Rethinking Love, War, And Myths: ‘The Song Of Achilles’ Review

Every bookworm has suffered from it at some point: The horrendous reading slump. No story seems to be compelling enough. The words on the page become a jumbled mess. All of the sudden, reading takes so much more effort than lounging on the couch and watching hours of mindless TV shows. Or perhaps your tutor just gives you more books than ever to read and, quite frankly, they all seem a bit poncy or dull. 

My solution to any reading slump: Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles”.

If you were asked to retell one of Greek mythology’s greatest romances, you might think of Paris, whose love (or lust) for Helen sparked a thousand ships against his city of Troy, wiping it off the map. Maybe you would tell me about Orpheus, whose devotion to Eurydice led him down to the depths of hell trying to save her life. It could also be Alcestis, who loved her husband so much that she was willing to die in his stead.

The last mythical figure you might try to rework as a romantic hero would be Achilles, a one-man genocide whose defining characteristic was his unquenchable rage. In her novel, though, Madeline Miller has found the lover beneath the bloodshed and fury. Read on, and this ‘Song Of Achilles’ review will open up a new element into this legend, as well as his participation in the battle of Troy. 

“The Song Of Achilles”: A Summary

“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist… a book I could not put down.” – said Ann Patchett, winner of the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction, about “The Song Of Achilles”. This “incredibly talented new novelist” is Madeline Miller. Interestingly, the Boston native didn’t have a creative writing background before publishing her first book. 

Instead, Miller started off as a Latin and Greek teacher. She doesn’t have a degree in English, journalism, or communications like most writers out there. Nonetheless, this lady possesses extensive knowledge of classics and Greek mythology after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, where she focused on adapting classical texts to modern forms. With that as a stepping stone, Miller began working on her brainchild, and it took her 10 years before “The Song Of Achilles” was introduced to the public. 

As mentioned, Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel retells the events of Homer’s “Illiad”, especially the relationship between ancient Greek Trojan war heroes Achilles and prince Patroclus. The story unfolds with Patroclus narrating his birth and early childhood. Son of King Menoetius, the undersized and awkward Patroclus is a disappointment to his father. At the age of 9, he is brought to the court of Tyndareus as a candidate for his daughter Helen’s hand in marriage. While Patroclus’ suit is inevitably turned down, he is obliged to take a blood oath vowing to defend her marriage at all cost.

A year later, Patroclus accidentally kills a nobleman’s son, which gets him exiled. The banishment brings him to Phthia, where he has the fateful encounter with Achilles. While Patroclus is drawn to Achilles’ irresistible charm, the son of Thetis also feels a special bond between them. The two quickly become friends, then lovers as they grow into adolescence, despite risking Thetis’ wrath. 

Together, Achilles and Patroclus spend a blissful time training with the centaur Chiron. Their happiness doesn’t last long, though: When they turn 16, Helen is kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. All the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. 

“The Song Of Achilles”: A Summary
The Song Of Achilles – Source: maxresdefault

Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Patroclus, who is torn between love and fear, decides to follow. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

According to Madeline Miller, the romance between Achilles and Patroclus is a very old idea, and she was frustrated at the way homophobia was dismissing this special bond. “I certainly would love to hear that the novel inspired some interest in Greek mythology in general, and the Iliad in particular. I hope too that it might help to combat the homophobia that I see too often”, said the author. 

Madeline Miller Talks About Her Book

Friends Or Lovers? Achilles And Patroclus In Greek Mythology

In fact, the book’s main theme has raised much controversy ever since it was first published, and you can guess why: The nature of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship has always been a heated debate. Based on our material on them, we can clearly see that they share an intimate bond. However, since there are so many different variations and interpretations, it’s difficult to tell for sure what kind of connection the pair has. 

Being labeled as “a loyal adaptation of Holmes’ Iliad”, many would come to Miller’s brainchild hoping to get a better grip on Greek mythology. Hence, it would be a mistake to continue this ‘The Song Of Achilles’ review without seeing how close it is to the actual tale. Let’s go through some of the most popular ideas, shall we? 

