‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller is a modern retelling of ‘The Iliad’ and won the Women’s Prize (then Orange Prize) for Fiction in 2012. Whereas Homer’s epic was told from the perspective of demi-god Achilles as the warrior hero of ancient Greece, it is the exiled prince Patroclus who takes centre stage here, having been a minor character in the original. In Miller’s interpretation of events, Achilles and Patroclus are inseparable childhood friends who later become lovers, and when the time comes for Achilles to fulfil his destiny, Patroclus follows him to war with the Trojans.
I would have been very wary about picking up ‘The Song of Achilles’ if I hadn’t read so many reviews which said that no prior knowledge of ancient Greece is necessary in order to enjoy Miller’s debut novel. In her academic work, Miller specialises in adapting the classics for modern audiences and she definitely has a knack for explaining a lot of detail about character, plot, setting and context very concisely. This is definitely ideal and hopefully reassuring for novices like me whose eyes normally glaze over whenever questions about classics come up on University Challenge.
The long time frame spanning from the protagonists’ childhood through to several years of war makes ‘The Song of Achilles’ a very pacy read and all the Big Themes you would expect in an epic are here: romance, war, sacrifice, feuding families, death and drama, oh so much drama. The forbidden romance strand of the story will probably appeal more to YA readers and the tone does become a bit gushy and overwrought in places. However, Miller avoids giving the characters modern sensibilities and doesn’t shy away from violence, preventing the story from becoming a watered-down Hollywood-style adaptation in which anything vaguely controversial is written out. I preferred the more realistic beginning to the mythological elements which are introduced later in the story, but for the most part, I thought these were well balanced against each other.
‘The Song of Achilles’ is over-the-top in places, but then epics are rarely restrained. Miller is not afraid to take risks and ‘The Song of Achilles’ works well as an introduction to classical Greek literature. I’m currently in two minds about whether or not to try Miller’s second novel ‘Circe’ which was published recently. If you have read it, I would be keen to hear your thoughts about how it compares to her debut.