Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.
Achilles, “best of all the Greeks,” is everything Patroclus is not—strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess—and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative connection gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper—despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. In fear of her son’s life, Thetis tried to smuggle Achilles from Phtia. However fate has decided and through Oddyseus, Achilles was forced to join the war. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.
Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: Betrayal, ardor, war, and prophecies–in The Song of Achilles, author Madeline Miller brings together everything I love about The Iliad without the labor of epic poetry. In this new twist on the Trojan War story, Patroclus and Achilles are the quintessential mismatched pair–a mortal underdog exiled in shame and a glorious demigod revered by all–but what would a novel of ancient Greece be without star-crossed love? Miller includes other good tragic bits–foreknowledge of death, ruthless choices that pit pride and reputation against the lives of innocents, the folly of men and gods–and through her beautiful writing my spine chilled in the presence of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis, and I became a bystander in the battlefield of Troy awash with blood, exaltation, and despair. The Song of Achilles infuses the essence of Homer with modern storytelling in a combination that is utterly absorbing and gratifying–I can’t wait to see what Miller tackles next. –Seira Wilson
Gregory Maguire Interviews Madeline Miller
Gregory Maguire is the best-selling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror, the Wicked Years, a series that includes Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and most recently, Out of Oz.
Gregory Maguire: Ms. Miller, you write with the confidence of the zealously inspired, taking as your material one of the great foundation texts of world literature. In three millennia, The Iliad has garnered somewhat wider attention than The Wizard of Oz, with which I have played, so I have to ask: where do you get the noive? How did you come to dare to take on such a daunting task, and for your first book?
Madeline Miller: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and in my case it was just dangerous enough to get me started. If I had stopped to ponder, I think I might have been too intimidated. But it helped that Patroclus is such an underdog—giving him voice felt like standing up for him. I had been intensely frustrated by a number of articles that kept side-stepping the love between him and Achilles, which to me felt so obviously at the story’s heart. So I wanted to set the record straight, as I saw it.
Maguire: The novel tells the story of the rise, fall and immortalization of the golden Achilles. You approach his famous story from a sideline, that of Patroclus, his bosom companion and lover. Was it hard to keep the mighty arc of legend from overwhelming shadowy Patroclus, and did you write more of him than you ended up using, just to be sure you had him firmly grounded in your mind?
Miller: Definitely yes to the second. I actually spent five years writing a first draft of the novel, took a good long look at it, then threw it out and started from scratch. Even though not a word survived, that draft was an essential first step. It helped me understand the story and characters, especially Patroclus, from the inside out.
As for the overwhelming legends, I actually think they worked in my favor—because Patroclus is overwhelmed by them himself. He is this ordinary person who is pulled into a terrifying world of angry deities and destiny because of his love for Achilles.
Maguire: Having glancingly heard of this legend before, I knew more or less how it would end. I had no idea how you might handle the loss of perspective and point of view when tragedy would inevitably strike. You managed to narrate an almost impossible transition from life into myth in part, I think, by your instinctual use of a combination of present and past tense, to say nothing of a masterly combining of authorial and first person observations. How many slaughtered bulls did you sacrifice, and on whose altar, to deserve the talent to risk such dangerous technique?
Miller: It was a lot of bulls. And whatever ended up working, I give all the credit to my background in theater. When I first started writing, I had this idea that I should be in control of the story, forcing it forward. It never worked. What I needed to do was learn how to get in character, and write from there.
It took me a long time to find just the right tone for the ending—I kept writing and throwing away, writing and throwing away. Then, in the middle of apartment-hunting, inspiration struck. All the other ideas had started out well, but would gum up before they got anywhere near the finish line. But this one kept humming right along. And it was the simplest, so there you go.
Maguire: Oscar Wilde said something like, “The Odyssey was written by Homer, or another Greek of the same name.” But Oscar Wilde had clearly not met you. This is not a question. It is a salute.
