Reviewed by Aaron Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org
The Song of Achilles (TSOA) by Madeline Miller is a modern adaptation and combination of multiple different Greek myths from antiquity that create the story and life of the hero, Patroclus, who is most prominently seen in The Iliadwhich creates the main backboned of the storyline in this modern adaptation. Miller interacts with the original myth by giving the readers a more personal relationship with the characters from The Iliad than the original source did. Through her first person narrative in the eyes of Patroclus, Miller is able to richly characterizer the main players of The Iliad, making them feel extraordinarily human with their own personalities, an aspect that the original story with struggled with due to its detached third person narrative, that left characters seeming cold and inhuman. And while giving these characters deeper personalities is a big change from the original work, Miller stays very faithful to the content of The Iliad, constructing her characters around every detail we do get about them in The Iliad. However, Miller is not wholly accurate to the original work and deliberately makes some changes in TSOA in order to illustrate the values she wishes her work to express that are not seen in The Iliad. The most major change comes in the form of redesigned personalities and relationships between characters in TSOA. These changes allow Miller to describe the relationship between the values compassion and glory, arguing that you do not have to search for glory in order to be a great hero, you just need to treat others with compassion.
One character that Miller changes from The Iliad to TSOA is Briseis. In The Iliad, Briseis has little purpose or personality other than being the reason why Achilles pulls himself out of the war, however in TSOA, Miller fleshes out Briseis drastically in order to use her as a foil which brings out Patroclus’ love and compassion. To build a relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, Miller draws on the few lines Briseis has in The Iliad when she is mourning Patroclus’ death; Briseis laments, “Patroclus- dearest joy of my heart, my harrowed, broken heart” (Homer, Id. 19.338-339), and “So now I mourn your death… you were always kind” (Homer, Id. 19.355-356). From this Miller is able to extrapolate that Patroclus was very compassionate towards the captured Briseis, so in TSOA, at first sight of Briseis, Patroclus knows he must protect her from the cruelty of the other Greeks, having Achilles claim her as his prize so that Patroclus can take care of her, teaching her ancient Greek and assuring she is not raped by the others. Briseis falls in love with Patrclus because of this compassion he showed to her and eventually asks him to have her kids. While he declines this offer, she is still in love with him and is one of the few people who attempts to uphold his wishes after his death. This Briseis from TSOA is miles more developed as a character than her Iliad counterpart, and Miller does this in order to use her character as foil to bring out Patroclus’ compassion for others, a value that Miller finds necessary for a hero.
Achilles has one of the more intricate changes in The Song of Achilles from his Homeric counterpart. The most apparent difference is his explicitly romantic relationship with Patroclus. This romance was subtly hinted at in The Iliad at times when Achilles was mourning Patroclus’ death saying “he longed for Patroclus’ manhood” and “his gallant heart” (Homer, Id. 24.8), but was never developed into anything explicit other than a very tight friendship, so Miller took what many scholars had theorized for years was a romantic relationship between the two and used it in her story to contrast the two different types of heroes, those of compassion and those of glory represented by Patroclus and Achilles respectively. Due to the fact that The Song of Achilles depicts young Achilles, Miller is able to document an interesting change in his personality that is not available in The Iliad. TSOA depicts young Achilles as a man not very concerned about his legacy, glory, or kleos, but rather one who is satisfied by sharing happiness in peace with his love Patroclus. In fact when Patroclus warns him that if people find out about their relationship, “your honor could be darkened by it”, Achilles simply responds: “then it is darkened” (Miller 176). However, eventually that easy going attitude about his honor is reversed, and Achilles is warped into the character he was in The Iliad. When Odysseus finds him on Scyros, he warns Achilles if he does not come to Troy, he will never fulfill his prophesied eternal glory, which deeply scares Achilles, who had always taken his prophesied future glory for granted, and by the time the duo reaches the walls of Troy, Achilles has become the stone cold warrior we know from The Iliad, who values nothing but his own glory until his eventual demise.
Finally there is our protagonist, Patroclus. While we do not get to see much of Patroclus in The Iliad, Miller goes off of what we do have to paint a picture of what an ideal hero should be in her mind. In The Iliad, Patroclus is assumed to be a competent and courageous fighter that is loved by Achilles due to his “manhood” and the “rough campaigns they’d fought to an end together” (Homer, Id. 24.8-9), however, in TSOA Patroclus is the opposite of manly or a warrior; a hero who would rather hide in the Greek camp healing the wounded, maintaining their glory, than attempting to gain glory for himself. The only time Patroclus fights for himself in TSOA is when he feels like he must save the Greek army from utter demise by imitating Achilles, where, like in the classic, he pushes back the Trojans just to be inevitably killed by Hector. When taken in sum with his treatment of Briseis, this characterizes Patroclus as the exact opposite of Achilles. Patroclus values compassion for others and their honor, over the acquisition of personal glory, whereas Achilles values his own glory over all. Miller does this to subvert the modern and ancient idea of a hero. Achilles represents the archetypical hero, who uses a steel fist to serve justice gaining glory along the way, whereas Patroclus, who, like in the classic, is described as the “best of the Myrmidons” (Miller 314) (Homer, Id. 18.10), values what Miller believes to be the main characteristic of a hero: compassion for others. So by writing Patroclus as the opposite of Achilles, Miller calls attention to the value that makes Patroclus a great hero: compassion.
