The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


Vivian Chiang, Staff Writer

A narrative retelling of the classic Iliad, this novel follows the love story between Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks,” and the exiled prince Patroclus as they wrestle with fate and the Trojan War. Miller is known for her retelling of classic Greek stories, including her rendition of “Circe.” Though “The Song of Achilles” is a favorite on many bookshelves, I have to say that it was not as gripping or soul-shaking as many of its reviews made it out to be.


If you are familiar with Greek mythology (or even just having read the Odyssey in freshman English), you probably know the tale of the Iliad. Helen runs away from her husband with Paris, a prince of Troy, and then said husband gets mad and convinces the entirety of Greece to declare war on Troy. Naturally, this ropes in the most famous heroes of their time, and with it comes the story of Achilles and Patroclus. 


Achilles is the son of a minor goddess, Thetis, and the king of Phthia. At his birth, a prophecy was given pronouncing him to be destined for greatness and fame, and because of that has enjoyed an easy upbringing and combat skills far superior to his more human contemporaries. Patroclus, on the other hand, is nothing special and even considered subpar by his father. However, when he meets Achilles and they hit it off, their friendship (and eventual romance) entwines their fates irrevocably.


Make no mistake: this is a tragedy. Achilles is bound to the prophecy through his desire for fame, to be remembered and loved by history, even at the cost of his conscience and, in the end, even Patroclus. This desire is his fatal flaw, or hamartia, and fuels his actions at every step even at the cost of his morality. In true Greek fashion, it also has terrible consequences for those around him.


It is truly sad; however, I could not cry when the tragedy became fully realized. Maybe because I knew it was coming, or perhaps because I had just come off of reading “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt and could barely muster any sense of emotion beyond shock and dread. Whatever the case, I was not fully invested into the characters and therefore unable to enjoy the book as fully as I would have liked.


Though their romance was epic and sweeping, Achilles never struck me as a sympathetic character and it was hard to get attached to him the way I became invested in Patroclus. I got fed up with his actions and in the end barely cared about what happened to him. I think that was in part due to the way Patroclus describes him, always putting him on a pedestal and continuously calling him perfect and “never wrong,” though he was clearly making mistakes. If I had to change anything, it would be to dial back the idol worship on Patroclus’s part, since it blew Achilles’s character out of proportion.


That is not to say you should not read this book; the prose is epic and romantic, with a lot of great quotes like the kind you might find on a Tumblr blog post. Lines like: “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.” I mean, just wow. The amount of sticky notes I have in this book border on excessive.


So read it, if that’s your pot of tea. Though it was slightly overhyped for me, you might find it a much better read if you are more of a fan of tragic romances or classical literature. If anything I mentioned above sounds like a problem, I would go so far as to recommend reading it anyway. In my opinion, it is still worth reading even if Achilles annoys you a little bit, just to enjoy the amazing writers craft employed by Madeline Miller and the thrill of such an epic setting.


An excerpt:


His eyes opened. “Name one hero who was happy.”


I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellephron killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.


“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.


“I can’t.”


“I know. They never let you be famous and happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”


“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.


“I’m going to be the first.” He took my palm and held it to his. “Swear it.”


“Why me?”


“Because you’re the reason. Swear it.”


“I swear it,” I said, lost in the high color of his cheeks, the flame in his eyes.


“I swear it,” he echoed.


We sat like that a moment, hands touching. He grinned.


“I feel like I could eat the world raw.”