song of Achilles with almost zero knowledge of The Iliad and The Odyssey which is a pretty shocking confession for an English Literature graduate. The little that I did know had stemmed from my degree and Circe/Silence of the Girls.
This lack of knowledge did not make Song of Achilles any less enjoyable for me. No doubt those who have read these canons of ancient literature will also find something in Miller’s masterpiece but I’m coming at this review as a novice, something which bookstagram tells me many readers are. I know some people have been put off reading Miller as a result. I’m here to say you don’t have to have a Masters in Classics to adore this tale of love, obsession and sacrifice.
It’s interesting that a lot of the criticism of this book online centres on it’s simplicity – that it is a somewhat childish retelling – this isn’t something I felt. Is there any harm in bringing this story to a wider audience? For people, like myself, who might have felt intimidated by The Iliad and The Odyssey but took great joy in The Song of Achilles. I’d be more likely to tackle these now that I’m familiar with the story. Perhaps this was what Madeline Miller intended.
The novel tracks the relationship of Patroclus and Achilles from Patroclus’ arrival in Achilles’ father’s court – having accidentally killed another boy. Despite the differences in their social standing the pair grow close, with Patroclus becoming Achilles’ closest companion. When the pair train to become warriors romance blossoms, only to be cut short as they go to fight the Trojans alongside their fellow Greeks to win back the kidnapped Helen of Troy.
The novel moves quickly with Miller’s evocative and lyrical writing – it’s an enjoyable read. The odd sentence does grate and perhaps there is something a little Mills and Boon about the dynamic between Achilles and Patroclus (the strong, attractive and damn near perfect Achilles and the innocent, simple and lovesick Patroclus) but I just didn’t care. I was too wrapped up in the story! There is so much packed into this book, the author’s skill really does have to be marvelled at. Apparently it took 10 years to research and write Song of Achilles, and Miller’s real skill is weaving this knowledge so neatly into the story that you barely notice.
The character of Briseis is completely different to Baker’s version. Whilst she is somewhat weaker and, seemingly, lacking the anger which we see in Silence of the Girls, I did not mind this characterisation, especially as I do take some issue with how well Baker made Bresis into a “feminist” in her retelling despite various reviewers touting the opposite.
I’m writing this review having found myself in the centre of Nottingham during Pride. It feels sort of apt. At the core of this novel is the tale of an unbreakable love between two male warriors Achilles and Patroclus. I think it was a fantastic move to have Patroclus, rather than his more infamous partner, narrate the story.
Achilles really is a very mordern hero – gay, cross dressing and acutely self aware. He is still a warrior but there is little of the violence which features so heavily in The Silence of the Girls, perhaps because we see our hero through the eyes of his lover. In fact all the characters are humanised, Miller takes them from the pages of classic literature, shakes them out and allows us to see their inner workings. They are more than fighters, they are men, trapped in a seemingly unwinnable war.
The pair are still bound by the rules of their society. The pair must keep their love secret whilst it is publicly acknowledged, and praised, that Achilles has a son by a woman his mother tricked into marrying him. When Achilles dresses as a woman to hide on the island of Scyros it could cause him great shame:
It was one thing to wear a dress out of necessity, another for the world to know of it. Our people reserved their ugliest names for men who acted like women.”
Even a man like Achilles cannot be himself. This made me think of the recent news stories around gay sportsmen who are still scared to come out for fear of the taunts of fans.
Final Thoughts: There is so much that I could say about this fantastic novel. If you have enjoyed Circe, The Silence of the Girls or any of the other innumerable modern retellings which seem to be filling up my bookstagram feed then you will most likely love Song of Achilles.
Have you read Song of Achilles? What did you think?