So What Does The “Illiad” Say? 

Simply put, Homer says Achilles and Patroclus are incredibly close companions. Although their lives are told in great detail, the nature of their relationship remains unclear. Robin Lane Fox – one of the most renowned and well-versed ancient Greek historians – has summed it up, and I quote, “There is certainly no evidence in the text of the Iliad that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers”.

Achilles And Patroclus Relationship
Achilles And Patroclus: Friends Or Lovers? – Source: Pinterest

Nonetheless, throughout the epic poem, you can find many moments and quotes that support the idea of a romance: 

  • In Book 16, Achilles makes a wish that all of the warriors, both Greek and Trojan, would perish so he and Patroclus could take over Troy on their own. 
  • The most substantial moment to prove that their relationship is possibly deeper than it may seem at first glance is in book 18, when Patroclus dies at the hands of Hector. Once Achilles finds out, he bursts out with sorrow and slays Hector to avenge his companion. The Greek hero knows that this deed will result in his own fated death, yet he still carries it out. Here are some of his words: “My dear comrade’s dead – Patroclus – the man I loved beyond all other comrades, loved as my own life – I’ve lost him.” 

Madeline Miller also considers this the biggest piece of evidence that the two are lovers while writing “The Song Of Achilles”. 

  • Another well-known piece of evidence is when Patroclus comes back as a ghost and gives Achilles his final request: “Never bury my bones apart from yours, Achilles, let them lie together… So now let a single urn, the gold two-handed urn your noble mother gave you, hold our bones – together.” 
  • Afterward, Achilles holds a heartfelt funeral ritual for Patroclus and even places a lock of his own hair in Patroclus’ hands.

Achilles And Patroclus In The Pens Of Other Writers

Inspired by these, some great authors of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE have depicted the pair as lovers. Most of them portray Achilles and Patroclus in a pederastic relationship, which was customary for an older man (often in the twenties) to share a sexual bond with a younger man (generally in his teens). 

There, we have Plato presenting his own version, “Symposium”, which later has a great impact on Miller’s “The Song Of Achilles”. According to the author, she took great inspiration from Plato’s work while trying to stay faithful to the events of Holmer’s narrative. We even have a fragment from a lost tragedy of Aeschylus, where Achilles speaks of his and Patroclus’ “frequent kisses.”

Until today, the nature of their bond is still a controversial topic. Different alternatives keep coming out and portray the pair in many different ways: Shakespeare’s “Troilus And Cressida” illustrates them as a couple, whereas the Hollywood blockbuster “Troy” views them as cousins. Yup, you read that right, cousins!

Troy – Achilles And Patroclus Scene

What’s the verdict, then? Did Madeline Miller mess up the “Illiad” by depicting Achilles and Patroclus as lovers like some of the reviews mentioned? It’s vital to note that both Achilles and Patroclus are mythological characters, and even though the myths are loosely based on real figures, the Achilles and Patroclus we know are fictional, not historical. As a result, we can’t come up with an absolute answer the way we know that, say, the United States was founded in 1776. It’s a little more abstract and left up to the imagination.  

Though Homer does not explicitly state that they were romantically involved, there are plenty of precedents to show them as lovers. In the minds of many great thinkers, writers, and artists, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus has gone beyond platonic friendship. 

It depends on how you approach finding “truth” in mythology, and Madeline Miller’s “The Song Of Achilles” just opens up a new interpretation for us to contemplate. 

‘The Song Of Achilles’ Review: A Lifetime Love Story

When I was first recommended “The Song Of Achilles”, I was skeptical. The Illiad has long been one of the greatest epic poems ever written, and a modern adaptation of it never sounds so appealing for literature lovers. What’s more, the tragic and heartbreaking elements of the Illiad are common knowledge to a lot of readers, so I’m not sure if I can still feel it. 

