The story of the Trojan War has been told countless times and in countless ways. It’s amazing that a tale so old and so familiar can still be compelling and yet Madeline Miller had me rushing through this novel to find out what happens. (Warning: This review is going to assume that you have some knowledge of the story of the Trojan War and as such may contain spoilers.) This re-telling of the story of Achilles is told from the point of view of Patroclus. Patroclus is the narrator, not quite the hero but the focus of the story is tight on him and particularly his relationship with and view of Achilles. One of the questions that kept me reading was, of course, how can Patroclus tell this story when his own death is one of the great impetuses of the Trojan War?
We meet Patroclus as a young boy, a prince but ignored and not honoured in his own household. His accidental murder of another boy leads to his banishment and his ultimate meeting and friendship with Achilles. Patroclus as narrator and especially as an awkward teenager felt entirely believable to me. He is an ordinary young boy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, awed by the character and mythology of Achilles while also in love with the real life person in front of him. Miller incorporates the mythology of the Greek gods and their histories into the story. The gods are real and active characters, seen by others and interacted with not infrequently. This is never questioned within the novel and Miller makes it make sense within this world.
Eventually, as we know they will, Patroclus and Achilles find themselves at the walls of Troy. What struck me here is how young they are, not yet men, faced with heady decisions that will affect their whole futures. While the circumstances are mythical and enormous, that feeling of having to make big choices at a young age is familiar and Miller does an excellent job at highlighting both their youthful fragility and exuberance. Achilles is faced with the monumental decision of choosing a short life with a long legacy or a long life that will be forgotten after his death. Again here Miller weaves in the role of the gods well so that their presence feels both necessary and realistic to the world-building.
Re-tellings of Greek myths seem to be only growing in popularity and it’s hard not to compare one to another. Last year I read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls which re-tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis. As enjoyable as The Song of Achilles was, it suffered in this comparison. Achilles is not the hero of Briseis’ story and with her view relatively fresh in my mind, it was sometimes hard to accept Patroclus’ starry-eyed perspective of Achilles here. As well, it highlighted the fact that Miller doesn’t offer much for her female characters. They are largely either scheming or submissive. That said, Miller’s story seems to keep quite close to the original source material (as far as I know it) and my overall impression was that she wanted to retell the story as it is, embellishing on the central characters rather than those surrounding them. If you know the story of Achilles there aren’t a lot of surprises here but it still makes for a thoughtful tale of friendship, love, and the choices we make that form the legacy we leave behind.