Life and death of a hero: a review of The Song of Achilles: A Novel

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Achilles was the great–if flawed–hero of Homer’s Iliad. In The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller imagines a full life for Achilles, as told by his companion Patroclus. Miller pieces together a childhood for Achilles and Patroclus by pulling clues from various mythological sources and fills in with her own knowledge and research. The ancient Greece she presents is vivid with realistic details and at the same time is full of mythological creatures. Rather than trying to explain away Achilles’ half-divine parentage or his tutelage by the half-horse Chiron, Miller allows these fantastic elements to co-exist with the realistic details she portrays. As such, her work is true to her sources, where Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” appears each morning thanks to the works of the gods.

Achilles is the focus of the novel, but its true protagonist (and its narrator) is Patroclus. Miller portrays everything through Patroclus’ eyes. We meet him as a child suitor for Helen, and watch as he is exiled from his kingdom. It is in exile that he meets Achilles. The two become friends, then lovers, then sworn lifelong companions. They study together with Chiron and–though Achilles mother disapproves–are drawn together to Troy to fight for Helen’s return. The overall plot will not surprise anyone who is familiar with Homer’s original, but Miller tells the tale in a compelling way without trying to reproduce everything in the Iliad.

This is not to say that the familiar characters aren’t here. Sly Odysseus plays a significant role, and angry Agamemnon seems to cause as many problems as he solves. The tale, though, stays firmly focused on Patroclus and Achilles, and that is its strength. Other recent novels that retell classic works have either introduced new characters that weaken the story or have stayed too close to the source work. Miller strikes the proper balance in this striking first novel.

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