BY BAY COLT
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a lyrical, fast-paced, and illuminatingly queer retelling of Homer’s famous Ancient Greek epic, The Iliad. The book examines and expounds upon the relationship between Homer’s two main characters from the eyes of Patroclus, legendary warrior Achilles’ best friend and lover.
Firstly, the areas in which the book excels. Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship is the shining gem of this retelling. Though their bond has been the subject of many debates and literary criticisms over the years, Miller removes any hint of subtext from the myths and writes the two as explicitly queer lovers. The progression of their relationship is natural and flows smoothly, inexorably shaping the narrative in the precise spirit of the myths while casting a fresh light on the compelling dynamics between them.
Other things Miller accomplishes skillfully are her deft use of prose and Homeric epithets in her writing. The writing in this book is rich and lyrical, following the Greek tradition of phrase-descriptions for individuals, such as “swift-footed” and “petal-veined,” which bring the modernized narrative an ancient, mythic tone. The pacing of Greek narratives—moving swiftly from event to event, bypassing many years in between—is also mimicked excellently, though perhaps this is a detriment to the retelling. The quick pace combined with the more modern style ends up making the book feel slightly rushed, with less focus given to pivotal characters and moments than was necessary. In particular, Iphigenia and the Trojans were given the greatest disservice by the narrative, though it is important to note that the story is viewed through Patroclus’ eyes, and therefore can’t have the same grand scope as the original Iliad. Still, these were crucial characters that were given barely a page of attention, if that.
At times, even Patroclus himself felt rather flat. This retelling was meant to expand his character and fill in the gaps that the mythology did not provide, but Patroclus felt like he was incidental in his own life for the majority of the book. This was even more pronounced after Achilles was introduced—it was as if Patroclus was wearing Achilles-colored glasses and could not describe anything besides him. The reason for this is explained at the end, but one should not have to struggle through four hundred pages of boring, static characterization to understand why he was written that way.
Conversely, Achilles was a dynamic and vivid character who captivated every time he was present. His gradual growth from carefree boyishness to powerful, honorable warrior was organic and believable, helped along by Patroclus’ glowing narrator commendations. Achilles was bound by destiny from the moment he was born, as his mother Thetis says he will either “stay here [in Troy] and fight… will not return alive but his name will live forever: whereas if he goes home his name will die, but it will be long ere death will take him.” Another prophecy also states that Achilles will only die after Hector, prince of Troy, does. Therefore, Achilles’ life is defined by his fame and his death; before the Trojan War begins, this is less apparent, as the danger is not so immediate, but once the Greeks have set sail it becomes very evident how preoccupied Achilles is with his own honor and legendary status, as it is the only thing anyone besides Patroclus has ever cared for. If his name will be the only thing to live on after his death, then he will ensure that his name is worth remembering.
Another character characterized very skilfully is Hector, son of Priam and prince of Troy. In the Iliad, he is boastful, often flaunting his power in front of the Greek troops and taunting Achilles in combat. The Song of Achilles makes the excellent choice to portray Hector as quiet and thoughtful, a man of precision, strength, and shrewd cleverness that does not waste words on his opponents in battle. Patroclus describes him as “a man who still loved the gods, even as his brothers and cousins fell because of them; who fought fiercely for his family rather than the fragile ice-crust of fame.” Hector’s portrayal here elevates the story by making him seem very imposing in a way that he is not in the Iliad.
One depiction of a mythological character that does not elevate this retelling is of Achilles’ mother, Thetis. Here, she is cruel, capricious, and spiteful, holding a constant grudge against all humans, Patroclus specifically, which she maintains until almost the very end. She is disapproving of Patroclus’ presence in her son’s life and tries multiple times to separate them. This is in sharp contrast to the myths, where she is loving and tender, and mourns Patroclus’ death alongside Achilles with almost as much fervor as he. Miller’s portrayal would not be an issue if it served a greater purpose in the narrative by enriching it in some way, but it does not provide anything besides cheap emotional conflict.
Though the characters could be touch and go in terms of accuracy and meaningful contributions, the events of the story itself are faithful to the original text and contribute well to the literary connotations of this nearly three thousand-year-old story. The Iliad documents only the tenth and final year of the Trojan War, composed of several storylines simultaneously, incorporating Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Hector, and even the Olympians’ separate narratives into one unified tale—contrastingly, The Song of Achilles focuses solely on Patroclus and his relationship with Achilles. Despite this narrower focus, Miller’s retelling utilizes many other plays and poems about the Trojan War that were written after The Iliad, such as Iphigenia’s sacrifice at the altar, Achilles’ training with Chiron, and his time spent on the island of Skyros. All these different stories are woven skillfully by Miller into one consistent narrative of Achilles’ life.
In short, The Song of Achilles is an excellent remastering of an ancient narrative, bringing historical characters and classical contexts to life in a fresh and unique way that pays homage to the original intentions and meaning of the Iliad. Although at times the character work may fall flat, Miller’s deft prose and knowledge of Antiquity lends this retelling an illuminating depth and richness that more than compensates for any lapses in characterization.