Greek Week: The Song of Achilles

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller

Greek mythology, character-driven narrative with an epic story, a heartbreaking love story, these are a few of my favorite things all piled into one beautiful book. I couldn’t put it down; I didn’t want it to end. I finally started reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to slow my reading of this one.

Between The Odyssey, The Iliad, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and a college course on classical mythology, my knowledge of the Trojan War and the Greek heroes has been shaped and reshaped with different versions. Building on that base is this book, telling the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Throughout those other sources the pair has been painted as friends, brothers, lovers, etc. but one thing never changes: they are inseparable. They are dearer to each other than their own lives.

The first half of the book is the story of how they meet and the beginning of their friendship. The second half is the well-known story of the Trojan War. It’s retold through Patroclus’ eyes, which gives the whole tale a very different spin. All the familiar faces are there: Agamemnon, Odyssey, Hector, Paris, Zeus, Athena, etc., but many of them feel slightly different in this version.

Patroclus himself is a thoughtful, sensitive boy. He’s so unlike the other Greek warriors when it comes to brute strength, but his strength comes in a very different form. He’s willing to love against all odds, even when he knows it will end in a broken heart.

The reason this retelling resonated with me in such a powerful way is because of the characters themselves. Miller makes them so relatable. You feel for them in a way that you usually don't when you read books on classical mythology.

Chiron and Briseis particularly stood out for me. Chiron is a centaur who trains both Achilles and Patroclus for years in his rose-colored cave on a mountain-side. He is wise and kind and his home is a peaceful one, a complete change from the battle driven world they had become accustomed to. Briseis on the other hand is brought into Patroclus’ world in the midst of a bloody war. She is a prize from battle, but their friendship blossoms despite the circumstances and we see the best of Patroclus because of her.

BOTTOM LINE: I loved it. Sometimes a book lives up to the hype and this one did for me. I can’t say that you’d feel the same if you don’t already like Greek Mythology, but it was an absolute treat for me.

“Did he know, or only guess at Achilles’ destiny? Perhaps he simply assumed: a bitterness of habit, of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder.”

**One quick note about the kindle version. There was one incredibly helpful feature that really enhanced my reading experience. The character’s name were highlighted and when you clicked on them it took you to a screen with a drawing (see above) and a summary of the character’s part in Greek mythology.

Other Thoughts:
Fizzy Thoughts 


Sandy Nawrot said...

I know almost nothing on this topic nor am I interested, but boy this book has been getting good reviews. It makes me doubt myself.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Everyone really seems to love this, for all the reasons you've mentioned... a sign, perhaps? I have it on hold at the library, am looking forward to reading it soon!

annieb said...

One of the best books ever--and I have been reading for years and years!

Rachel said...

I LOVED this book too. And I'm glad I read it before I read about all the hype...Hype often does more injury than good.

And, as you say, the amazing part of this book was the characterization.

Heather said...

I have this out from the library. I hope hope HOPE I can fit it in soon! I have so much to read right now, but it sounds so wonderful! ACK! I need more time!

Anonymous said...

I want to read this particularly because I like mythology, too. Interesting what you've said about the characters, I think in general we're presented these people as they are in their mythical form, as entertainment or education, and so there's not as much space to make them seem human.

Ellie said...

I LOVE this book, particularly how all the usual suspects are there but not as you typically always see them. I also really liked the characeterisation of Briseis. Such a good book :)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - It's always hard to resist a hype book, but I also think you have to trust your own taste. Whenever I read a hyped book that didn't interest me in the first place, I'm usually disappointed.

Biblibio - I hope you enjoy it!

annieb - I know it's one I'll return to again.

Rachel - Hype always makes me wary, but thankfully this one was still great!

Heather - I know, I just picked up another stack of books from the library. Too little time!

Charlie - This book does a wonderful job turning those iconic figures into real people with struggles.

Ellie - Yes! I loved seeing some of the charactes through the unlikely eyes of Patroclus.

Jeanne said...

As I said in my review recently, I enjoyed the way telling this story as a love story showed the human point of view--and the human side of Achilles. Even the title-- not everyone thinks of the music he made; we usually think first of the war.

Nikki Steele @ said...

I read the Iliad right after reading this one and loved having this new lens to understand the characters. It was a marvelous story, so unique and beautiful. I really should read it again soon. Oh and I loved how she portrayed Achilles' mother, the absolute icy goddess.

My review:

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - That's true, Achilles is always viewed as a warrior, but not really much more. This was such a great way to revisit that story.

Nikki - The mother was fantastic! She was so cold and ambitious for her son, but that made the ending even more powerful. I remember reading your review a few months ago, I'll add in your link!

Nikki Steele @ said...

Oh the ending between the mother and Patroclus was so intense. I loved it.

Thanks much ;)