THE SONG OF ACHILLES
By: Madeline Miller
Synopsis: Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.
But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
I know what you’re all thinking. Sakina? What’s with all the book reviews? haha I don’t know. I guess it took me a full year to finally become a proper book blogger, reviews and all! I wasn’t actually going to review The Song of Achilles, but after finishing it, I had a lot of mixed feelings and thought I’d discuss them.
This is going to be a SPOILERY review, just because it’s easier to write this. I’m going to be comparing and contrasting the Iliad a lot during this too.
I haven’t read the entire Iliad. I did take a mythology course last year where we spent quite a bit of time reading most of it and discussing it in class. One thing that hasn’t change from reading the Iliad and now having read TSOA, is that I still hate Achilles.
I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. The Iliad isn’t my favourite epic because Achilles just made me so angry…which, ironically, the first word of the Iliad in Greek is “Anger”, so I guess it served its purpose. His pride (hubris) made him cruel, self-centred, and unrelatable. I had hopes that The Song of Achilles would change my view on Achilles, but unfortunately it made me hate him even more.
The Iliad never really focused on Achilles childhood and his relationship with Patroclus. What I liked about TSOA was that it did explore that. I learned a lot about Achilles and Patroclus that I didn’t know before. And I slowly fell in love with both characters. But then the events of Troy came to pass and it felt like being stabbed in the stomach by Hector’s spear. We see how pure and good-hearted Achilles is for the majority of the book, and then everything is twisted in on itself as soon as he is denied his “honour”.
One thing I liked about the Iliad was that since it didn’t focus on Achilles’ childhood, there was no reason to like him or feel betrayed by his character. The Iliad never felt personal while I was reading it. I didn’t feel for the characters a whole lot, except for Hector and Patroclus. What Madeline Miller did well was use this opportunity to explore the past, and in that way, she made us feel for these characters. When Achilles betrayed the Greeks because of his pride, I, as the reader, felt betrayed. And that, in itself, is kind of a good thing.
What I can’t get over though is Patroclus’ love for Achilles. It was understandable up to the main turning point. But then Achilles decides to step down and not fight and Patroclus is left to watch his friends and companions die. He feels betrayed, and hurt, and angry. And he has a right to be! Even after constant entreaties by the other Greek kings, Achilles doesn’t budge. What I can’t understand is how Patroclus could still love someone who did what Achilles did. It doesn’t make sense.
I get that Achilles is a hero, and that he is partly divine and believes he deserves a certain kind of respect and honour. And I understand that the culture at this time focused heavily on honour and winning spoils from battle. But one can be a hero and not be so prideful. Peleus is a good example, as Patroclus notices himself that despite all his success and riches, Peleus remains humble. This quote by Briseis to Achilles really stuck out to me and I feel its relatable in this instance:
“You have never deserved him. I do not know why he ever love you. You care only for yourself.”
Maybe I’m being harsh, but I feel like Briseis has a point. And unfortunately, it’s too late for Achilles to make up for his mistakes.
I know what I’m saying is just opinion. Madeline Miller stayed true to the plot of the Iliad, but it still bothers me. I could never forgive Achilles for what he did. Because of his pride, hundreds of soldiers were killed. Because of his pride, Patroclus died. His pride didn’t make him more respected, but hated. And that’s what annoys me. To me, he isn’t a character to be looked up to, but a character who should act as a warning to everyone; of what can happen if you think only of yourself. I guess all good stories have morals we can learn from.
One slightly controversial (maybe) opinion I have is that I was hoping beyond hope that Patroclus would end up with Briseis. I knew it wasn’t going to happen, cause it doesn’t happen in the epic, but the minute Briseis was introduced, I fell in love. Her character isn’t talked about much in the Iliad, besides being the girl that was taken from Achilles. That’s another thing I loved about TSOA. Madeline Miller fleshed out some of the characters that didn’t play a huge role in the Iliad. Briseis has to be one of my favourite characters! She’s so pure and good and I think she and Patroclus could have been very happy together. This quote by her almost broke my heart:
“Best of men. Best of the Myrmidons. It is the truth. Let it stand, for once.”
Most of my complaints have nothing to do with Madeline Miller. You can tell how much time and effort she put into making TSOA as accurate as possible. Her writing is beautiful and simplistic, which made this book a relatively quick and easy read. I absolutely loved how she really expanded on the characters that weren’t mentioned a whole lot in the epic, and overall I think she’s a brilliant author.
Now to answer the question…do I prefer the Iliad or The Song of Achilles? I think I’ll have to go with TSOA. Mostly because it made me feel something for the characters, which the Iliad lacked. I loved the backstory and learning about Achilles’ and Patroclus’ childhood. Briseis was just amazing! Odysseus and Diomedes relationship made me LOL so many times! Even though I hated Achilles more than I did in the Iliad, it was also a feeling that I think was very authentic to what Patroclus felt. And I think because of that, TSOA is a very well-written book.
I want to end off with some of my favourite quotes from the book, so here’s a few:
“What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another. We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory… We are men only, a brief flare of the torch.”
“I am sick to death of this tale about your marriage bed.”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have suggested I tell it.”
“And perhaps you should get some new stories, so I don’t fucking kill myself of boredom.”
–Diomedes and Odysseus
“There is no honour in betraying your friends.”
Have you read The Song of Achilles? Do you prefer the original epic or the book? I’d love to know your thoughts, so comment down below!