CultureReviews

Review: “The Song of Achilles”, this retelling of a classical Greek poem is a recommended read

Photo by McKenzie Heileman

“The Song of Achilles” is a novel written by Madeline Miller and published in 2012. It is a sweet and sorrowful retelling of Homer’s “Iliad,” detailing the love story between the demigod Achilles and his companion, Patroclus, from their childhood together to the Trojan War. 

Readers learn of both the pleasantries and the difficulties surrounding Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship, especially in the time of the war. Though the two love each other, they must face the encircling hardships in their time together.

Those who have read the original poem, “Iliad,” understand how both the poem and this novel ends, but Miller has injected her own style into the novel.  

[Photo of “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller.]
Photo by McKenzie Heileman | The Arbiter

The novel is beautifully written with each sentence reading lyrically. Miller has a gift to write sentences that read as bits of poetry, while still being able to advance the story and give higher meaning to the novel’s central characters.  

Each character, specifically Achilles and Patroclus, is given depth and room to develop as the novel progresses. This makes them not only likable, but also relatable, even though Miller has set these characters in a time period that occurred thousands of years ago. 

Readers can understand and relate to the problem Achilles and Patroclus experience: how to love, deeply and fiercely, in the face of adversity. 

“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,” Miller wrote. 

What makes Miller’s writing of Achilles and Patroclus so special is her ability to develop these characters throughout the novel in a way that is subtle and believable.

By the end of the story, both Achilles and Patroclus are different men, formed by many years of love and success, but also tribulation and ruin.  

Though this novel is well written, possesses interesting characters and has gay and POC representation, I did not completely understand the hype that has been surrounding this book recently on social media. 

Some of the events are altogether lacking or glossed over quickly, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia during the war, which is concluded with one line, “We were horrified and angry,” Miller wrote of the scene. 

Though I understand that not every event can have pages of prose dedicated to it, years and years of the Trojan War were skipped. I believe Miller did this to minimize the war itself, and make room for the conclusion of the story so that the novel was still a digestible length. 

When Patroclus, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is killed about three-fourths of the way through the novel, Miller is forced into a strange narrative voice, which doesn’t always work. Miller transitions into this new narrative voice in an awkward manner, ultimately confusing readers. 

Miller definitely has skill, but I don’t believe her writing is deft enough to handle this transition and end the novel in a way that is satisfying, beautiful and a tribute to Homer’s original work. 

Still, with a beautiful and creative retelling of a classical Greek work, Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” is a novel I would recommend.

Graphic by Sarah Schmid | The Arbiter

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