Review: The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

millersongofachilles

While I loved Greek mythology as a kid, I had no idea that The Iliad existed. My first proper introduction to the story of Achilles and the fall of Troy was actually the 2004 film. It’s a treat, and one that you owe yourself; it’s half an interesting take on the story (pushing the realism angle) and half an enjoyably bad big budget movie (HECTOR! just… HECTOR!). Troy’s release coincided with a few years where my preteen self was obsessed with seeking out representations of queer men in media, so, naturally, the story of Achilles and Patroclus became near and dear to my heart. (“In conclusion: cousin.”) It’s been almost a decade, but picking up The Song of Achilles brought back the days when I despaired over ever getting my hands on a copy of Velvet Goldmine.

The Song of Achilles tells the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles’ childhood companion and lover. Patroclus, the son of a minor king, is an awkward and ungainly prince. When he accidentally kills another boy, he is exiled to the court of King Peleus and becomes close with the prince, the half-god Achilles. The two spend an idyllic childhood and adolescence with each other, but when they come of age, the Trojan War breaks out. Achilles is destined to either win glory and death at Troy or live a long and forgettable life. Achilles picks the former, and Patroclus won’t let let him go alone, even if that is the fondest wish of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who despises all mortals.

Adapting a myth is a particular challenge unto itself. (Side note: can we do away with the idea that the book is always superior to its film adaptation? They are two different mediums! Case by case, people, case by case.) On the one hand, you’ve got your own take on the material, thus your desire to adapt instead of create wholesale. On the other hand, you have to negotiate how faithful you want to be to the original texts… after you’ve decided which ones you want to use. Do you stick with just The Iliad or do you also include earlier texts that expand on his youth? Because I’m not terribly familiar with the source materials Miller is using, I’m finding myself in a difficult position. For instance, I can’t fault Miller for having Achilles be a child of rape or Achilles going off to war as a celebrated hero without having fought a single battle; that’s on the ancient Greeks. She’s decided to stick as close to the “historical record” as possible, while highlighting how true Achilles and Patroclus’ love for each other was to the exclusion of all others.

Unfortunately, this means that Miller writes herself into a few corners. When the Trojan War breaks out, Thetis hides her son among the daughters of King Lycomedes, dressed as a woman. In the original myth, the young Achilles and the Princess Deidameia have a fling that results in a son, Neoptolemus. But because Achilles having a fling while away from Patroclus would violate Miller’s concept, she turns it into a rape arranged by his mother, instead of incorporating it as an obstacle to Achilles and Patroclus’ happiness. Honestly, in this respect, The Song of Achilles reminded me hard of my misspent youth reading super-generic boys’ love manga—heteronormative roles (Patroclus is a healer, while Achilles is a warrior), the glowing raptures of pure and true love, and the demonization of women. (And now I’m picturing The Song of Achilles as boys’ love manga. Join me, won’t you?) For most of the book, we’re only given Thetis, who tries to control her son’s every move, and Deidameia, a wailing, screaming, emotional wreck who hurls herself at Patroclus at her first real opportunity. Later, we are given Briseis, who, even if not completely developed, is kind and affectionate, but the damage is already done. Despite the fact that the culture Miller is writing about had plenty of men who had male and female lovers in their lives, there’s this weird rejection of both bisexuality and the idea that people might be attracted to more than one person in their lives. While both Achilles and Patroclus engage in heterosexual sex at least once, they’re disgusted by it. (Achilles moreso than Patroclus; he describes it as “greasy”.) It’s an odd byproduct of Miller’s devotion to depicting their relationship as all-consuming and deeply important, and it’s an unwelcome one. I’d much prefer a novel where this was a problematic affair that the couple overcame, rather than this bizarre rape scenario.