“I loved it.” (J.K. Rowling)
“Fast, true and incredibly rewarding…A remarkable achievement.” (USA Today)
“Wildly romantic [and] surprisingly suspenseful….[B]ringing those dark figures back to life, making them men again, and while she’s at it, us[ing] her passionate companion piece to The Iliad as a subtle swipe at today’s ongoing debate over gay marriage. Talk about updating the classics.” (Time magazine)
“One of the best novelistic adaptations of Homer in recent memory, and it offers strikingly well-rounded and compassionate portrait of Achilles….[Miller] injects a newfound sense of suspense into a story with an ending that has already been determined.” (Wall Street Journal)
“Powerful, inventive, passionate, and beautifully written. ” (Boston Globe)
“Beautifully done. . ..In prose as clean and spare as the driving poetry of Homer, Miller captures the intensity and devotion of adolescent friendship and lets us believe in these long-dead boys…deepening and enriching a tale that has been told for 3,000 years.” (Washington Post)
“One of 2012’s most exciting debuts…seductive, hugely entertaining….[I]magining the intimate friendship between Achilles and the devoted Patroclus…Miller conjures…soulmates. The resulting novel is cinematic—one might say epic—in scope, but refreshingly, compellingly human in detail.” (Vogue)
“You don’t need to be familiar with Homer’s The Iliad (or Brad Pitt’s Troy, for that matter) to find Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles spellbinding….her explorations of ego, grief, and love’s many permutations are both familiar and new….[A] timeless love story.” (O magazine)
“Madeline Miller’s brilliant first novel…is a story of great, passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus….[R]ewriting the Western world’s first and greatest war novel is an awesome task to undertake. That she did it with such grace, style and suspense is astonishing.” (Dallas Morning News)
“The Song of Achilles…should be read and enjoyed for itself, but if Madeline Miller’s novel sends the reader back to Homer and his successors, she is to be thanked for that as well.” (Washington Independent Review of Books)
Top customer reviews
For better or for worse, the Homeric epics are a bedrock part of the Western literary canon. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles looks at The Iliad from a fresh perspective: that of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion. Since this is a retelling of a classic story (a genre to which I am predisposed), we already know how it’s going to play out: Agamemnon will steal a slave girl claimed by Achilles, leading to the hero refusing to fight for the Greeks, leading to Patroclus donning his armor and being slain by Hector of Troy, leading to Achilles killing Hector and dragging him around the walls of his city, only to be killed himself by an arrow from Hector’s brother Paris. What’s different is what comes before and between.
As most of us know, it was not uncommon in Ancient Greek life for older men to have sexual relationships with younger men. Homosexual relationships between men of the same age, however, were rarer. When I was taught The Iliad, even in college, the bond between Patroclus and Achilles was usually described as just a deep friendship (lip service was paid to the idea they could have been lovers but it was never taught as being the more persuasive interpretation). Miller’s novel, however, roots itself in the alternate interpretation: she presents us with Achilles, the most gifted warrior in Greece, as a man in a loving and stable lifelong relationship with Patroclus.
It would actually be more accurate to say she presents us with Patroclus as the romantic partner of Achilles: the story belongs to Patroclus, it is told through his eyes. Patroclus as created by Miller is a gentle soul, a disappointment to his aggressive father, who is banished when he kills another child purely by accident. He is sent to Peleus, father of Achilles, to be fostered, and is chosen by Achilles of all the young men at court to be his companion. Their relationship only gradually becomes romantic, much to the disgust of Achilles’ river goddess mother, Thetis. She conspires more than once to break the couple apart, but their love is too strong and they remain together until the end. Miller explains Achilles’ rage over the theft of his slave girl as being not about being deprived of a lover, but as being disrespected as the greatest soldier in the army by having his rightfully-claimed prize taken away.
I found it a much more enjoyable take on the story than the original. Miller really gets the time to develop Patroclus and Achilles as characters in depicting them from boyhood all the way through adulthood. She paints a very devoted relationship between them: though both briefly experiment with sex with women, they never stray from each other and Achilles refuses to leave Patroclus despite strong maternal pressure to do so. Since Miller’s Patroclus isn’t a skilled or enthusiastic warrior and instead serves the Greek contingent at Troy as a healer, most of the battlefield scenes that I find so boring to read are left out entirely. This is a solid read for fans of historical fiction and/or classical retellings.
Starting this book I was at a strong 3.5 stars, then it bumped up to 4, and then the end had me in such a mess that it suddenly became 5. A miracle this is.
The story and plot revolves around the Trojan war and the moments before and after where Patroclus meets Achilles and laters waits for him. The flow is actually quite gentle, even during the war fighting. I had expected more action and heart racing moments, and that is maybe why I did not rush into a higher rating.
However, even though I had a feeling of who and the knowledge of death, I was still struck hard. It did not come on suddenly, no. It crept slowly, clung to my heart and then watered in my eyes. It was the reaction to death that got me.
The end is beautiful and sweet. It brings together the readers and the characters who are in pain and comforts us and makes us allies.
The writing is also wonderful. It’s poetic and lovely at times. Of course if you do not like things being compared to unrelated things, such as the plumpness of lips to that of a bee, then you will disagree with me here. Regardless, this is the writing style I most adore in moderation and thus have loved this book.