Any literally retelling has to contend with several points. The first is fidelity: Is this work true to the original, in spirit if not in letter? The second is style: Does this new version seek to violently break with the original in its stylistic choices, or is its aim to emulate? With Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2020 translation of Beowulf, the purpose lay more in breaking with tradition, in bringing in a feminist perspective in a text traditionally glorifying the heroically masculine. Madelline Miller, on the other hand, succeeds in creating a work that keeps faith with the Iliad while bringing in the strengths of the novelistic form—a depth of psychological realism that breathes life into Patroclus and Achilles than ever before.
This is no great secret. The Song of Achilles has been out for ten years—TEN YEARS! Everyone has read this book before me, okay? I want to acknowledge this. I’m late to the party and not fashionably late, either; and if I hadn’t fallen in love with the absolute greatest Achilles fan-girl, who knows at what point I would have read it? On the off-chance that you haven’t yet picked Miller’s debut up, are waiting for the right time to come and bonk you on the nose…do yourself a solid, pick it up.
Madelline Miller’s Circe was one of the first books I reviewed, back in 2018. It’ll forever remain a favourite retelling of mine and a part of me always feared that visiting this earlier work of hers might be a smidge disappointing. What if her inexperience showed? The lyricism of her prose is downright addictive and I feared, at some level, that The Song would not quite measure up.
I needn’t have worried. Miller’s debut is equal to Circe in every way, even as the two are very different works by the very nature of their protagonists. Circe was a tale of loneliness lived and companionship found; The Song of Achilles is a love story, tender and more bittersweet than grapefruit peel, and the defining work on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. I started this review by touching on fidelity and it is this that Miller does so well. Achilles, as she writes him, is everything I imagined—calm, collected, gracious but also prideful, capable of wrath as only someone who has never experienced failure may be. Miller shows the humanity of him long before she shows the godly spark—and so makes that inhuman aspect of him all the more monstrous, all the more alien. Patroclus, as the point of view character who sees and knows Achilles best, amplifies the shock, the surprise at those few occasions that see Achilles’s hubris revealed in full.
Patroclus, too, is much like I imagined him. Perhaps one point of contention should be mentioned early on—I was surprised Miller didn’t make him more of a fighter but this concern was handled very well in the latter part of the novel. I was given a view of a man who is forced to learn cunning when the boy he was had none. The need for cunning is great—when gods and prophecies offer knowledge on the circumstances of your death, you’ve got to turn creative.
I said “bittersweet” about The Song and I’ll die on this hill. A commonly recurring motif is Achilles’s response to other Greek heroes as to why he hasn’t fought Hector yet: “What has Hector ever done to me?” Every time I read this, I turned misty-eyed; like the Olympians with their prophecies, we readers too feel the bitter irony of such times.
It’s a joy to see so many of the Greek heroes together. Agamemnon is as much a lil shit as anyone who’s ever heard of him will recognise; Odysseus is the smartest man in every room, and whenever Miller makes mention of cleverness, I immediately recognise her words as foreshadowing to his appearance—and ha, I was right! Chiron is as stable a character as any I have seen; and the short scene between Priam and Achilles hurt me in the most wonderful way, because it reaffirmed that very humanity that Miller captures so brilliantly in Achilles.
There’s more to say, of course—the novel is chock-full of cleverness, some of it pointed out to me by my brilliant reading companion, like a play on the names Patroclus and Cleopatra that I didn’t initially even notice; so, if you’re able, find yourself a reading buddy half as awesome as mine, and spread your wings, Icarus! You’re sure to fall for this one.