Madeline Miller The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles
This is my review from Good Reads
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I don’t really know what to say about this book. It would have been easier to read if if I had never read the Iliad. And the Iliad, in a good translation, is a wonderful poem, the language tailored to the story.

But we know the myths, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our background and what we have read.

The Iliad has two main themes. One is the damage that war does to families and friends, even to men fighting on the same side, as Achilles and Agamemnon were, but become hostile to each other, and the failure of leadership that this hostility produces. The other is the role of women, how they influence how society functions, and the women in the Iliad, Helen, Briseis, Andromache and Thetis, demonstrate different aspects of this. Thetis is a goddess, but she is the most mortal-like of the gods. It seems to me that this second theme has been diminished, is almost absent, in The Song of Achilles, to make room for the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus that Miller wants to portray.

Reviews in the serious newspapers, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, have been almost uniformly flattering. The Telegraph was a little less enthusiastic. But only the New York Times was critical in the way that I’m critical. I didn’t read these reviews until after I had read the book and decided what I thought, and as I worked through the English newspapers I became increasingly despondent, thinking that there was something wrong with me, and I was overjoyed when I came across the NYT review and found that someone shared my disquiet.

The NYT reviewer writes that the real Achilles heel of this book is tone – one made disastrously worse by the author’s decision to metamorphose an ancient story of heroes into a modern tale of hormones. He also says the problem reaches crisis proportions in the handling of the love affair. He thinks the writing about this is swoony soft-porn, and that even more than the Dawson’s Creek psychologizing, the heavy breathing and soft-focus skin shots make it hard to take the characters seriously.

I think the Song of Achilles is a good candidate for the Bad Sex Prize. I enjoy good writing about sexual behaviour in novels, but this book was awful.

But I suppose one of the main reasons I didn’t like this book is that it isn’t poetic, in the way that Homer’s Iliad is.

I just want to show two very short excerpts from the Iliad. In the first Agamemnon, whose claim to Briseis is based on power says (1.184)

I shall come to your hut and take away Briseus’
lovely-cheeked daughter, your prize, so that you may know well
how much more powerful I am than you.

In the second Achilles says, at Book 9 line 338: (Atreus’ son is Agamemnon.)

Why did Atreus’ son assemble an army
and bring it here? Was it not for lovely-haired Helen’s sake?
Are then Atreus’ sons the only ones among mortal men
who love their wives? Surely every good man of sound mind
loves his own and cherishes her, just as I for my part
loved mine from my heart, although she was won by my spear.

He’s talking about Briseis, and his claim is based on affection, not power.

And, of course there are the wonderful lines that open the Iliad:

Sing, Goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son
the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless
agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades.

Millers book starts:

My father was a king and son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

Perhaps it’s just not my book. I prefer the Iliad. Am I glad I read the Song of Achilles? Not really.

I ought not to give it a bad mark, but I didn’t really like it.

View all my reviews


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