Why you should read most of ‘The Song of Achilles’

March 10, 2023 — by Jonny Luo and Leyna Chan
Photo by Leyna Chan
Patroclus and Achilles, playing the lyre, share an intimate moment together. 
Slightly out-of-place intimate scenes feel jarring in an otherwise great contemporary retelling of romance in Greek mythology.

Rating: 4/5 Falcons

An infamous tearjerker, “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller tugs on the strings of romance, tragedy and cruel irony to retell a well-known Greek myth through the perspectives of two young lovers, Achilles and his companion Patroclus.

The novel,  which is told from the POV of Patroclus, follows Achilles’s Hero’s Journey as he fights in the Trojan War despite a prophecy’s claim that he will not return home following the battles. The book details the events of their lives from their fateful meeting in childhood to their eventual demise as adults.

“The Song of Achilles” takes on a mesmerizing and tragic voice of its own. The words are lyrical yet comprehensible, intricate yet emotional. It feels almost as if you are seated next to the young couple in the waning daylight, the tangible last rays of a sunset settling on strands of woven goldenrod, the hints of a beloved smile perceptible to even a faraway observer. 

However, at times the figurative language — namely similes — seems overused or forced. Miller has a knack for portraying scenes and behaviors as more than their surface reality; we loved the faint beating of a dying heart being drawn as a comparison to the feeble beating of a moth’s wings. Some descriptions, though, felt unnecessary in scenes with sufficiently specific details, coming off as an English student trying to fill up a literary device countdown.

The reader stands in the shoes of Patroclus, sees through his eyes, and feels the two lovers’ hearts lurch as one at the first drop of blood on Achilles’s cheek. Miller captures the passion and torment that so often accompanies love beautifully and realistically, especially for characters who start off their romance at the same age as the majority of teen readers. 

The plot also references its classical roots but focuses more on the intimacies of the Trojan War’s heroes, a contribution to the debate over whether Achilles was depicted as Patroclus’s lover or as his close friend in other versions of the myths. We felt that the novel was less a perfectly accurate extension of the original myths and more a contemporary fan fiction with plot and character tweaks. Miller altered the original characteristics of the protagonists, softening the temperaments of both Achilles and Patroclus, emphasizing the only-eyes-for-each-other effect and making them less hardened to convey a tender and uncompromised relationship.

The focus on physical intimacy felt jarring for us in certain scenes — especially vaguely explicit ones of intercourse between the two main characters (and others). For future readers, we advise, unless you’re into it, that you skip or skim over these controversial portions. 

Yes, minor character development did occur, but we felt that they detracted from the emotional sentiments of the story overall (which were already enough for readers to understand the blooming connection between the two). These scenes also often involved heavy metaphors, especially the overused reference to flowers, and though we appreciate the language and vaguity, we wished that the scenes would have been shorter. 

Nonetheless, the story is compelling and beautifully written, and we rate it 4 out of 5 falcons. It’s a fantastic short book that you should be able to read in one or two afternoons. Pro tip from us: locate a conveniently bloodied field of flowers for the most immersive experience (to live the scenes vicariously).

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