The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and lover. Patroclus, the son of Menoetius, is only a child when he is exiled and sent to Phthia to live with King Peleus and his son, Achilles. Achilles is destined to become the greatest warrior of his generation and when he goes to Mount Pelion to receive training from the centaur, Chiron, Patroclus joins him there. As the years go by the bond between Achilles and Patroclus strengthens and their friendship develops into love, despite the attempts of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, to separate them.

The Trojan War begins when Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, is abducted by Paris of Troy. Both Achilles and Patroclus are part of the Greek army who set out to defeat the Trojans and return Helen to her husband. I’ll stop there because if you already know the story, you’ll know what happens to Patroclus and Achilles – and if you don’t, then I won’t spoil it for you.

I used to be fascinated by Greek mythology as a child but as the years have gone by I’ve read very little on the subject, so I began this book hoping that it would be good enough to reawaken my interest in it. I haven’t read The Iliad and could only remember a few basic facts about the Trojan War that I learned at school, so I was worried I might find it difficult to follow the plot. Well, this wasn’t a problem because Madeline Miller made it all very accessible and understandable. I was surprised to find that I actually knew more than I thought I did and recognised the names of a lot of the heroes and gods who appeared in the novel. But although the Trojan War and the events leading up to it are an important part of the story, the real focus is on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Their love story was really beautifully written and filled with emotion and although the second half of the book didn’t sustain my interest as well as the first half did, I thought the final few chapters were particularly moving.

Achilles and Patroclus each have qualities that the other comes to value and admire. Achilles is handsome, talented and brave; Patroclus is quiet and loving. They both also have flaws: Patroclus often feels insecure while Achilles is sometimes too proud. It’s perhaps because they’re so different that they complement each other so well. I thought writing from the viewpoint of Patroclus was a good choice because it allowed us to see Achilles through the eyes of someone who loved him and also because, as a sensitive and observant narrator, he could give us interesting insights into the other characters as he met each of them for the first time, including Agamemnon, Briseis, Thetis, Ajax and my favourite, Odysseus.

I would recommend this novel to people like myself who only have a basic knowledge of Greek mythology (or none at all) as well as people who have already read The Iliad and are much more familiar with the story than I am. The Song of Achilles has something to offer both groups of readers. I’m still not sure that this is a subject I’m ever going to be passionately interested in, but after reading this book I do feel more enthusiastic about reading other novels based on Greek mythology.

The Song of Achilles was the winner of this year’s Orange Prize. I haven’t read any of the others on the shortlist because none of them really appealed to me, but having read this one I’m sure it was a deserving winner.

20 thoughts on “The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

  1. lomaurice says:

    What a great review. You have summed this one up so well. Like you, I never read THE ILIAD. But have seen movies and heard the lore.

  2. Lisa says:

    I have loved Greek mythology since I was a kid, and I am really looking forward to reading this – though the long library queue doesn’t seem to be moving at all.

  3. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    Glad you liked this book too, I loved it when I read it and couldn’t put it down. Like you I was a bit hesitant about reading it as I didn’t know too much about Greek mythology but agree that Miller made it very accessible.

  4. Jo says:

    I have been unsure of this book, because of the subject matter. But from reading your review I can see it might not be as scary as I first thought.

    Like you I had an interest in Greek mythology years ago borne out of covering it at school but it is one area which I never bothered to read any more about unlike The Tudors which I still read about today.

  5. FleurFisher says:

    I’m glad you liked this. It was the first take on Greek history I’d read for years, and now I’m definitely inspired to read more.

  6. aartichapati says:

    I’ve wanted to read The Iliad for some time, but maybe this would be a good teaser before getting into the poetry of a Homeric translation. So glad you enjoyed it- it seems well-loved by most who read it.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading The Iliad but I do feel a bit more confident about it now that I’ve read this book and am more familiar with the story and the characters.

  7. Steph (@FABR_Steph) says:

    I appreciate your thoughts here. I am one of those with a limited knowledge of Greek Mythology. I will give this a try and see if it pushes me on to read others like it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it, Steph. I don’t think your limited knowledge of mythology should be a problem because the author does make everything easy enough to understand.

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