The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The retelling and reworking of myths is as ancient as myths themselves. Milton’s Paradise Lost, of course, reworks the story of creation and the Garden of Eden. Jeannette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s “Myth Series” is an enjoyable example, so too is Jim Crace’s absolutely incredible Quarantine. In all, the basic plotlines of the original myth are used as a framework to push new and interesting ideas. The myth is redirected from its original purpose to something else. In Crace’s work, for instance, the historical truth of the original myth is undermined to explore mythmaking itself, how an ordinary man is turned into a god.

The Song of AchillesMadeleine Miller has chosen for her framework the myth of Achilles, one of the most well-known and most-oft told and re-told myths of ancient Greece. The focus of her telling is the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In her telling, their relationship is a romantic one, but this interpretation is not original to her. Plato, in his Symposium, holds up the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as a romantic ideal. Whether Achilles and Patroclus had only a close male friendship or a romance has, apparently, been an interpretational argument from ancient times through today. Miller sides with romance, but this decision does little to reinvigorate the myth. There is nothing particularly daring or inventive in this recounting of a famous myth. Miller seems to have been preoccupied with getting it right, sticking closely to the script and only letting her imagination bloom in the gaps.

Her aim then, was not to re-invent the myth and give it new meaning, but to tell the myth well. She succeeds. While the myth itself leaves the modern reader incredulous at times and the love story is fairly conventional, Miller is a good stylist matching imagery with character and story:

His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow.

This image of Achilles’s face as a drawn bow is beautifully unexpected and quite appropriate for the greatest warrior of all time. Or this:

Scyros’ great rocks that beetled over the sea…

Miller’s vivid imagery and the inherent narrative pull of the story (it is oft-told for a reason) makes this an easy read. The novel is stylistically pleasing, but not ambitious. The Song of Achilles does not achieve what Paradise Lost or Quarantine did. If you are looking to break that sort of ground this is not your book. However, retelling an important myth, and doing so well, is a valuable contribution to literature on its own. The book did win the Orange Prize for good reason.

Because I have little else to say about the content of Miller’s work, let’s talk Tournament of Books.

In my estimation, Dear Life, The Orphan Master’s Son, and HHhH all have considerably more ambition than The Song of Achilles. The first two of those are at least equally accomplished in terms of prose and structure. I cannot imagine The Song of Achilles actually winning the Tournament. It is too conventional, too safe, and the plot too well-known to beat out books with more exciting plots (Gone Girl), more intellectual heft (HHhH, The Orphan Master’s Son), and/or more consistently elegant prose (Dear Life). Consistency may get The Song of Achilles out of the first round, but I do not see much music for it beyond that.

My dream matchup for The Song of Achilles is HHhH, where an interesting discussion about the similarities between Binet’s passionate concern for fidelity to historical truth and Miller’s apparent passion for remaining true to the “facts” of an ancient myth (for instance, she rejects Achilles’s supposed invulnerability in favor of the “more realistic” and “older tradition” in which Achilles is simply a preternaturally gifted fighter but is not invincible). Binet was trying to write historical fiction while pointing out the impossibility of doing so while resolutely reporting only known facts. Miller was writing mythology as historical fiction. Both authors lost something by being too concerned with factual accuracy and not being concerned enough with giving the important details a voice. Binet was the more courageous, but Miller more certainly achieved her less ambitious goal. My nod is to HHhH because, as infuriating as Binet’s work sometimes is, it provoked. In comparison, The Song of Achilles felt like one of those amusement park cars that ride, slowly, on rails.

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10 Responses to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

  1. That Winterson link didn’t work for me I’m afraid.

    I’ve had my eye on this book, but the word “unambitious” coupled with the fact you found relatively little to say to it (other than that it’s a good read, which is not to be sniffed at but I have plenty of those) rather puts me off.

    Conventional, safe, The Song of Achilles felt like one of those amusement park cars that ride, slowly, on rails. Oh dear. Not for me.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for alerting me to the broken link, Max. I think it is working now.

