‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller Review

November 17, 2012 1:00 pm

Historical fiction is baffling in its complexity, and the writers baffling in their academic endurance. True historical writers spend months, if not years, researching their given period in such depth that their world comes alive in magnificent, anachronistic fashion. ‘The Song of Achilles’ is not conventional historical fiction,  yet Madeline Miller spent 10 years researching Ancient Greek mythology, and the results are more emotionally charged than any stoic Austen rehash.

Set against the background of the Trojan war in Greek Mythology (notably Homer’s ‘The Illiad’), Miller successfully mixes the brutality and luxury of Ancient Greece into a moving and, at the very least, fascinating read. Fascinating because at its core are two male lovers – exiled Prince Patroclus and the demigod Prince Achilles, who is best known in today’s world for the phrase ‘Achilles’ heel’.

Their romance isn’t just Miller attempting to demonstrate that homosexual relations are ‘normal’ like a lot of modern fiction. In fact, she never even borders on this because heterosexuality isn’t dominant in Ancient Greek culture; kings and warlords alike accept Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship in the book. Instead, what is so moving about their relationship is that it begins as children, and between the events of the book we witness their companionship grow and intensify into something more. The whole romance is preluded by this dependent vulnerability of the two characters, which makes their eventual coupling emotionally touching, and later, tragic. The romance isn’t the point here, but their companionship in a highly violent society is what truly makes the book so touching.

The narrative moves at a chaotically pleasing pace. We are introduced to several elements of Greek mythology usually left unexplored, such as centaurs and water-nymphs, as well as familiar faces such as the Kings of Sparta, Icharus and so on. The world Miller portrays is one you will get caught up in as the events, locations and characters rapidly move in direct correspondence to the sly political landscape. The themes of responsibility and naivety are shown through Achilles’ transition from pampered prince to a war-veteran crushed by the weight of his fate. Patroclus, the narrator, largely serves as an observer and lacks some of the character growth you might expect from a book which spans 18+ years, but his position is still an insightful gateway into Ancient Greece.

Miller hammers down her views on war with great tact too. She doesn’t glamorise it in any sense and by the end of the book the Trojan War becomes a monotonous schedule tainted by the blood of Patroclus’ friends. Still, drama arises perfectly as political allegiances and pride come into play. Achilles’ desire for glory before his predicted death raises questions about the causes of war and what it costs us. Patroclus’ protection of the captured slaves only extends so far too, and the consequences for the native Trojans are frustratingly severe. In this war, everybody is the victim, and Miller handles this deftly. In today’s world, this could not be more relevant.

Most of the characters are well-rounded and thought out, often symbolising some of the different marginalised sects in Ancient Greece; women, slaves, commoners all feature which creates mature issues for a mature reader. Indeed the abuse of women is often overlooked by most of the characters, which seems quite realistic given the social context, yet the whole of the Trojan War is caused by Helen, a princess and feeble woman. This clever piece of subversive irony is wonderful, leading to deeper commentary by Miller. The abuse here isn’t as far as say George R.R Martin takes it, but nevertheless it is horrifying in its implications.

It is no surprise then that I consumed this book within 24 hours. Every page keeps you intrigued, and Miller tactfully edges away from typical Western tropes regarding love. There are few, if any, cliché moments, and until the end paragraph I was guessing whether the two lovers would actually end up ‘together’. There is very few traditional romantic moments. There is no exchanging of lengthy rose-stained monologues of divine devotion. Instead their attraction to each other is shown with clattering, uncontrolled lust, but Miller never dips into the erotic, keeping the focus on their deeper, emotional relationship  There was no obvious foreshadowing where I could predict the ending either, which is a rare and valuable virtue of any good novel.

There are very few people I would be hesitant to recommend this book to. Fans of mythology, fantasy, romance and perhaps more indirectly, students of Classical Civilizations, will all find something to love in ‘The Song of Achilles’. Miller is a master of her craft and has cleared the pathway into historical-mythological fiction for future authors.

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