Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The blurb:
At only ten years of age, Patroclus, a small, awkward prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia, to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.  The "best of all Greeks" -- strong and beautiful, the child of a goddess -- Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not.  Despite their differences and the fury of Achilles' mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals, the boys become steadfast companions, their bond deepening as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay seige to Troy in her name.  Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause.  Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles, little knowing that the cruel Fates will test them as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

I'll try to do justice to The Song of Achilles.  I loved the Iliad when I read it in college.  Though I'd reread it every so often, it's been a while.  Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles was a wonderful way to revisit the story. 

The Song of Achilles is told from the point of view of Patroclus, the son of a king who has disappointed his father and is exiled to Phthia.  Patroclus is one of many boys fostered with King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.  Achilles is everything that Patroclus is not - physically gifted, beautiful, charismatic, the center of his world.  Achilles is just what Patroclus imagines a prince should be.   Somehow, the two boys become bosom companions.  And in the years of their shared education, experiences, and adventures, Achilles and Patroclus bond together. They become each others closest friend, companion, and love.  It should be noted that Madeline Miller portrays their love with considerable sensitivity and taste.

Achilles' mother is the sea goddess Thetis, and it does not suit her hopes and ambitions for Achilles to have him tied to a clumsy mortal such as Patroclus.  Throughout the story, Thetis is disdainful of Patroclus and she tries to separate them.  The interaction between Patroclus and Thetis is a fascinating and well developed part of The Song of Achilles.

But what I loved about The Song of Achilles is how Madeline Miller gave us a fuller picture of the hero, Aristos Achaion, the Best of the Greeks.  He is not a vain, petulant, young demi-god who is unmoved by the deaths and despair of his fellow warriors.  Miller shows us that he is a young man, raised with a deep understanding of his place in the world and the prophecy of his greatness.  This   Achilles is not driven by ambition as much that he is aware of the dangers of Agamemnon's grasping vanity. Achilles acts to counter Agamemnon's behavior, his greed and destructiveness.  Achilles' is able to win over his fellow warriors to his point of view, the hero is outmaneuvered by the gods and those more politic around him.

Such that the quarrel with Agamemnon over the slave Briseis is more a fight for Achilles' standing in the Greek camp and of the independence of the kings and nobles that have joined to aid Agamemnon's fight.  But with the continued deaths of Greek troops, his fellow warriors grow bitter about Achilles' refusal to fight.  The gods have their revenge and the tragedy unfolds. 

Madeline Miller's retelling is masterfully done.  Carefully crafted and deeply engrossing, The Song of Achilles is a book not to be missed.  It's one of the best books I've read and I know I'll be recommending it for years to come.

ISBN-10: 0062060619- Hardcover $25.99
Publisher: Ecco (March 6, 2012), 384 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Madeline Miller grew up in Philadelphia, has bachelor's and master's degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University, and has been teaching both languages for nine years.  She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales for a modern audience.  She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.  Learn more about Madeline Miller  at http://www.madelinemiller.com/ or follower her on twitter @millermadeline

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