Book Review: “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

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The Song of Achilles has been one of my favorite books for the last few years, and it’s not hard to see why. The book incorporates history, mythology, and LGBTQIA+ relationships all into one book, so there was no way I wasn’t going to fall in love with it the minute I picked it up.

The plot of the story follows the myth of Achilles, but is told from the perspective of Patroclus. Patroclus is best known as being the “good friend” of Achilles, but in this novel, he is seen as being the best-friend-turned-lover of the hero. The story starts with Patroclus and his subsequent exile from his homeland after he accidentally kills a boy who bullied him. He is sent to live with Achilles and his father. The two become friends, and the rest of the novel shows their growth and budding relationship, as well as what happens to them in later life.

The two spend a few years in the place that Achilles is from. Since Achilles is destined for greatness, he is sent to study with the famous centaur Chiron. Patroclus is to be left behind, but he follows and is allowed to stay with the two. The story eventually leads to the beginning of the Trojan war. In order to avoid the war and his eventual death, Thetis, the mother of Achilles, sends him to hide in a castle. There, he is disguised as a woman. Patroclus eventually finds him, and the two are found and made to go to the war.

The second half of the novel follows there time during the Trojan War, which lasted for about 10 years. There was a prophecy that at the end of the war, Achilles would die. The war goes on for ages, with conflicts between both the other side as well as members of the side that Achilles and Patroclus are on. Eventually, there are so many conflicts on his own side and he feels like he’s been wronged, so he refuses to fight. Patroclus grows angry at him, and dresses up as Achilles to go out and fight since many soldiers are losing morale without their hero. Patroclus is killed by Hector.

Once Patroclus is dead, it sends Achilles into a rage. He no longer cares if he lives or dies. He goes to kill Hector, which he succeeds in. Achilles continues to fight afterwards, but is eventually killed by Paris who had help from the god Apollo.

The end of the story highlights Patroclus and his spirit’s struggle to be buried with Achilles, which is what they both wanted. It’s sad, but the ending is happy.

Miller beautifully crafts the beginning of a hesitant friendship between Patroclus and Achilles, and the eventual budding romance between the two. She writes the relationship between the two in such a way that it makes you joyful for them in times of happiness, and makes you ache for them in times of strife.

Not only does Miller do a wonderful job painting all of the characters, but the history and mythology that go into the story are spectacular. It’s not easy writing something historical, especially if you want it to be accurate. While I’m not an expert on history or mythology, I enjoyed the amount of time and effort Miller put in to making the story as accurate as it could possibly be.

Miller is also a beautiful writer. Some of my favorite quotes from the book include:

  • “As if he heard me, he smiled, and his face was like the sun.”
    • This quote was Patroclus talking about Achilles. They were both young at the time, but it shows the underlying feelings that Patroclus had for the other boy.
  • “As if he heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.
    • “Patroclus,” he said. He was always better with words than I.”
  • This is another quote from when they were younger, although now there were closer to being teenagers. It showed the budding romantic relationship between the two in full-force.
  • “I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way he breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”
    • This quote comes from when Achilles was disguised as a woman to be protected from going to war. Patroclus went to the place he was being kept, and mused whether or not the hosts would think that he wouldn’t be able to tell that it was Achilles, even if he was disguised as a woman.
  • “There are no bargains between lions and men. I will kill you and eat you raw.”
    • Unlike all the lovey-dovey quotes that I love, this quote deals with something much darker. Achilles said it to Hector after Hector had killed Patroclus and Achilles was coming to kill him. Hector had asked Achilles to return his body to his family when he dies (because he knows that Achilles will kill him), and this is what Achilles said in reply. It shows a darker, rougher side of Achilles that we weren’t always privy to.
  • “I am air and thought and can do nothing.”
    • This quote comes from Patroclus. Well, more like the spirit of Patroclus. His spirit is trying to convince people to bury his ashes with Achilles, because that’s the only way he’ll a) ever be truly at peace and b) be able to be with Achilles. He eventually succeeds at convincing them, but watching and waiting for it to happen is heartbreaking.

Essentially, Madeline Miller ripped my heart out more and more as the novel went on. While the two end up happily together in the end (er, well, somewhat), it’s a long road there. There are happy moments, yes, but there are also so many sad moments. There’s betrayal, hatred, and a war, so there’s no lack of drama in the story.

Miller’s retelling of the story of Achilles is, without a doubt, wonderful. It’s 100% worth the read.

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