Laura Rereading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

achilles

Before re-reading: I first read this in May 2012, when I was 25. I’m fairly certain I bought it as part of a Waterstones 3 for 2, given the patch on the front cover where there was once a sticker. We’ve been flooded by Greek myth retellings in recent years, but back then, this felt like something new and different.

The first time I read The Song of Achilles, I wrote a very long review! You can read the full thing here, but in summary: I loved this novel when I first read it, thinking that ‘Miller has a wonderful command of the pace, letting the story lull and loiter, at certain points, only to engage the reader’s interest more strongly when the next part of the tale kicks into action. There are several mini-stories told throughout the novel; Patroclus’s childhood; training with Chiron; journey to Troy; the saga of Briseis; Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon; and Miller unites them beautifully, but lets each tale complete itself before going onto the next. The most resonant scene in the novel, for me, was the well-known sequence where King Priam comes to beg Achilles for his son’s body; a scene that is powerful because it has equal resonance for a modern and classical audience, I imagine. “It is right to seek peace for the dead,” Priam tells the bereaved Achilles. “You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”‘

However, I did have some concerns about ‘the softening of the harsh classical belief systems of honour and sacrifice’ in the novel, especially through ‘Patroclus’s intense human sympathy and fellow-feeling for those suffering’. I thought that I would have liked to see Miller make ‘Achilles and Patroclus sympathetic in spite of this, rather than simply removing the obstacles to our identification with them… Patroclus’s modern values make Achilles and Patroclus feel sundered, set apart from the rest of the classical-minded Greeks, and I wanted to feel that they were part of that culture, even if their homosexual relationship differentiated them from the other men.’

After re-reading: This was an interesting one to reread! I felt like the doubts I expressed in my first review all crystallised into one big problem: the characterisation of Patroclus. I seem to have liked him a lot more when I first read The Song of Achilles, but this time round, I had doubts about him from the very first pages. I’m not sure why Miller decided to make him quite so useless at everything, so passive, so negative, so obsessed with Achilles to the exclusion of everything else. He sits at odds with the rest of the novel and with the society he’s grown up in, and made me feel, for most of the narrative, that Miller had tried too hard to make him an exception to this cult of heroic masculinity, which speaks to the ‘softening’ of the story I originally observed. It’s especially bizarre that she makes him totally unable to fight, given that we know he does a good enough job when he dons Achilles’ armour. Maybe she was trying to say something interesting about how inhabiting a different role unleashes abilities we didn’t know we had – but unfortunately, because Patroclus has skived military training for most of his life in this retelling, it’s just unbelievable that he’d perform well.

In contrast, Achilles is incredibly compelling: perhaps idealised for much of the text, but then, he’s the son of a goddess, and I don’t think the normal rules apply. I loved how Miller showed how his life was fundamentally shaped by divine foreknowledge: first, the knowledge that he will be the greatest of the Greeks, then the knowledge that he will die at Troy, and so he’s sacrificed the rest of his life in service of his honour. This is how you modernise a story like this, for my money: think through the real psychological burdens of believing these kind of prophecies. When Achilles seeks revenge on Agamemnon near the end of the novel by using Briseis as a pawn, his actions aren’t sympathetic but they are understandable because we know he’s staked so much on his reputation. (In contrast, Patroclus hangs around in the background being useless and ‘nice’, happy to let Briseis carry on being in love with him, which feels especially distasteful after he previously slept with another woman because he felt sorry for her). The secondary cast are also brilliantly portrayed: I LOVED Odysseus, as before, and feel even more aggrieved at how Miller does him wrong in Circe; she manages a morally grey Achilles here, but is happy to cast Odysseus to the dogs.

Having said all this, The Song of Achilles still stands as one of the best of the modern Greek myth retellings I have read, alongside Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls – and its last hundred pages are truly brilliant, as Achilles and Patroclus both cast aside much of the idealisation that constrained them during the rest of the novel, and become much more compromised, and more interesting, men.

Rating May 2012: ****1/2

Rating March 2023: ****

15 thoughts on “Laura Rereading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

  1. I really enjoyed reading this review! I find it fascinating to see how feelings can change, or not change, after a reread. I’m quite keen to reread both of Madeline Miller’s books, as it has been several years since I read them. And I agree with you about Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls – it is also one of my favorite modern Greek myth retellings.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It wasn’t until about 2/3 of the way through the book that Patroclus starts to do anything for himself. I had always been under the impression previously that he was Achilles’ “conscience” in a way, but in this book he just kind of… complains and says “I don’t know” a lot.
        I will have the check out The Silence of the Girls!

        Liked by 1 person

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