I knew that the mythical figure of Achilles, the central character in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, was the son of goddess Thetis and Peleus, King of Phthia. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a ‘hero’. Achilles stopped fighting at Troy because Agamemnon, his commander during the war, insulted him. He then watched as his fellow Greeks were slaughtered by the Trojans and only resumed fighting when his friend, Patroclus, was killed and he was shattered and angry.
He took his revenge by killing Hector—who had killed Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend—and then refused to hand over his body to his family. Instead, he dragged the corpse around the city. Achilles wanted Hector’s soul to forever wander and never be at peace. It still wasn’t enough for Achilles and legend has it that his ghost still thirsts for blood. That’s definitely not how I picture a hero.
But Madeline Miller paints a completely different picture of Achilles in ‘The Song of Achilles’ that won the 2012 Orange Prize in Fiction 2012 (now known as the Women’s Prize in Fiction). Here, you see a romantic, loyal, and loving side to Achilles. Through the eyes of Patroclus, the novel’s narrator, Achilles appears to be beautiful, smart and skilled—living up to his demi-god status. His actions, as unjustifiable as they once might have been, seem to stem from love. Finally, he is the hero he was always meant to be.
While Homer’s Iliad is a story of pride and stubbornness, Miller’s retelling of the epic is a powerful love story. The author beautifully captures the budding camaraderie and love between Patroclus and Achilles, and so much is conveyed by leaving things unsaid.
There is a sense of impending tragedy as you get to know early on that Achilles must choose between a long life where no one knows him or a short, glorious one. But that in no way makes the story bleak. Instead, Miller paints a wonderful three-dimensional portrait of Achilles as a son, father, hero, and lover as he battles his conflicting thoughts. Patroclus is also a fascinating character and a reliable narrator. The story doesn’t just unfold from his point of view and every character is given its due.
The good thing about Miller’s story is also that you don’t need to know anything about the Trojan war or the Greek mythology to understand what’s happening. Miller starts at the very beginning and her prose is smooth enough for you to get sucked right in. Miller took 10 years to write the book and the meticulous research shines through. The sparse prose makes the story a riveting read where nothing seems stretched or unnecessary. The Song of Achilles is an unforgettable story about love that reads like a thriller.