“Name one hero who was happy.”
After reading and adoring Madeline Miller’s Circe, I had to follow it up with The Song of Achilles. I am a huge nerd for Greek mythology, so both stories were a delight to read. While I preferred Circe, The Song of Achilles was enjoyable in its own right – particularly due to its interesting premise.
The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, with the noteworthy distinction that the great hero Achilles is in a romantic relationship with his close friend, Patroclus. Told from Patroclus’s perspective, The Song of Achilles begins with our heroes’ childhood and follows their relationship to the fateful war for Troy.
Madeline Miller’s particular brand of retelling stories rooted in Greek mythology – filling in gaps, fleshing out characters, examining what-if scenarios – makes for the kind of stories I never knew I needed. In Circe, Miller took a goddess and brought out her humanity; in The Song of Achilles, she plays with the godly nature of Achilles, demigod son of a nymph and a king. Although Achilles is mortal, he is the greatest fighter of his age by virtue of his god blood. As he carves out his legacy in Troy – fully aware that the end of the war will mean his death – Achilles’ humanity begins to fade away, and pride blinds him to what is truly important.
The Song of Achilles’s greatest strength is its unique premise. By focusing on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, the book explores an often-ignored facet of Achilles – that he was human, with the weak points of any other mortal man. In this story, Achilles’s greatest weakness is his love for Patroclus. For those familiar with the events of The Iliad, this setup introduces tension from the outset, quietly ramping it up every time Achilles questions, “What has Hector done to me?”
As the events of The Song of Achilles progress, Achilles’s love is divided between Patroclus and his uncanny aptitude for war. A born fighter, Achilles revels in the violence of the war for Troy, his pride rapidly outstripping his reason. The knowledge of what happens to Patroclus makes Achilles’s behavior all the more frustrating; we know the price of his pride, and the premise makes it all the more painful to read.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, here’s a tl;dr: I loved the progression of Achilles from human to god, and the terrible price he paid for it.
That being said, The Song of Achilles was not as strong of a read as Circe; the prose was clunky in places; the war, told from Patroclus’s point of view, was less of a war and more of a waiting game with his gal-pal, Briseis. Any retelling of The Iliad should have some of the excitement of its predecessor, even if that retelling is a tragic love story instead of a war story. The book would have benefitted from a quicker pace and a little more action.
If you’re interested in retellings of Greek mythology, I would recommend Circe and The Song of Achilles both. Now, I can only sit back and wait for Miller’s next foray into the Greek myths.
If she’s taking requests, I’d love a retelling of Hades and Persephone. Pretty please?