Book Review of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
I read The Song of Achilles as part of a challenge to read all of the winners of the Women’s Prize for fiction. (Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing are other worthy winners.) It is an effective and original re-telling of part of Homer’s The Iliad, focusing on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles.
Patroclus narrates his own story starting from when he is banished from his father’s kingdom, after inadvertently killing another child. It is Patroclus’ own voice that takes us through this journey. It being with narrating how his father Peleus gives Patroclus to Achille’s father, as penance for the crime and ends when Achille’s mother, Thetis finally agrees that Patroclus and Achilles lay together after their deaths. It would be fair to say taht Thetis, a goddess of water was not a fan of Patroclus!
Patroclus comments how he is seen as weak and effeminate and possibly ‘simple’. This contrasts with half god Achilles, for whom things come easy and who is strikingly handsome and talented. The reader views Patroclus as insightful, warm and gentle and arugably too good for Achilles’. This is a clever use of story telling where an unreliable narrator is used to seemingly and inadvertently improve his own standing with the audience.
It feels like most of the adolescent love story aspect of The Song of Achilles is Miller’s own invention, rather than any kind of retelling of history. It is as we move from adolescence of the characters into the latter end of the Trojan War years that the story returns more closely to Homer’s Iliad.
Througout The Song of Achilles the reader is encouraged to observe the contrast between tender Achilles and ruthless killer Achilles through the eyes of Briseis, the woman Achilles took as ‘slave lover’ in order to save her from cruel Agamemon. Agamemom, is (for anyone like me, whose knowledge of Greeky mythology is sketchy to say the least!) brother of Menelaus, husband of Helen, about whom all the fuss is about!
The Song of Achilles won, what was until recently called the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, but is now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction. There is a lot to enjoy in the book. I like how the narrator isn’t presented as a typical alpha male. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Achilles’ mother Thetis A mother-in-law figure from hell, she is powerful and proud. A feminist reading of the text is invited when looking at her role and that of the other women in the story.
I’d be fascinated whether Pat Barker had read The Song of Achilles when she wrote her book The Silence of the Girls, which was shortlisted for the same prize in 2019. There is definitely a similarity in the style of the story and it records roughly the same events, but putting the women at the centre and using Briseis as the main narrative voice
In both cases the focus is on those heroes who have been marginalized. In the retellings of the stories. In The Song of Achilles Miller is very conscious of how she is doing this. Miller has Odyssey (who plays only a small part in her version of events) comment towards the end of the story, somewhat tongue in cheek, that when remembered in future years he might actually be considered more famous than Achilles and Patroclus. This is an amusing little coment.
It is always interesting to consider famous stories from alternate perspectives and Miller successfully does this in The Song of Achilles.
Book Discussion Questions on The Song of Achilles
Who do you think is the more attractive character and why? Patrocus or Achilles?
Thetis is presented as a ‘mother-in-law’ from hell figure? Does she have any redeeming qualities?
In Greek mythology women are frequently raped and seen as two-dimensional characters. It has been said that if they are not being adored then they are spending their time lamenting the loss of their sons, lovers and fathers. Discuss how women are presented in the Song of Achilles? How does it sit with your modern views of ‘womanhood’?
Which of the male characters is most flawed. What is their hubris?
Do you think The Song of Achilles is a worthy winner of the Orange Prize? Why or why not?
Achilles arguably cheated the gods by not fighting Hector sooner, as he knew it was only Hector who could kill him? Should he have fought Hector sooner and saved thousands of deaths?
Which character in the book would you like to learn more about?
What is your favourite part of this story and why?
Bookclub Questions on Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (if you haven't read the book).
In warfare would you prefer to be tending the sick or fighting the battles?
Achilles’ logic for not fighting, but allowing Patroclus to dress up and pretend to be him is arguably very flawed? Can you think of an instance in your own life where your logic has been flawed? Share what happened with your bookclub friends.
After Patroclus tells Briseis he can’t love her because of his love for Achilles she says that she would rather stay with Patroclus as his ‘sister’, rather than not be with him at all? Would this arrangement be acceptable to you?
Do you know many Greek myths and legends? Share any stories that you can remember.
Who amongst you would make a great Greek tragic hero?
Have you read Homer’s Iliad? If so, wow! If not, what is the most literary book you have read?!
Personal Response to Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
If I hadn’t set myself the challenge of reading the Women’s Prize for fiction winners this isn’t a book I’d have picked up. I lack the imagination to really go along with the combination of gods, demi-gods and humans interacting. I do think Miller made a brave attempt at creating rounded characters that took us beyond simply what the Greek heroes are remembered for.
For any readers who do love myths and legends this has got to be a winner. I very much recommend reading The Song of Achilles back to back with Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Having ventured to the world of Greek mythology so far, why not also consider reading Stephen Fry’s Mythos. It is a book that has been on my shelf for too long and I might now venture into its colourful pages!