After 416 pages worth of an emotional roller coaster, I realized I was wrong. Usually, I would avoid contributing to an “overhyped” novel since I don’t want to raise your expectation any higher than the hype already has. But Madeline Miller’s brainchild has proven that it deserves all the praise, which is why I have to write this ‘The Song Of Achilles’ review

‘The Song Of Achilles’ Review – Prose Style & Plot Movement 

Romance Between Achilles And Patroclus
Unlike “The Illiad”, “Song Of Achilles” Focus More On Achilles And Patroclus’ Youth – Source: Tumblr

If you have gone through Homer’s Illiad, you would know that all the characters in the epic poem have their thoughts and feelings revealed by an omniscient narrator, even the minor ones. Whereas, in “The Song Of Achilles”, Madeline Miller has assigned Patroclus – Achilles’ highborn companion – as the protagonist and narrator. 

That, to me, is an interesting conceit because Patroclus is a lesser-known hero of the story. Despite playing a significant role in the action of “Illiad”, the son of Menoetius remains curiously shadowy. Because of that, he becomes a very unique standpoint that helps Miller to rebuild an already well-established narrative with a new structure. This fact validates her novel as a stand-alone work from the Illiad, both intrinsically and extrinsically. It’s also what drew me to “The Song Of Achilles” in the first place. 

What seems to be a wise move eventually leads to problems in both structure and tone. Homer’s Illiad has focus and weight because it concentrates on a very narrow subject (albeit with vast, rippling ramifications): The wrath of Achilles, where it comes from, and what it symbolizes. Surrounding the life of Patroclus and the romance, “The Song Of Achilles” is forced to begin much earlier and then catch up with Homer. This leads to a disproportion: The author goes to great length to portray Patroclus’ adolescence, yet you will feel like important events such as the abduction of Helen or the landing at Troy are promptly ticked off a checklist. Furthermore, Patroclus’ death before the story wraps up throws Miller into an awkward narrative stalemate.

While that’s the real Achilles’ heel, Madeline Miller has done a good job with the main theme of her book. The way she develops and portrays Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is natural and heart-touching. While you might expect a typical, clichéd love story, the bond between these two heroes doesn’t feel corny, cheesy, or unrealistic. Instead, you will find “a pure, genuine bond between two flawed souls who care deeply about each other”, just as user Jeffrey Keeten noted on Goodreads. 

More than a love story captured in a short period of time, “The Song Of Achilles” serves as a powerful reminder of how love evolves and perseveres over a lifetime. The bond between Achilles and Patroclus started as an innocent childhood friendship, was rekindled with passion in their adolescence, and finally blossomed into an unbreakable partnership in which they stay loyal to each other through ups and downs. 

“He’s half of my soul, as the poet says.”

‘The Song Of Achilles’ Review – Tone And Writing Style

Part of what makes the romance in “The Song Of Achilles” so beautiful is the author’s poetic writing. Compared to any translation of Homer’s enduring masterwork, her style is much more nuanced and evocative. Truth be told, this was the first time I ever shed tears reading a novel. Many Redditors also said that it made them cry their eyes out until the very end, although they have read the Illiad and are familiar with all the horror and tragedy. 

The way Madeline Miller conveys the emotions of each character and set the tone for the plot truly captures the Illiad’s everlasting splendor, but she has gone beyond that. Her depictions of emotions and observations are so raw and vivid, to the point that readers can fully sympathize with each character. Just like Natalie Haynes from The Guardian puts it, Miller has achieved the unachievable: She transports us to the ethereal world of gods and goddesses, of heroes and warriors, and makes us feel for all of them. 

With that being said, despite being a fantasy, many ‘Song Of Achilles’ quotes can remind us of the first kiss, first touch, or first moment of tenderness as if we were 16 again under a starlight sky in a rose quartz cave. My favorite moment is probably when Patroclus expresses how he feels about his other half, his one and only soulmate: 

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; and 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 Characters 

The Song Of Achilles Character Review
The Bond Between Achilles And Patroclus Is So Tangible And Raw – Source: Ejstories

What I find fascinating is how Patroclus – the narrator – isn’t depicted as a typical alpha male. According to the author herself, she has gone through ancient Greek texts for every mention of Patroclus. In her mind, the exiled prince is a kindhearted, modest, and isolated child with a streak of appealing sadness, and that’s how Patroclus is portrayed in the novel. Goodreads user “El In Oz” pretty much summed up my opinion about him: 

“He is truly one of the sweetest main characters ever. His development over this book, becoming someone strong and independent, was so masterfully and well done.

