The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles was just shortlisted for the Orange Prize and I couldn’t be more excited.This retelling of the story of Achilles and the Trojan War is one of the most gorgeously written books I’ve read in a while and made me completely engrossed in learning more about Greek mythology and the ancient world.

I’m not totally ignorant of Greek mythology, but I willingly forgot all of the little details that are so battered into our minds in school. I’ve never read The Iliad and only remembered the basics of the Trojan War (you know, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’) so this story not only entertained me on its own but had me researching the various players involved and the gods and goddesses who decided their fates.

Miller tells the story¬†of Achilles from the viewpoint of Patroclus, who in her version is not only Achilles’ friend but his lover. They are raised together from the time they are young boys and when Achilles goes to Mount Pelion to undergo his specialized training with Chiron, the Centaur, Patroclus goes with him. They live in harmony and bliss while discovering each other and learning the skills Achilles will need to fulfill the prophecy that he will be the greatest Greek warrior of his generation. After several years of living so uneventfully, a messenger comes with the news that Greece will send ships to invade Troy. Their peace is shattered.

Achilles is portrayed as achingly beautiful, artistic, physically gifted, with a definite sense of superiority yet a reluctance to fulfill his destiny. Patroclus is kind, giving, quiet, reserved and devoted to Achilles. Their bond is firm and unwavering so it is no surprise that the story turns on their parting.

I love this book in a major way. Miller has a talent for making the ancient stories entirely believable and I felt immersed every time I opened the pages. Her writing has that dreamy, lyrical quality that lulls your senses and makes you float along on the cloud of her narrative. Even the battle chapters are elevated to an otherworldly level and they are not too gritty, though she doesn’t leave out the horrible details. She just has a beautiful writing style that is truly transporting. The reader benefits from seeing the events through Patroclus’s eyes as he is an observant and calm narrator who gives us an insider’s view of the chief characters and their decisions.

I really hope Ms. Miller continues to write novels based on Greek mythology. Her interpretation of them is intriguing and will, I think, inspire a new passion for learning more about the ancient world. I have been inspired to attempt The Iliad sometime soon and am very much looking forward to it. Have you read The Iliad? What is the best translation?

The Orange Prize will be awarded on May 30 and I would not be surprised if The Song of Achilles wins.