Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I'm not sure why it has taken me so long to get my thoughts together about The Song of Achilles, but sitting down to write about my response to this amazing story is probably a story in itself!

It was during my early high school days that my love of history developed. My first history class took me into the fascinating world of Tollund Man - the mummified bog body found in 1950. I was amazed at what scientists and historians were able to deduce from these remains about the world and times he lived in. There was even a Seamus Heaney poem - my first (very young) adult experience of seeing how we have always made up stories and songs to help us interpret and reinterpret our history and give meaning to our present day experiences.

Some purists and classicists may disapprove of this mode of story telling, but retelling old stories with modern sensibilities helps to keep the old stories alive. Old ideas such as hubris can be brought to life for contemporary audiences to ponder about how it might present itself now.

That's what Madeline Miller does so well here.

Using the well-known, very masculine, very war-like story of The Iliad and turning it into a romance between Achilles and Patroclus gives this old story a new lease of life. This is still a world of men and war, but Miller gives a us a chance to see this world through the eyes of Achilles goddess mother, Thetis and through the ideas of a captured Trojan girl, Briseis.

The first half of the story that fills in the childhood back story of both young men is the most interesting part to my mind. It shows the human side of Achilles before he gets caught up in his prophecy and god-like fate. I also found their first love scene to be one of the most tender, beautiful moments I've ever read.

Once we moved into the world of The Iliad proper, I felt less involved until Briseis turned up. Seeing the camp though a female lens while being reminded of how the lives of women and children were affected by this long siege was a nice touch.

I also enjoyed the scenes between Patroclus and Achilles that showed their relationship at work - how they influenced each other, how they debated, argued and compromised, how they knew each other so well that they knew what to say and how to say it to appease or enrage each other.

It is these contemporary humanising additions that allow a modern reader to reach into the old story again to find deeper meaning. Reading between the lines and filling in the gaps is the realm of all artists. Reinterpretation is a continual process, dependant on the era and experience of those doing the reinterpretation.

Homer's Iliad was just one (and possibly the first) interpretation of the events that happened on the plains of Troy to explain to those left at home and those who came after, what happened. We all seek meaning and purpose in our lives. We want to make sense of big world events. Our search for understanding, knowledge and insight is perennial.

Revisionism is a natural, organic process that occurs during, and for, every generation. The Song of Achilles is a stellar example of how that can work.

Favourite Passage:
But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another....We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.

Favourite Character: Briseis - she is brave, loyal and inclusive.

Favourite or Forget: Favourite, but not likely to be a reread. Highly recommended to lovers of historical fiction, Ancient Greek retellings, or for those looking for LGBTQI themes.

Facts: Winner of the Orange Prize 2012

Poem: The Song of Achilles


  1. We like to retell stories, and of course in an oral culture this is the only way stories survive, but of course our modern, written and film culture likes to retell stories too, and each author/director puts their own slant. I don't mind generally, but you bring up "modern sensibilities". I really dislike it when (mostly white) writers tell us what other cultures were thinking, and when again mostly white writers people recent history with totally out of the place white liberal protagonists (I'm in favour of political correctness, but that really is PC gone mad).

    1. I know what you mean Bill - I've read a lot of Indian literature over the years & when English writers try to explain or insert themselves into Indian history it really bugs me and is an instant turn off.

  2. I absolutely love this book—wonderful review of an amazing book. I read the Iliad awhile ago, and of course the story is part of Western culture, but I think the perspective Miller takes is so fresh that the story seems young again. I also liked CIrce, by the same author—it’s not quite as good as Song of Achilles but still first rate.

    1. I'm planning to read Circe too, so glad you liked it. Noticed it also got shortlisted for this year's Women's Prize - so added incentive to get to it sooner rather than later.

  3. This is a wonderful review and has piqued my interest. I like history, too, and enjoy retellings when characters or other parts of a character's known story are fleshed out, even with a modern twist or through a different lens. Because you are right when you say, "retelling old stories with modern sensibilities helps to keep the old stories alive."

    1. Thank you Laurie. I'm looking forward to reading Circe and Silence of the Girls for the same reason.


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