Regarding Achilles, I’d have to admit, his character is hard to like at first: We see a typical high school prom king to whom things have always come easily. As the story processes, his inner struggle and complex personality eventually come to light. I appreciate Madeline Miller’s effort in illustrating the contrast between tender Achilles and ruthless killer Achilles, which we don’t only see through the eyes of Patroclus but also Briseis – the woman he took as a “slave lover” in order to save her from cruel Agamemnon. 

Readers can find some nice imaginative flights in the side characters, too. In particular, I really enjoyed how the author gives Briseis a personality: In “The Song Of Achilles”, she is a silent but astutely quick-witted lady who eventually becomes indispensable as the matron of Achilles’ household. It’s a novel touch that grants real emotional weight to the hero’s fury when Agamemnon rips her away from him. This is somewhat similar to how Pat Barker depicts Briseis in her novel “The Silence Of The Girls”, and I wonder if Barker has found inspiration in Madeline Miller’s greatest work. 

The idea of recasting Achilles’ goddess mother – the sea nymph Thetis – as a nightmare mother-in-law figure – is unique and enjoyable, too. “I had expected chimes,” Patroclus notes, “not the grinding of rocks in the surf.” If you look at her role, as well as her powerful and proud character, you will see a subtle hint of feminism. 

So, what’s not to like here? After the death of Patroclus, Miller assigned Odyssey as the narrator towards the end of the novel. The great hero doesn’t have much voice in previous events, so his sudden appearance feels forced and out of place. Still, the fact that Odyssey takes over the story reminds us that in future years he might actually become more prominent than Achilles and Patroclus. 

‘The Song Of Achilles’ Review – The Ending

We all pick up this novel with a sense of impending tragedy: Achilles will choose a short, glorious life instead of a long one in obscurity. Patroclus will die before Achilles, and only then can the truly terrifying aspect of Achilles’ nature come to the fore. 

That said, the ending is inevitable, yet Miller still does justice to all of her characters. From Homer’s Illiad, we can see the cruelty of men and war and how that impacts others. “The Song Of Achilles” delivers another message: Witnessing Achilles lose his mind at the end is a painful reminder of how ego and pride harm us and our loved ones. Ultimately, it lets us know that love does not have a chance to thrive in the face of disdain.

Wrapping Up

Summary and Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - The Bibliofile
“The Song Of Achilles” is a reminder that soul mates will always find one another in this lifetime, and any lifetime thereafter – Source: Bibliofile

To wrap up this ‘The Song Of Achilles’ review, I’d say it’s a deeply affecting version of the  Achilles tale. Though there are still some flaws, Madeline Miller has captured the intensity and dedication of adolescent romance while recreating a world of sea nymphs, centaurs, and the gods. In doing so, she will make Achilles and Patroclus known to yet another generation, deepening and enriching a tale that has been told for 3,000 years.

Go and grab this book if you haven’t already thought of doing so! But if you have already read this book, tell me what you think about it in the comment section! 

Are you interested in other book reviews? Check out the list of best women’s self-help books or the top 12 foundational books for students to earn the best paying jobs in industrial machinery! Everything is free and informative on JobandEdu

Iris Vida

Well, Iris Vida is very into reading books from different eras, cultures, and anything that has been going viral lately, etc. Her passions can't be put in a few words only. Whether it's the "Jazz Age," a Neil Gaiman notable novel, the pitter-patter melodies of Taylor Swift's music, or anything else, she always sends the best materials to her top-notch writings, engaging all readers everywhere. Moreover, like Nick Carraway, who captured global attention with his rich and glamorous look, she leaves readers with a satisfying sense of wonder and an urge to learn more with her compelling writing style.