In conclusion, Miller has created a very solid modern adaptation of The Iliad, by developing character interactions and personalities. Even though Miller synthesizes the value of compassion into her story since it was largely absent in the original, TSOA successfully nuances the major theme of defending one’s glory at all costs from The Iliad, making the reader wonder if this thirst for glory is truly the admirable quality that it is made out to be in The Iliad or if it is better to be compassionate instead.
As Modern Literature:
The Song of Achilles (TSOA) by Madeline Miller is a modern expansion and reimagining of Homer’s epic, The Iliad, and many other Trojan War stories by looking at them through the eyes of our protagonist, the lesser known hero, Patroclus. TSOA follows Patroclus’ life from start to end and controversially takes us slightly past his death to illustrate the fate of Achilles and the end of the Trojan War. Miller stays largely faithful to the original work but makes some changes along the way, romanticizing Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship and morphing Patroclus from a fearless Greek warrior in The Iliad to a hero focused on compassion before courage in TSOA. Because of the theme of glory and honor in The Iliad, it makes Homer’s epic the perfect source material for Miller to adapt into a story that contrasts the value of compassion with glory, which is important because it causes the readers to question the modern, societal sense of a hero, asking what a true hero should value: glory or compassion.
Miller does a superb job engaging with the ancient work by staying true to the original text while still expanding off of many small details from The Iliad. Miller creates interactions between characters that did not exist in Homer’s tale, but follow the sentiments expressed in it. A perfect example of this is the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis in TSOA. In the original, Briseis expresses deep sorrow at the death of Patroclus, and Miller extrapolates from this that Briseis and Patroclus must have been very close, so she creates a side story where Patroclus shows compassion for her, eventually leading her to fall in love with him. Miller does this kind of extrapolation from small details of The Iliad many other times throughout her novel, such as Patroclus and Achilles’ romantic relationship, and Thetis protectiveness’ over Achilles’ glory. By doing this, Miller creates a much more exciting and dramatic story for TSOA than the relatively dry and overly descriptive classical work that would not hold the attention span of the average modern reader. And while this makes TSOA an entertaining read, TSOA is not without some flaws.
Critics often hone in on the last fifty pages as a weak spot of TSOA, and while they are correct that it is not as well written, I also disagree and believe the ending completes the story, leaving a powerful message to the audience that could not be left out. Because Patroclus dies before The Iliad is over, Miller is forced to tell the story from the perspective of a ghostly Patroclus. This ends up creating a weak spot in the novel because it becomes clunky to read and not as satisfactory as the rest of the novel. And while this certainly detracts from the novel, the ending of TSOA leaves a powerful message that far outweighs this nuisance. Throughout the novel, Patroclus metaphorically represents compassion and love due to his constant care of others like Briseis, whereas Achilles represents glory and war due to his lust for eternal recognition, but despite these differences, the end of the novel has the two lovers reunite in death, sending a powerful message to the reader: a hero does not have to chase glory to be remembered, if they value compassion and love for others they will end up in the same place as those chasing glory. Which leaves a question to the readers: what are you going to chase?
I believe this book is a suitable read for highschoolers, college students, and young adults who already have some knowledge of The Iliad and Greek myth. While it is not mandatory for readers to have knowledge of The Iliad or Greek myth, many of the subtleties, themes, and messages of the novel would be largely lost on an audience who is not familiar with this story, so if you would like more out of the novel than just a dramatic story, I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with The Iliad first. If you are a preteen, but still interested in learning Greek myth through a modern lense, I would highly recommend the Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan as they offer a fun and lighter introduction to Greek myth much more suitable to a young audience than The Song of Achilles. TSOA might be distressing to victims of abuse caused by homophobia, as throughout the novel Achilles and Patroclus are ridiculed for their love for each other.
Haynes, Natalie. “The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Review.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Sept. 2011, www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/29/song-of-achilles-miller-review.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin Books, 1990.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Mythic Passions.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/the-song-of-achilles-by-madeline-miller.html.
Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. Ecco, 2012.
Russell, Mary Doria. “’The Song of Achilles,’ by Madeline Miller.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Mar. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-song-of-achilles-by-madeline-miller/2011/12/12/gIQAW7satR_story.html.