The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of reworked or retold myths and legends and so was excited to dig into The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  To understand why, here is the publisher’s setup:

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

As it turned out this was really a romance – between Patroclus and Achilles – with the classical story mostly as background. It was well done in many ways, and the writing is often excellent, but the classics as romance was not what I was looking for.

More below.

Did the same sex element throw me off? Perhaps. But I think it was more the sentimental and frequently sensual style and tone. Far too much of it is just a coming of age love story between the two boys with lots and lots of focus on just how much Patroclus adores, loves and or is besotted with Achilles. By the time you get to the action of the Trojan War you are tired of it all, or at least I was.

Again, well written in parts and well done in some ways but completely not my style. Not to sound sexiest but this struck me as a boom women would adore. The central characters are feminized and presented as idealized lovers until the very end.

And as exciting and dramatic as the ending was it felt a little like the character of Achillies changed dramatically in the final chapters as the conflict rose to its conclusion.

As I was struggling to capture my frustration with the novel, along comes Daniel Mendelsohn to say it better than I ever could.  Mendelsohn points out the two most problematic elements: structure and tone.

First, structure:

The “Iliad” has focus and weight because it zeroes in on what is, despite its length, a very narrow subject (albeit with vast, rippling ramifications): Achilles’ wrath, what it stems from and what it means. (What are honor and glory? Why do we fight and live?) Because it is cast as Patroclus’ autobiography and concentrates on the love affair, “The Song of Achilles” necessarily has to start much earlier and then catch up with Homer. The result is an odd disproportion. There’s a lot of time and energy devoted to adolescent Sturm und Drang (Patroclus’ early years are a bit Judy Blume-ish), but as the action progresses into the territory of established myth — the abduction of Helen, the formation of the Greek armada, the landing at Troy, 10 years of warfare — you often feel as if this or that famous episode is being rapidly ticked off a list. (The sacrifice of Iphigenia is dispatched in two paragraphs: “We were horrified and angry,” Patroclus blandly reports.) And the fact that Patroclus dies before the end of the story forces Miller into an odd narrative corner indeed.

Second, tone:

The real Achilles’ heel of this book is tone — one made disastrously worse by the author’s decision to metamorphose an ancient story of heroes into a modern tale of hormones … Miller unhappily wobbles between “lyrical” overwriting (“his voice wheedled and ducked, like a weasel escaping the nest”) and a misguided attempt to give a contemporary smoothness to Homer’s antique tale. At the end of the novel, as in the “Iliad,” old Priam secretly comes to the Greek camp to ransom the body of his son Hector, whom the enraged Achilles has slain. “I am sorry for your loss,” Miller has him say. You wonder just which funeral home this took place in.

The problem reaches crisis proportions in the handling of the “love affair,” which begins with an embarrassing breathlessness (“My chest trilled with something I could not quite name”) and climaxes — sorry! — in the long-awaited and, it must be said, cringe-inducing consummation: “He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine. He went still as I took him in my hand, soft as the delicate velvet of petals. . . . Our bodies cupped each other like hands.

A lot of other reviews felt differently and Publishers Weekly and Library Journal gave it very positive reviews.  And there are plenty of customer reviews equally positive.  I think one’s reaction is likely to turn on how much romance (near erotica) you want with your classics.  If you enjoy romance and don’t mind an idealized same sex love affair transplanted to ancient Greece you will likely enjoy Song of Achilles.

If, however, you were looking for a little more depth and complexity to the retelling of this classic tale I think you will likely be disappointed.  And I have a feeling anyone with a more serious interest in and knowledge of Homer and Achillies will react like Mendelsohn.  Or see this Amazon review.

As Mendelsohn notes, “there are some very good things here — nice imaginative flights, small details that pop out and make you take notice.”  I did enjoy much of the book.  But the fawning romance of the first half and the compressed nature of the second drained much of the energy out of my enjoyment.  I am sure a good deal of this is simply taste and  style but I do think there are some more literary faults beyond just not being a fan of romance.

But as I like to say, your mileage may vary …

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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