The Song Of Achilles, By Madeline Miller

What’s This Book All About?

Even if you have never read about Greek legends, there is no way you have not heard about Achilles. Everyone knows the story. For the uninitiated, Achilles, is a Greek God who refuses to fight in the War of Trojan after an altercation with Agamemnon, who is the commander of the Achaean forces. This results in the absolute destruction of the Greek forces and Patroclus, who is Achilles’s partner enters the battlefield dressed in Achilles armor, hoping to end the war. However he is killed by Hector and enraged over his death, Achilles ends his refusal to fight and takes the field killing many men in his rage but always seeking out Hector. Achilles finally manages to kill Hector and this story in turn has been revisited in many stories and legends, the most popular beingHomer’s Iliad.

In The Song of Achilles, Miller recounts the same story from the point of view of his companion Patroclus. The big twist is that the author Miller portrays this story as a romance between the two protagonists, Patroclus and Achilles. While staying true to Greek legends and works of Homer, the author has convincingly  given Patroclus a back story that makes perfect sense. From their blossoming friendship to eventual romance, this is a story of the undying love between Patroclus and Achilles. Of the lives they sacrifice on the altar of that love. Of desperate men and petty gods. Of a proud, greedy people engaged in a prolonged, bloody war.

The Bigger Picture

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The Song Of Achilles follows the trajectory of every tragic love story. We all know the outcome. We know that our desperate prayers for someone to step in and save these characters from themselves will fall on deaf ears.  According to Madeline Miller, the idea for this novel arose from wondering about the extremity of grief Achilles suffers when his closest friend Patroclus dies on the battlefield at the hand of Hector. What kind of relationship did Achilles share with Patroclus that his death mattered so much to him? She answers that question with immense depth and sensitivity. With a primary focus on the human capacity to love, Miller interprets these larger than life characters in a uniquely humane and sensitive manner. A graceful new exploration of the ancient tale, this book takes you inside the lives of these two readers in a compelling manner. That being said, Miller is strong while painting the pages of this book in blood and suffering. It is awash with pain and brutality.

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. 
I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

The first and foremost thing that draws you into the story is the voice of Patroclus which is honest, frank, raw and almost painful in its nakedness. Because of this Patroclus’s character seems even more exposed and vulnerable, which completely works in his favour. His truthfulness is so glaring and heart wrenching that it is difficult not to feel sympathetic towards him, a feeling that does not leave right till the end {and sometimes long after you have finished the book}. What’s more is the amazing development arc of Patroclus whose attitude towards Achilles grows from blind admiration to love to pure passion. Without sugar coating Achilles’s fault, Patroclus manages to give the readers a very humane and real look of the semi-human God who is a staple of almost all Greek legends. 

“Why me?
Because you’re the reason.”

Patroclus follows Achilles both to Chiron and Phthia. When Achilles’s mother takes him to Scyros, he understands what happens with Deidameia. Even when Achilles goes to war, Patroclus follows despite not being a warrior. When Achilles’s thirst for glory takes over his life, it is only Patroclus and his sanity that ties him to reality.

The writing of Miller is immaculate and has managed to give her characters a true psychological depth that rarely happens. Take for example Achilles who is the classic version of the myth, or what leaks from it and imprints itself on the reader’s minds. So we get a glimpse of Achilles as a conceited and arrogant boy dressed in a shiny armour who even he grows up lets hundreds and thousands of men die, just out of his ego, pride and vanity.

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Horrified by the thought that his short life would bring him no glory, Achilles is ready to do almost anything to achieve the glory that was prophesied at his birth. He is  scared by the fact that he has only a short life and that his legend would be erased by time and deeds forgotten by the people. This results in his foolish behaviour and finally culminates in the tragic ending that destroys both their lives.

And yet it is their love shines that through every obstacle and problem. Their devotion to each other is unassailable and that is the major reason why they are to a point successful in dealing with Achille’s ego and vanity. Because Patroclus’s love is nothing compared to Achilles’s ego, the start. Trust me, this is Greek epic at its finest.

The ending is just as excruciating painful as the reader would expect. So while many might blame Achilles, it does not mange to soothe the pain and trauma in any manner. And while some people might feel he deserve it, for me that does not hold one shred of truth. According to me, he did not deserve it. He did not deserve what happened to him. So while I kind of knew what would happen in the end, it literally broke my heart into so many pieces.

Final Verdict

There are over sixty synonyms for the word beautiful and if I had it my way, every one of them would be used in this review. That would still not be enough to explain my love for the book.  The Song of Achilles is unlike anything I’ve ever read before in my entire life. It is much more grander than I thought it would be, and if more love stories were like this, I would read more of this genre. Also, since I had no prior knowledge of Achilles’ tragic story, this was all the more surprising to me. And now I crave mythology, just like I crave books.

But be warned, this book is not for for everyone. It has its own share of sexism, misogyny, violence, bloodshed, and rape, mentioned in the most casual manner. While that might be because of the time period, these characters connect with you and stay long after you have finished the book. And this is mainly because Miller has taken legends and brought them to life within the pages of this book. She has humanised these mythical beings in such a manner that they seem so real. In conclusion, this is a beautifully written and masterfully crafted story that is capable of transporting readers within its pages, so enchanting them with what they find within that they forget that the real world exists outside the book.