“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

SongofAchillesTitle: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Read Date: 5 November 2012
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.

Caution: Today, I am prepared to sacrifice virgins on the altar of literature. So beware, Song of Achilles Virgins and Iliad Virgins! This could get spoilery.

I’ve forgotten most of the “Iliad,” which I last read when I was in University some x years ago. And I didn’t watch “Troy”. Nope, not even for the pretty boys. I don’t really remember why.

So going into “The Song of Achilles,” all I knew was that Achilles died because his heel was not protected by the magic that protects the rest of him, and that Helen was the cause of the Trojan War. That’s it. But I was familiar enough with the accounts of other Greek myths, particularly the retelling by the great Edith Hamilton, who, depending on how you liked your literature classes, was either bane or boon to a student’s existence.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when I began to read “Song”. It read just like a regular novel; I didn’t feel like I was reading a retelling of the “Iliad” at all. Miller embellished many aspects of the original and added details that, probably because she studied the myths for years, fit seamlessly into the story. Let’s just say that “Song” is a fanfic of the “Iliad,” and a damn good one.

The most significant aspect that she fleshed out and exercised a considerable amount of artistic license on is the nature of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. The novel is, after all, the answer to Miller’s own questions about the “Iliad” and who Patroclus could have been that “his death could undo the mighty Achilles.”

Miller is not the first to posit that the two heroes were lovers; apparently, it’s one side of a very long-standing debate among scholars. What Miller brings to the table with this novel is her brilliant and vivid characterizations.

“Song” is told from the point of view of Patroclus, and he is surprisingly very easy to empathize with. I’ve never felt tension, anxiety, giddiness, despair, fear, disgust, insecurity, passion, compassion, love, and grief when I read Hamilton or other myths before; I often felt like I was reading dispassionate historical accounts. (To be fair, Hamilton was just retelling the myths for academic purposes.) But I felt all of that at one point or another while reading “Song”.

He has looked at me a thousand thousand times, but there is something different in this gaze, an intensity I do not know.

One thing that made me particularly like Patroclus is he was a fanboy whose greatest dream came true, and he welcomed it with open arms. Yes, yes, Patroclus was seriously an Achilles Fanboy, and who could blame him? Achilles is handsome, intelligent, a great warrior, a demigod, a prince. He’s a Greek rock star, with an ego to match! And he picked Patroclus as his chosen companion. And later, his lover.

When we discussed “Song” in The Mysterious Reading Society, we agreed that Patroclus’ attitude towards being chosen by Achilles the Rock Star was very refreshing. Having read many a paranormal romance where the protagonist undergoes a lot of “I am not worthy” drama after being chosen by the supernatural object of affection, Patroclus’ “I welcome your love because I love you and I will fight for us” outlook endeared him to me. Of course, he questioned several times why he was chosen; that’s only natural. It couldn’t have been easy to, first, accept Achilles’ favor, and then the more difficult task of dealing with Achilles’ goddess mother and her elaborate plans for her son, and then follow Achilles into battle and put up with him for years in a war camp to the point of putting his life on the line. But Patroclus did it all, and it’s admirable.

Maybe I empathized with Patroclus a lot because I’m such a fangirl. Admit it, whoever you are who’s reading this (if anyone is): you are a fangirl/fanboy/fan-alien too. Or you were, at least at one point in your lives. Come on, admit it! 😛 And who among us have come as close to actually living the ultimate fan dream that Patroclus did? (Katie Holmes? :P) So yes, I’ll be honest—I was kinda living vicariously through him.

Achilles’ eyes were bright in the firelight, his face drawn sharply by the flickering shadows. I would know it in dark or disguise, I told myself. I would know it even in madness.

It’s such a fun mental and emotional exercise, isn’t it? “What if I met [insert name of bias here, repeat as many times as the number of people on your List] and he fell in love with me?” I’m not sure if I could ever be as courageous as Patroclus was if I was in his sandals. Would I turn into one of those simpering YA paranormal romance heroines? Who knows? This is where I admit that the great Godric Gryffindor would probably scowl at me from his grave (wherever that is), give me a grand lecture, and, if I don’t take his advice, never magically give me that Sword when I am in need, ever.

There are other aspects of “Song” that I liked: the whole dynamic of the poignant love triangle with Briseis, the details of the war strategies and the political issues and maneuvering, the glimpses into the darker side of human nature when they are at war and desperate and what they would sacrifice to turn the tide in their favor (virgin daughters, apparently), Miller’s handling of the Greek divinities and how they play a part in the quibbles of humanity. They all come together in a wonderful way that makes the story even richer.

There’s a little twist in the end that, if you notice it, will alter your perspective of the novel’s structure and Patroclus’ narrative. And like the rest of my mysterious book club friends, my heart broke even more. As if it hadn’t been reduced to dust at that point already.

I am air and thought and can do nothing.

From the beginning, he was telling this story from “the other side”. Or at least that was the way we interpreted it during our discussion. *sob*

And finally, to Score the Book. Once again, I chose a Korean song (buwahaha!). I think it’s appropriate because we’re talking about being a fangirl, yes? The song is titled “Confession (고해)”, which was originally sung by Im Jae Bum 임재붐. I chose this because it is the song that came to mind when I was reading the first half of the book. It captured how I read Patroclus’ feelings during those early days, just after he was chosen as Achilles’ Companion. At some point, this was probably applicable to Achilles, too.

There is no music video for Im Jae Bum’s version of the song, so I am putting up the performance by Lee Seung-gi and FT Island on Music Bank several years ago. Just humor me; you know, we were just talking about fangirling? 😛

What should I do?
What can be done now?
I dare to, yes, I dare to love her.

That the world will condemn me,
That I will seem out of my mind,
I know all that, and I fear all that.
But I love her.

Where are you?
Can you actually hear my words?
Then are you aware
of this bleeding, wretched love of mine?

Please forgive me.
If you punish me, I will accept it.
But as for her,
please let me have just that one woman.

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