I’ve never enjoyed reading myths, perhaps because they’re just that — myth — and meant for people to pass on through oral tradition rather than the written word. The bare-bone prose, often without descriptive detail, character depth, or dialogue, always leaves me somewhat bored and unsatisfied, even as I recognize that these are some of the most beloved and enduring stories of all time.
But in the novel “The Song of Achilles,” Madeline Miller brings the myth of Achilles and Patroclus to vibrant life. She gives a full and absorbing retelling through the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’s closest comrade in arms, beginning from his childhood until the end of the Trojan War and the death of Achilles.
Miller has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classics from Brown University. She has been teaching Latin, Greek, and Shakespeare to high school students for the last ten years. “The Song of Achilles” is her first novel, and in it she draws on the story of the “Iliad” with all the expertise, respect and love of a truly dedicated scholar.
The novel is meticulously researched and faithful to the original world of the “Iliad,” but Miller also reinvigorates the story for a modern audience. To me, the novel read more like a young adult novel than one for adults, and I mean this in the best possible way. Much of today’s contemporary literary fiction for adult readers tends toward the overly cynical and serious. Miller tells a deeply romantic and idealistic love story without trying too hard for some greater message. That’s not to say that “The Song of Achilles” does not contain any profound truths, but that Miller values a great love story for itself without needing to make it more “literary.”
This passionate love story succeeds so well partly because Miller develops such clear and deep characterizations of Patroclus and Achilles. Although Achilles could have easily overshadowed the novel because of his legendary status, Miller carefully gives Patroclus a distinct and interesting personality. The reader sympathizes with him from the beginning as he struggles to meet the expectations for a prince, battles loneliness after his exile to the court of Achilles’s father, and falls deeper and deeper into love with Achilles.
Miller’s success also lies in her effective humanization of Achilles. Even though he’s a half-god, exceptionally beautiful and the greatest warrior of his time, he still feels pain and uncertainty, delights in fun and love. Much of Miller’s prose is lyrical and sweeping, befitting her subject matter, but she also allows room for humor and intimate, everyday moments.
If you’re already a devotee of the “Iliad” and the story of Achilles and Patroclus, you will likely love this complement to the epic poem that expands on much of what makes the story one for the ages. If you don’t know much about classical literature, like me, then you will find this novel a rich and satisfying introduction. In any case, you will probably devour it in a matter of hours or days with a heart much fuller than when you began.