Everyone has heard of it – be it word of mouth, a history lesson on Alexander of Macedon, or that dusty old copy hidden between shelves, with yellowing pages (and written with numbered lines) that probably belonged to your parents (if not your grandparents!). Everyone knows of Achilles.
But how many know of Patroclus, companion to the hero and key to Achilles’ resolve?
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a brand-new spin on the story of the classical hero Achilles, narrated by Patroclus. It doesn’t follow the story of the Iliad; instead, it extends wider in range, following the life of the pair from the first time they first meet, to their deaths. Miller’s rendition is very much a coming of age story which explores the deep connection between Achilles and Patroclus, and how they change as they grow together into a hostile world. Fate is yet another theme that plays an important role in the development of the characters, with elements of man-versus-destiny making this piece a classical tragedy at its core.
What is perhaps most admirable of Miller’s writing is that it makes this ancient tale accessible. For contemporary readers, it is not a simple task to delve into the folds of history to pull a good translation of Homer’s the Iliad, and make sense of the epic poem. The Song of Achilles is an interesting exercise in re-telling a story that has been around for centuries, whilst giving it an air of freshness and novelty. It’s sure to say that this is no easy task - yet Miller manages to achieve it, and with flying colours. The re-telling makes approaching this classic story a much easier (and enjoyable) challenge. It facilitates a connection with history that can be acquired by the pleasant flipping of pages; unrushed. This piece flows in a way that is undemanding of its reader, draws you in subtly until you’re left with a finished book in the time span of an evening. This is unsurprising; the best books often do have this way of transcending linear time.
Unlike its precursor, The Song of Achilles is written in prose, although the beautiful language used to illustrate both tender and action-filled scenes could just as well be poetic in a way that is reminiscent of the original epic. The gorgeous writing that flows consistently through the whole novel connects each arc impeccably, giving the overall result a sense of continuity that is difficult to achieve. Not only this, but Miller also sheds a new light to characters that seldom speak in the Iliad and justifies feelings that went unexplored in Homer’s rendition, giving a deeper meaning to actions. Homeric enthusiasts will delight in the historical accuracy of the piece, with setting and atmosphere tailor-made to genuinely portray the time period. Between the pages of this novel, the flavour of olives, figs, and saltwater await the reader, with sensorial descriptions so realistic you might just get a taste (if you’re lucky!).
The Song of Achilles is a soft spoken love story, but unlike most love stories, it makes the reader fall in love with the clever atmosphere, the subtle changes in pace, the flawless characterization. In its building of Patroclus and Achilles’ love, we are made to fall in love too with Miller’s writing. That alone is enough to inevitably, naturally, irrevocably, make of The Song of Achilles one of your library’s most frequented.
Sit down for a date with this novel, and allow yourself to become immersed into Miller’s creation. Know that each time after you finish will be just as surprising, entertaining, and soul-shatteringly beautiful as that first.