      If asked, this is not a book I would have recommended for you. I could be wrong, but it really did seem unambitious in the ways you like books to be ambitious (if my sense of your literary tastes is accurate). I cannot say there is anything wrong with it, so any fault in finding it stimulating could be mine. I am sure there are people who love it, gets lots out of it, but for me it didn’t rise above a good read that will fairly quickly fade.

      I am going to say, “You’re welcome.” I know your TBR has to be as overloaded as mine, and this is one I think you won’t be too upset to have skipped.

      • I suspect it is accurate Kerry. As I occasionally say, I’m comfortable with highbrow and lowbrow but I don’t tend to mess with Mr In-Between.

        And thank you. Any book coming off my TBR is a definite service. You’re quite right there.

  2. Apparently the dam has broken. This is good news.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Let me say first that I find the whole concept of any Tournament of Books ludicrous. Leave sport where it is, for the masses to enjoy as entertainment – and leave books out of it.
    I liked The Song of Achilles because it makes a great story accessible and the more there is of that, the better, because it may make some people seek out the real thing.
    And these days, when conventional education is so often dumbed down, that may be all we can hope for.

    • Kerry says:

      Lisa,

      Your point that any Tournament of Books is ludicrous is unassailable. I enjoy the conversations such tournaments stoke, but I definitely understand how the competition part could be off-putting. Men drinking beer, probably while watching sports, were the first to come up with the idea, after all.

      Your point about what is good about The Song of Achilles is spot on. I re-read your review which captures exactly the strengths and focus of the work. (It also reminded me that David Malouf has escaped me thus far.) On The Song of Achilles, I thought your conclusion a particularly good summing up:

      The Song of Achilles is enjoyable light reading, offering additional pleasure for those familiar with The Iliad. It may bring a new generation of readers to the original, though my guess is that (despite its restraint) schools will balk at prescribing it because of the unabashed relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. I’d be delighted to be wrong about that…”

      It is a shame that so much of education (at least pre-university) tends toward avoidance of controversy when, of course, the most engaging lessons are those that are not safe, that challenge students.

      Thanks, as always, for your interesting comment.

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    *chortle* “Men drinking beer, probably while watching sports, were the first to come up with the idea”
    But to be serious: it is indeed a shame. The mental health issues and tragedies that arise for young people trying to sort out their sexual identities are made worse by the suppression of alternative sexualities, and a book like this, that shows just how ‘manly’ these men are, would go some of the way towards opening the closet.
    And it’s a great story!

    • Kerry says:

      I absolutely agree that presenting examples of heroic, non-stereotypical, male homosexuals would be a very good thing for young people and this book does that. As a high school read, I think it would be a great introduction to the myth. Like you, I am skeptical many school administrators would permit use of the book in the curriculum because avoiding parental complaints would probably rank higher than a frank discussion of sexuality and associated stereotypes. And that is a shame. You are right that there is a lot of suffering that comes from the ostracizing of young people whose sexual identities are statistically anomalous, but historically/biologically normal. Anything that could lessen that would be a good thing.

      And it is a great story.

      • Lisa Hill says:

        What’s great, is that a bunch of Tories in the UK have just legalised gay marriage. There are caveats built into the legislation so that churches can go on discriminating, but still, this is a huge step forward and is a sign that attitudes among young people are shifting.
        (I am not gay myself but I have friends, relations, colleagues and ex-students who are, and I want them to have the same rights and freedoms as I do.)
        The more we speak up for them in the media the better, eh? I’m proud to know you, Kerry:)

      • Kerry says:

        That was, indeed, good news out of the UK. I think full legal equality is coming in the US as well. It is only a matter of time, though a decade or two matters for those currently denied marriage equality.

        Like you, I have friends, neighbors, colleagues to whom this sort of discrimination has direct, practical consequences. Personal ties and knowledge makes a difference in attitudes, strengthening your point about getting this out of the closet. When people realize the law discriminates against the nice man/woman down the street, or their friend at work, they get on board the equality train.

        Light is a good disinfectant, not only for corruption, but for discriminatory laws and attitudes too.

        (And thanks, Lisa. It is an honor to know you too.)

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