Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: A review

Earlier this year, I read Madeline Miller's latest book, Circe, and enjoyed it so much that I put this earlier work of hers on my reading list. While I didn't enjoy this one quite as much, I still found it a rewarding read and could easily understand why it was the winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Achilles' friend and lover, Patroclus. The story is told from the point of view of the love story of Achilles and Patroclus.

Patroclus is introduced as a pre-pubescent prince of a minor Greek kingdom. One day, as he is being bullied by another boy, he pushes the boy who falls and cracks his head on a stone. The boy is killed by the fall and Patroclus is exiled from his home, sent to live in the kingdom of Phthia and be raised by its king, Peleus. This was a common practice in the Greek states of that day.

King Peleus has a son who is of approximately the same age as Patroclus. That son is Achilles, who is a demigod, son of Peleus' forced union with the sea goddess, Thetis. Achilles is the golden boy, the "best of all the Greeks."

Patroclus and Achilles grow up in the same household and Patroclus eventually catches Achilles' eye and interest and comes to be his "special friend." As they reach sexual maturity, the nature of their relationship changes and they become lovers.

Their idyllic existence is changed forever when the Trojan prince, Paris, kidnaps (perhaps willingly) Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Menelaus' brother Agamemnon had been looking for an excuse to attack Troy and take its great wealth. And so Helen becomes his "weapon of mass destruction," a convenient pretext to wage a war he had been itching to start. The other kings of Greece are bound by a blood oath to retrieve Helen and so off they all go, along with their armies, in search of glory and gold. Achilles and Patroclus go with them.

The Greeks are sure that the conquest of Troy will be quick. Ten years and thousands of deaths later, they are still fighting on the plains of Anatolia.

My reading of The Iliad left me with a jaundiced view of the Greeks. I always felt that Homer agreed with me. His telling of the story seemed much more sympathetic to the Trojan side than to the Greeks. The Greeks, on the whole, were presented as a bunch of bombastic jerks, convinced of their own superiority, and giving hubris a bad name. And Achilles always impressed me as perhaps the worst of the lot, or running a close second to Agamemnon. Madeline Miller attempts to present them - or at least to present Patroclus and Achilles - in a more sympathetic light. She is somewhat successful.

My favorite part of her retelling was the early part of the book in which she gives us Patroclus' and Achilles' backstories and in which we see them growing up together. I felt the middle part of the book, the long sojourn in Troy, was less successful; once again, basically, the Greeks are a bunch of barbaric jerks and she can't really disguise that without changing the nature of the well-known tale. The conclusion, when all the calamitous prophesies are coming true, was another strong bit of writing and the book ended with the tragedy of Achilles and Patroclus. And, of course, the tragedy of Hector, the true hero of the piece.

Once again in this story as in Circe, Odysseus plays a central role. I get the impression that Miller has an affinity for his character and enjoys writing about him. Maybe that should be her next book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. I like your take on this book. The tragedy of the three at the end got to me the most. I felt she took that part of the Iliad and created something quite great from it.

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    1. Yes, the tragedy makes for powerful reading and I felt it was some of Miller's best writing.

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  2. Thorough and balanced review, Dorothy. I already have this one on my TBR. I'll get to it, hopefully, early next year.

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    1. I think you'll enjoy it when you do get to it. The mythological and historical aspects should be right up your street!

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