Book Review: The Song of Achilles
After my second reading of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, I'm ready to offer a few thoughts.
First off, the book is excellent. Miller, who spent a decade developing the book, has an easy command over the ancient characters and locales she writes about. Rather than a novel adaptation of the Iliad, the book is more the story of Achilles' life (only the last third or so of the book takes place during the time span covered in Homer's epic poem). To narrate Achilles' childhood and adolescence leading up to the Trojan War, Miller draws from various non-Homeric myths.
The strength of the book lies in its straightforward storytelling (the story is told from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' closest companion) and elegant rendering of the book's mythic protagonist, Achilles. I have not come across such a detailed and personal description of Achilles, the beautiful warrior destined for a short, glorious life. Miller's prose is the closest one can get to fighting by Achilles' side.
This brings me to my one warning about The Song of Achilles: look elsewhere for a non-romantic take on the bond between Achilles and Patroclus. The nature of the relationship between these two heroes has long been a source of controversy, but there is no ambiguity as to where Miller stands on the issue.
In the passage below, Patroclus describes his first romantic encounter with Achilles:
"I was trembling, afraid to put him to flight. I did not know what to do, what he would like. I kissed his neck, the span of his chest, and tasted the salt. He seemed to swell beneath my touch, to ripen. He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine" (100).
I recommend this book to anyone searching for an elegant, enjoyable take on the life and times of Achilles and the other heroes of the Trojan War. Miller's interpretation is meticulous and stands up to considerable scholarly scrutiny. However, those who are offended by the thought of Achilles and Patroclus as lovers would likely find other versions of this myth more appealing.