Monday, March 26, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Song of Achillies by Madeline Miller

Some stories are just so beautifully tragic that I can read them over and over again in their endless variations. One example is the tale of King Arthur and Camelot. Another is the Trojan War. Writers have tackled the Fall of Troy from many different angles. Even though I know how the story is going to end, and that it’s going to be heart wrenching, I’m still drawn to the books. Each of the characters in the drama will experience the tragedy in a unique way, and I find each different interpretation compelling. (Some examples are Ransom by David Malouf, Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, and Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley.)

One recent addition to the genre is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This time it is Patroclus’s turn to tell his side of the story. Patroclus was, on his own, a fairly insignificant young Greek prince. The story tells us that he accidentally killed another young boy and so was sent into exile to Phthia to be fostered by King Peleus. This was a life-changing event because it was here that he met Achilles.

Achilles is the hero (or anti-hero) of most accounts of the war. The son of King Peleus and the sea-nymph/goddess Thetis, Achilles is half-mortal, half-God. He is fated to be the greatest warrior of all the Greeks.

In The Song of Achilles, Patroclus and Achilles grow up together and a childhood friendship blossoms into a passionate love. They defy Achilles’s mother in order to be together. And when the order comes for the Greeks to sail to Troy to retrieve Helen, King Menelaus’s wife, from Paris of Troy who has stolen her, Achilles attempts to defy this summons as well. He sees no need to fight for Menelaus’s honor. Thetis has warned him that if he goes to Troy, he will die there. But Odysseus warns him that if he does not go, he will never become famous. His name will be forgotten. He will grow old and wither away as a nobody. Achilles decides he would rather be a hero. As for Patroclus, he will go also. He cannot let his love go alone.

The story of the Trojan War is well known. The Song of Achilles puts a slight spin on it, making it more of a love story between Achilles and Patroclus and bringing Patroclus’s contributions to the fore. But the arc of the story is inevitably the same.

Madeline Miller writes beautifully and puts the reader squarely in sympathy with Patroclus, who grows from an awkward and awestruck youth to a dedicated young man, wholly in love and yet increasingly his own man. As the war drags on, Patroclus emerges from Achilles’s shadow to become the more mature and sensible of the two. Achilles is so blinded by pride, so wrapped up in his own legend, that his choices lead to his own downfall. (Or maybe not. His destiny was predetermined by the gods, after all.)

If you’re a fan of the Iliad and are looking for a new retelling, Miller’s book is well worth the read.

I'm adding this book to my list of reads for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. Come check it out and find some great historical novels to add to your TBR lists!


  1. Hmmmm. It seems every historical fiction review you post, the book gets added to my list. Thanks, I think!

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. I like the cover, too! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  3. I'm reading this soon as I'm working through the Orange long-list. I'm a bit apprehensive as I'm not that familiar with the Trojan way, so I hope I enjoy it as much as you did.