I heard about this modern-day Mary Renault from a friend, but this writer is far more riveting and, I would say, poetic than her predecessor. This is a novel to celebrate.
The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller is a classicist who is obviously intrigued by the story of Achilles and Patrochlus which is familiar, primarily, from Homer’s Iliad. On the quite substantial material in Homer, Miller weaves a wonderful tale. The Song of Achilles (378 pages, Ecco, $25.99) is beautifully written and so finely crafted that one almost takes Miller’s fictionalization as historical fact.
What we do know is that Achilles and Patrochlus are depicted as loving friends in Homer’s poem. When Achilles is sitting out the Trojan War because of a violent disagreement with Agamemnon, Patrochlus tries to persuade him to fight. Eventually they hatch the plan that Patrochlus will wear Achilles armor in order to inspire the soldiers. When he does so, he is killed by Hector, who thinks he is killing Achilles. Achilles’s anger at Patroclus’s death is unbounded, and it leads him back into the war, where he kills Hector and is later (as predicted) himself killed by an arrow from Paris.
Miller tells that story compellingly. All of this is told in detail in the Iliad, but Miller has a gift of narrative that makes us pleased to hear her version of these events. Even more fascinating, though, is Miller’s creation of a rich backstory, based primarily in the myths surrounding these characters, but also adding imaginative and compelling details of her own.
The story is told primarily from Patrochlus’s point of view, and his growing self-awareness, coupled as it is with growing attraction toward his friend and benefactor, the handsome and golden-haired Achilles, is compellingly rendered. Miller also tells about Achilles’s attraction to his friend, and deciding, seemingly quite sensibly, that this intimate friendship can only have involved physical intimacy as well, she tells this side of the story with poetry and restraint. The love she describes is something very beautiful, and its beauty is in keeping with the character of her protagonists.
Complicating the love between these two young men is the angry disapproval of Achilles’s mother, the goddess Thetis. Thetis has grand plans for her son, and a male lover does not figure into her plans. Because of her animosity, she tricks the men about what she sees as their fate. Playing into her hands, they hardly realize how effectively she has taken control.
All the other character of this classic drama of war and betrayal are effectively drawn, from the huge and almost unthinking Ajax, to the Greek commanders, Menelaus and Agamemnon, and even to the Trojans, Priam, Hector, and Paris.
Madeline Miller has written a novel that will open these stories to a new generation of readers. If readers go no further than this novel, they will have learned a lot. But if it sends them back to the original epics, then that is even better. What a marvelous novel this is.
The Song of Achilles is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.