Madeline Miller has attempted a difficult task in The Song of Achilles–to make the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan War more understandable to a modern audience. To some extent she succeeds, but in some cases I think she interjects too modern a sensibility into the ancient tale.
I have never been a big fan of Achilles. The image of him sulking in his tent because of pique while the Greeks get slaughtered is not a pleasant one. But for the benefit of those who are not familiar with The Iliad, if there are any, I will leave that part of the tale for them to discover.
The novel is narrated by Patroclus, who is exiled as a boy after accidentally killing another boy. In Miller’s novel this gives him a horror of killing and he never learns to fight–the first instance of that modern sensibility I mentioned. Not only is there no evidence in the Greek myths that Patroclus didn’t fight, there is evidence to the contrary.
In exile, Patroclus is brought up with Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and Miller makes the interesting choice of having the gods and goddesses be characters in the novel, just as they are in ancient stories. Patroclus and Achilles become close companions and eventually lovers.
Here again is where modern sensibilities come in, not because the two were lovers–they almost certainly were–but in the way she treats the relationship. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m fairly sure that such relationships were rather common, and I’ve read somewhere that in some armies they were encouraged because the friends fought better for each other. Yet here, the two hide their relationship, and Thetis despises Patroclus from the first. In fact, in The Iliad, the relationship is implied but not commented upon, more as if it is accepted.
I don’t want to sound too particular, though, because almost despite myself I was drawn in and ultimately touched, not by Achilles as much as by Patroclus.
In a class discussion of The Iliad years ago, when the students were commenting on Achilles’ behavior, the instructor made it very clear that despite what we may think of him today, to the ancient Greeks he was indisputably a hero. So, modern sensibilities come in again, as Patroclus worries that the Greeks will begin hating Achilles because he refuses to fight, and they do.
To a great extent, most of the characters in the novel are one- or two-dimensional–Agamemnon is stupid and brutish, Odysseus is wily and clever, and so on. Only a few characters are more fully developed. But then, the narrator is Patroclus, and his life revolves around Achilles, who is unbearably proud and full of himself. Yes, I still don’t like Achilles. To Miller’s credit, I don’t think I’m supposed to. Despite my caveats, though, I enjoyed the novel and am looking forward to reading another book by Miller.