Arts and Lit of the Week: The Song of Achilles
Niamh Walsh discusses her experience of reading The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller for the first time.
I read The Song of Achilles for the first time this August after being recommended it by a friend, and I can whole-heartedly say that it is the best novel I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It is an electroshock to the soul. The scope is breath-taking and profound, yet on every page you feel the frantic beating of the human heart. Madeline Miller’s re-telling of Homer’s Iliad is absolutely stunning, rich and full of beautiful detail. Her choice of prose is so tangible that you can’t help but immediately fall in love with every chapter, every word even, written. If for some reason you do not know the story of Achilles, please stop reading this review, pick up this book immediately, and have your life forever changed.
In the end it’s not about a war or tragedy or heroes or even loss – its about two people
The novel focuses specifically on the implied homosexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles that was suggested but never confirmed in the original Greek epic. The story is a slow burner, exploring the organic tale of two boys falling in love. Miller sculpts the characters so delicately, building them up so high that ultimately, when the inevitable fall comes, it is unbelievably crushing. However, I wouldn’t have this book any other way, because in the end it’s not about a war or tragedy or heroes or even loss – it’s about two people, their connection, and how much a person can mean to you: “In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.”
The way Patroclus and Achilles are written constructs them to be more than the allegorical figures history has turned them into – Achilles especially had been written and rewritten and romanticised to the point where he had become a symbol. Madeline Miller repudiates this; she gives feeling to name, attaching hopes, dreams, sorrows and passions; making them feel unbearably real. Her ability to humanise them is remarkable, as whilst reading you cannot see Achilles and Patroclus as anything other than entirely and blindingly human. The ending of this book left me absolutely shattered. Through Miller’s writing, you become so invested in these characters and their love for each-other that when they fall, it truly is heart-shattering.
Madeleine Miller has created something so magnificent that it transcends words.
If you want a reimaging that will completely break your heart, but also heal your very soul, this is it. Madeline Miller has created something so magnificent that it transcends words. This is a story about the cruelty of men and war and how that impacts so many others. This is a story about how sometimes we can become what is not expected of us, but sometimes the expectations are impossible to hide from. This is a story about love, and friendship, and honour, and what it means to sacrifice everything for those very things. This is a story about how those things never end; not even in death. This truly is a masterful work, something I can see myself reading over and over. The Song of Achilles has so much charm and beauty that it’s impossible not to fall head over heels in love with such an eloquent retell of a classic story.
“he is half my soul … as the poets say.”