Compounding this is the fact that Miller’s Achilles is quite idealized. His shift into the glory-seeking, arrogant, and sulking Achilles familiar to readers of The Iliad feels abrupt and weird. His character development is too flat to make him feel like a fully-realized character: instead, he’s an impossibly perfect subject of love until the source material requires him to not be. It’s unfortunate, because Miller’s writing style is a lot of fun—readable, with enough of an eye for unique detail to keep things fresh. (Too little, and I don’t hear an author’s voice. Too much, and all I hear is straining style.) I’ve gotten more entries for my commonplace book out of this one than my recent reads. And Miller acknowledges that her characters are speaking a different language; part of the episode in the court of King Lycomedes hinges on Deidameia using a masculine noun instead of a feminine noun. It’s a light touch, to be sure, but it does remind the reader that this is another time, another place, and another culture. I might give her next novel a whirl as her voice develops, if the story is original. But with this as an example, I’m not too sure about her powers of adaptation.

Bottom line: Miller’s devotion to the “historical record” and portraying how true and pure the love of Achilles and Patroclus was to the exclusion of all other relationships leads her to write herself into a few corners that she solves bizarrely, as well as idealize Achilles to the point of flatness. Miller’s writing style is a lot of fun, though—readable, with a good eye for detail, and a good approach to writing about Ancient Greece. A pass.

I rented this book from the public library.

13 thoughts on “Review: The Song of Achilles

  1. I liked the way Patroclus and Achilles stayed faithful to one another. Perhaps this is because I was raised by parents who were married (and this meant sexually faithful) for more than 50 years, and it’s been almost 31 years for me.

    • Congratulations to your parents!

      The thing is, Miller has to include the conception of Achilles’ son, because he ends the Trojan War. The child must happen. Miller has several options to work this into her own narrative—have the princess pass off another child as Achilles, for instance, or, as I propose above, having Achilles and the princess have a consensual affair for any number of reasons (defending his masculine honor, since you’re supposed to age out of making time with boys, trying to prove to his mother that he can have sex with a woman, realizing this might be his one chance to have a child, he thinks Patroclus has abandoned him… the list goes on!). Any of these could provide an interesting challenge to their relationship that could reaffirm it (heck, that last one fits right in with the boys’ love manga it is!). But the fact that Miller chose to have Achilles raped instead is just strange.

      • Maybe I need to re-read this bit, but my impression is that the story that Achilles told Patroclus is told to us by Patroclus. Any of your better reasons for why Achilles would have sex with a princess could be true, and I can see why you might think Miller could have used one of them instead. I read it as Patroclus being a bit of an unreliable narrator at times. Wasn’t there a time when Achilles asked him why he never told his own father he had killed in self-defense? Patroclus has a lot of internal monologue going on. Pretty sure Achilles would know that, and think that sometimes it’s a kindness to the other person to say you never would have betrayed the loved one willingly.

      • That’s a valid reading of the situation—Achilles saying he was raped to spare Patroclus’ feelings—but it doesn’t feel in line with the characterizations to me. I think we’re just going to have to disagree on this point.

  2. I’m inclined to agree that the disdain for heterosexual sex seemed at least in part more like it was added better to delineate the devotion of the two protagonists for only one another, although I couldn’t come up with any reason why Patroclus had sex with Princess Deidameia (and I couldn’t find out any substantiating stories in a very brief foray into Deidameia stories). I didn’t tend to focus, however, on how horrible the women of the story were, since pretty much all the other males (except for Charon) seemed pretty horrible as well. But I definitely think it’s a valid perspective!

    • Except for Patroclus and Achilles, of course!😉 I just find it very interesting the contexts in which we read—for people who haven’t been exposed to boys’ love manga, this feels new and fresh and interesting. For me, it feels very frustratingly like more of the same.

  3. I snorted at the memory of Velvet Goldmine because when my friend and I watched it in college, she told me that it had three characters: Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and Ewan McGregor’s cock. And that is basically how I remember it.

    I’m trying to recalibrate my brain for this one not to mind about the lady issues. Because in fairness to historical fiction authors, I can see how it would be difficult to write “real” characters or even close myth adaptations with awesome women. Ooo, I suddenly wish that someone awesome would write an awesome historical fiction novel set in SPARTA. Spartan women were literate and equalish and kicked all the ass. SPARTAAAAAA.

    • Yeah. On the one hand, the historical or mythological record doesn’t exactly give you a lot of wiggle room. On the other hand, you don’t have to pull what Miller pulled with the princess here.

      Yes! More historical novels about awesome women in awesome cultures! Please!

  4. Pingback: My Favorite Books of 2013 So Far - Crystal King

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