I know I’ve taken my time in writing this review; I can only hope that what comes out now will be worth it. This book has made me think carefully about many things, and I need to address one of them before I can start on the meat of this review. So, first: the way in which I’ve written these reviews in the past is suspect, and it needs revision before it causes a problem that revision can’t fix. I’ve made a point in past reviews not to be negative, not to harp on problems within the text or authorial choices that I don’t like – because those are personal opinions, and because I don’t want to contribute to the negative environment often perpetuated by slimy internet trolls. I don’t want to be a slimy internet troll.
However, the world isn’t all sunshine and roses either. I can’t write reviews telling you, fair reader, to read a book, because I thought one part of it was nice and pretty and then have you discover halfway through something that I glossed over because it was bruised like the fruit at the bottom of the pile – not bad, just a little mushy. That’s unfair to both you and me. You, because you deserve better, and me, because I should have known better. Glossing over the mushy bits doesn’t negate them, or the impact they have on readers. It’s the same kind of thinking that allows college professors to get away with sexual assault, because their work and influence is valued more than the welfare of their students, for example, and is therefore exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to perpetuate. (That’s just an example, it doesn’t have anything to do with TSoA.)
With that in mind, but out of the way, let’s move on to The Song of Achilles. This book was an ambitious project for Madeline Miller’s first novel. It tells the story of Patroclus and Achilles, heroes of the Iliad, the ancient Homeric song/poem of the Trojan War. It’s not just a retelling: with Patroclus as the narrator, it follows him from birth to, well, death (I suppose that might be a spoiler, sorry about that, but honestly this story is around three thousand years old … I’m not sure it can be “spoiled”. But, if you’re worried about spoilers, skip the end of this paragraph). The crucial conflict of the story is that Achilles has a choice: he can die at Troy, but win eternal fame, or he can survive and live a long, happy life, but he’ll just be one more of the many anonymous people who live and die in our world. I personally like the interpretation, which Miller doesn’t really say outright, but the implication is there, that Achilles’ fate is only sealed when he decides to kill Hector to avenge Patroclus’ death. It’s not when he decides to go to Troy, or when he decides to fight at Troy – he never swears loyalty to Agamemnon, so up until Patroclus’ death, he still has the option to leave.
It’s a love story. It’s about Patroclus and Achilles falling in love with each other. And it’s long overdue that it’s told that way. Modern scholarship in particular has gleefully skipped over the fact that the Iliad itself, the original song, is also a love story, as much as it’s a war story. The 2004 movie Troy goes so far as to make Patroclus Achilles’ cousin, but even that isn’t enough. The fact remains that the fate of the Greeks, the fate of the Trojans, and the fate of Achilles himself all rest on the death of Patroclus, and how his death affects Achilles. If you want to believe that the love Achilles feels for Patroclus, and Patroclus for Achilles, is a brotherly or platonic love, you’re free to interpret it that way, but this is the interpretation I believe, and it’s the entire premise of this book.
I don’t completely agree with Miller’s interpretation of Achilles’ sexuality, though. I think he’s bisexual, not homosexual. I can see why she made him gay, because it made the central love story more central, but I still think it could have been done equally as compelling the other way. Writing Achilles as gay makes the story of Briseis less complicated, I suppose, but it means the story of Penthesilea, the beautiful Amazon that Achilles falls in love with after he kills her, representing Achilles’ tragic heroic potential, doesn’t quite have the punch it should. This does not at all mean that I think any less of the Achilles/Patroclus love story, or that anything about that would need to change – there would just be a little bit more love in the world.
Patroclus is truly an under-appreciated character, and that Miller took this opportunity to give him a voice is my favourite part of The Song of Achilles. For most of the Iliad, Patroclus falls by the wayside, a blip on the radar of the gods and mortals making their way through this epic – except, of course, Achilles. It would have been so easy to write about Achilles, just about him, and many people have done so, but the honest truth is, whatever you believe about their relationship, Achilles is nothing without Patroclus. Without Patroclus, Achilles is just another demigod fighting machine. It’s Patroclus that preserves his honour, his fame, his mortality, and his tragedy. What’s more tragic than two lovers marching down the path of fate, having found all too rare a love, knowing that death will never claim them together?
Speaking of love and mortality, there’s another character that I think Miller got spot on, and that’s Odysseus, the cunning hero of the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey. There’s a tendency in retellings of Odysseus’ story to make him the dashing handsome hero type, but Miller makes it perfectly clear that the stuff he does is pretty skeevy. He’s a liar and a cheat and an ass, basically, and it was refreshing to see him portrayed that way, without taking away from his importance to the story or his more heroic traits, like his love for his wife.
There was one thing I really didn’t like about this book. Okay, two things. The more important one was that the book starts with a description of Patroclus’ “simple” mother, and how much this reflected badly on Patroclus’ father and made Patroclus’ early life miserable. It may seem like a silly thing to get fussy about, but it was a sour, ableist note to start the book on. She doesn’t even come into the story except in passing, which raises the question of why she was there at all, except to give Patroclus more to be traumatised about.
The less important thing that I didn’t like was the tense switching. I hate present tense, and I hate tense switching. I didn’t understand why it was used, so I didn’t like it. That is, however, my personal opinion, and you’re welcome to feel differently about it.
Those two personal preferences don’t negate that this was a good book, though. The story of the Trojan War is massive in its impact on the collective memory of the western world. It’s actually a creation myth, although not in the traditional sense. It’s the creation of the Greeks, the first time the kingdoms came together as one, uniting on common ground, against a common enemy, despite how much they had warred against one another in the past, and would continue to do so in the future – importantly, though, for one full generation after the Trojan War, there were no wars in Greece. And it is in fact a myth, or at least as close to one as it can get. To the ancient Greeks as we know them, Socrates and Plato and the rest, the Trojan War was part of a past golden age, the age of myth, of Hercules and the Amazons.
The funny thing about a creation myth of ancient Greece is that ancient Greece is the creation myth of the western world. The problem with a retelling of that proportion is that no matter how well you do it, it will always be compared to the original, or what we know of the original. There’s an author Q&A at the back of the book where Miller says that an ex-boyfriend referred to The Song of Achilles as “Homeric fanfiction” which is an awful insult because it’s the kind of insult that is only an insult because it’s intended to be one. In reality, though, regardless of how you feel about fanfiction, retelling the Iliad goes a little bit beyond that. It might be an old, original story, which may not even be the original, but regardless, it’s an archetype – it’s so old and so imbedded in what we know of ourselves that it’s the origin of what westerners think we know of humanity itself. Miller took on a mammoth task here, and I think she pulled through.